RJR Nabisco Lays $30-Million Bet On ‘Bottom Up’ Reform Strategy

By Meg Sommerfeld — June 10, 1992 15 min read

“What is a hypothesis?’' Tanya Rosencrantz asks a group of 2nd graders sprawled on a carpet in front of her.

Hands go up everywhere, some eagerly, some tentatively. With the gentle prompting of Ms. Rosencrantz, a substitute teacher, the pupils at the New Stanley Elementary School here define “hypothesis,’' then suggest a set of predictions for an upcoming ecology experiment.

“If they’re not true, that’s O.K., too,’' Ms. Rosencrantz explains to the class, “because then we can find out what’s making our predictions not true.’'

What these young scholars may not realize is that their daily lessons are helping to test the predictions anchoring RJR Nabisco Inc.'s multimillion-dollar experiment in education reform.

In 1989, the snack-food and cigarette maker unveiled a three-year, $30-million grant competition to encourage public schools to redesign themselves into “model schools of the future.’' (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1989)

New Stanley was one of 15 winners in the first round of the “Next Century Schools’’ contest in 1990. Since then, 29 more schools have won the three-year grants of up to $750,000 each.

The progress of RJR Nabisco’s endeavor, believed to be the largest corporate program of cash grants to individual public schools, is drawing close scrutiny from educators and business executives alike. Many observers regard the program as a prototype for the New American Schools Development Corporation, the private organization set up last year at the request of President Bush that is planning to help underwrite “break the mold’’ schools.

A number of the business, education, and government leaders involved in the Next Century Schools project also have leading roles in NASDC. (See story, below.)

Nabisco officials describe the corporation’s philosophy of education reform as a “bottom up’’ approach. In an effort to minimize central-office constraints, RJR Nabisco selected only individual schools, rather than districts, for the project.

“I am more and more of a mind that reform of the American education system is only going to take place school by school and community by community,’' Roger Semerad, the president of the RJR Nabisco Foundation, said in a recent interview at his Washington office.

Some question, however, whether the strategy of “front loading’’ a small network of schools with a three-year infusion of cash can generate long-lasting, widespread reform. Without changes in the education-finance system or greater government efforts to rectify problems like homelessness and drug abuse, they argue, the Next Century Schools will at best be islands of excellence in a troubled public-school system.

“The RJR approach is an interesting approach,’' said Eugene Wilson, the president of the ARCO Foundation in Los Angeles. “But the danger is that until you change the whole public system and do a better job with the most at-risk kids, you haven’t succeeded.’'

Old Building, New Ideas

At first glance, New Stanley Elementary resembles a typical public school. The halls of the school, a three-story, red-brick building built in 1913, are covered with student artwork. Three portable buildings provide additional classroom space for its 362 students.

The quiet roads surrounding the school belie its status as an urban school, one of 48 schools in the 21,500-student Kansas City, Kan., system.

More than three-quarters of its students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. Its enrollment is 41 percent white, 29 percent African-American, 24 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Laotian.

While many of the reforms enacted at New Stanley over the past two years are not easily discernible to a visitor, little of the traditional framework of American schooling remains in this ordinary building.

Among the changes instituted:

  • The school year has been extended so students attend school for 205 days each year in four 10- or 11-week quarters, separated by a 1-week vacation period. Teachers, who now work 226 days a year, use the 1-week slots for planning and professional development.
  • To allow teachers additional staff-development time throughout the year, students are dismissed at 1:15 P.M. every Wednesday.
  • The teaching staff rewrote the entire curriculum into an outcome-based instructional format. Traditional letter grades have been replaced with two categories, “in progress’’ and “mastery.’'
  • In an effort to create greater continuity in academic and interpersonal relationships, groups of 50 to 60 students stay with the same team of three teachers for three years.
  • Most administrative decisions are made by a site-based management team comprising the principal, teachers, other staff members, and parents. The team controls all decisions about curriculum, hiring, and instructional materials.
  • Adult-literacy and computer classes were created for parents and community members.

New Stanley has used the majority of its $250,000-a-year grant from RJR Nabisco to “buy people,’' in the words of Jacquie Gehring, the school’s facilitator of instruction. The school district brought in Ms. Gehring, a former principal in the district, to oversee the project at the school.

Grant money has gone to compensate the existing staff for extra workdays in the extended year, and to hire four additional classroom teachers and a technology specialist. The school also expanded the positions of its art, music, and physical-education teachers, its librarian, and its social worker to full-time.

The Next Century money, according to principals of several participating schools around the country, gives schools a license to innovate.

“The money was a lever, a lever for change,’' said Steven Ketcham, the principal of the University Terrace Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La. “Unless you get some funding, you’re looked at rather askance if you want to try something new.’'

At the New Stanley school, administrators say, the restructuring program combines the theoretical foundations of outcome-based instruction and the “effective schools’’ model with the “efficacy model’’ developed by Jeffrey Howard, the president of the Efficacy Institute in Lexington, Mass., and the principles of the Yale Child Development Program, led by the psychiatrist James P. Comer.

Joined together, said New Stanley’s principal, Donna Hardy, the four approaches create an environment of high expectations for all children.

“Smart is not something you are, it is something you become,’' added Ms. Gehring.

This vision, translated into childspeak, is emblazoned in red capital letters on the walls of the school: THINK YOU CAN, WORK HARD, GET SMARTER.

In practice, this vision has resulted in the elimination of grade retention and tracking as well as a move away from pullout special-education programs. All students are placed in mixed-ability classes. Those with learning disabilities receive assistance within their classrooms from a school specialist.

On a recent day at New Stanley, 15 or so 2nd graders spent part of the morning working alone or in small groups at “learning centers’’ scattered around their classroom. The children could choose one of about a dozen activities, including practicing measurement skills, writing at a computer, painting, and reading.

Martha Hemer, one of the pupils’ team of teachers, and Shirley Bright, a volunteer and the grandmother of a New Stanley student, strolled around the room answering questions and providing guidance.

Signs of Progress

To date, much of the evidence used to document the successes of New Stanley’s program is anecdotal. One sign of progress Ms. Gehring cites is that 2nd graders are already learning multiplication and that the current 3rd graders are doing so well in computer-keyboarding lessons that next year instruction in that subject will start in 2nd grade.

Teachers also report that they have observed differences in students’ work habits. “They seem to be able to work more independently,’' Carol Warman, the schools’ visual-arts teacher, said.

At the same time, teachers say, students feel more responsible for their classmates’ learning.

“They really feel that if one person doesn’t get it, the learning isn’t done until everyone gets it,’' Ms. Hemer said.

One of the most successful--and, according to teachers, important--changes the grant made possible was buying time for teachers to plan and consult with their colleagues.

“The time does not exist in most schools today,’' Ms. Gehring said. “There’s barely time for an elementary-school teacher to go to the bathroom, let alone read and discuss a professional article with colleagues.’'

The added time has created an atmosphere of collaboration, teachers say.

“You don’t feel so isolated,’' said Amy VanHoutan, a 5th-grade teacher. “You just never even knew what went on in other classrooms.’'

Like the reforms themselves, some of the measures the staff uses to gauge progress are a bit unconventional. One of the signs of success they cite is that New Stanley has become so popular that parents are lying about their addresses and changing custody agreements to get their children enrolled.

Outside Assessment

On a more formal level, the RJR Nabisco Foundation requires the Next Century Schools to submit progress reports, and has contracted for an outside assessment of the project.

Initially, RJR Nabisco hired the University of Tennessee as an evaluator. But according to Mr. Semerad, the foundation president, the evaluation project lost momentum after Lamar Alexander left the university’s presidency to become U.S. Secretary of Education.

Early in 1991, RJR Nabisco replaced the university with the McKenzie Group, a Washington-based educational-consulting firm led by Floretta D. McKenzie, a former superintendent of the District of Columbia schools.

“They’re very exciting programs,’' Ms. McKenzie said in an interview, referring to the Next Century projects. “There are a large number of schools being successful, and there are a very small number having difficulty.’'

The McKenzie Group has not yet issued any public reports on its assessment, and foundation officials are still discussing whether and when any will be issued.

The consulting firm has “been helpful to us in a limited way,’' Ms. Gehring of New Stanley Elementary said. “They respond to our needs and concerns.’'

New Stanley’s most recent progress report noted that site visits by foundation representatives and the McKenzie Group have been sporadic, and it requested more frequent communication. Since then, a foundation representative has made a follow-up visit to the school.

The school has also independently set up an assessment of its program by Mary Lynn Hamilton, an education professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Staff Turnover

While foundation officials and New Stanley school leaders say the program has been mostly successful, they admit that the process of change has been far from easy and that not all of their ideas have worked.

One of the biggest challenges that New Stanley faced when it first won the grant was a tremendous staff turnover. Although the entire faculty signed a statement of support for the grant proposal, 8 out of 13 teachers opted to leave after the school actually won the grant. Most decided to teach at other district schools because personal responsibilities prevented them from working in the summers, according to Superintendent of Schools David L. Lusk.

Members of the new building-management team said another challenge was learning how to make decisions by consensus. The team spent the entire first year struggling with problems ranging from how to define “mastery’’ to how to handle discipline problems in the cafeteria.

Increasing parent and community involvement at New Stanley and several other Next Century schools has proved to be one of the more elusive goals.

“I really expected parents to become suddenly involved and committed without us having to go beg them,’' admitted Tod Pennel, a 5th-grade teacher.

Entangled in Red Tape

Some Next Century schools, meanwhile, have found that even a grant program targeted at individual schools is not entirely free of district red tape, such as delays in getting access to the RJR Nabisco money.

At John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, some of the new library staff members hired through the grant in September did not get paid until the end of November, said Barbara Knight, a counselor at the school and the director of its grant program.

Ms. Knight said she was also frustrated by district officials questioning her purchases of materials. “We ordered things and then had people call and ask us why we were ordering it, or did we know what account it was coming out of,’' she said. “All these people have time to question and second-guess you when it isn’t even district money.’'

Charles W. Dluzniewski, the principal of Nathan Hale Intermediate School, a Next Century site in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, said that miscommunication with district officials about the city’s complex accounting codes caused a six-month delay in obtaining a computer-encyclopedia software package.

“I asked them, ‘What if Nabisco just buys the stuff for us and we then simply accept it?,’'' he recalled. But city policy obligated the school to first attempt to purchase materials from a contracted vendor. If the vendor did not have the materials, the schools could order it themselves--after first obtaining three bids for it.

“It’s very hard to deal with large sums of money,’' Mr. Dluzniewski said, noting that his school had requested the smallest grant of the 1991 winners of the RJR competition.

“It’s like a starving baby,’' he said. “You can’t start the kid off with a seven-course meal--you have them start out a little bit at a time. We may have gotten a million dollars, but we wouldn’t have spent it properly.’'

One School Fails To Open

Perhaps the greatest disappointment for the foundation was a proposed New School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, one of the first-round winners, that was to have opened in Washington.

The Committee on Public Education, an organization of District of Columbia parents and community members, planned to create a magnet school similar to North Carolina’s School of Science and Mathematics and New York City’s Bronx High School of Science. Unable to open the school on schedule, the group received a one-year extension of its grant. But it ultimately failed to get the project off the ground, and RJR Nabisco cut off the funding.

“It was a great disappointment to us,’' Mr. Semerad said.

Even in Kansas City, where the central administration has voiced strong support for the program, at times the New Stanley school’s requests--even as mundane as holding a meeting at a teacher’s house rather than the school--have raised eyebrows at the district office.

“It’s scary for a central office,’' Ms. Gehring, the project official, said. “There are areas that have traditionally been in the parameters of the central office that teachers are questioning.’'

There is concern among the school’s staff that central-office support has eroded somewhat since several of the administrators originally involved in launching the project moved on to other jobs, according to Gus Jacob, the district’s director of Chapter 1 services and one of the authors of the grant proposal.

“I don’t think very many people in this district have an understanding of the level [the New Stanley staff members are] operating at,’' Mr. Jacob said.

“Part of my role is to serve as a sounding board for them,’' he explained, “and to protect them from the district office.’'

Mr. Jacob will himself depart at the end of the year to become an elementary-school principal in Kansas City, Mo., where he hopes to repeat some of New Stanley’s successes.

Calls for Replication

As of June 1993, the grants made to New Stanley and the 13 other first-round winners will expire. In the current climate of budget cuts, three schools are scrambling to find replacement funding.

RJR is considering awarding one-year extension grants to several of the most successful schools in this first group, according to Mr. Semerad.

But he warned that any such awards are likely to be much smaller and be contingent on the schools’ efforts to replicate their successes in neighboring schools.

“The reality is that we think three years should be enough to demonstrate the potential of the actual progress,’' Mr. Semerad said, “and at some point, local communities have got to decide this is the way to go.’'

At New Stanley, efforts to replicate the reforms elsewhere in the school district are under way. The Comer model, site-based management, and the other philosophical foundations of the project have been incorporated into a new five-year improvement plan for the district.

News of the program has also extended far beyond Kansas through the numerous visitors who have descended upon the school. New Stanley officials estimate that at least 500 educators, politicians, and journalists have toured the school.

“We feel committed to share what we are doing,’' Ms. Hardy, the New Stanley principal, said.

Long-Term Impact?

Even with an open-door policy toward visitors, some observers say, the isolated nature of schools should prompt skepticism about the chances of disseminating the Next Century innovations nationwide.

“If [the project] does invent a better mousetrap, it’ll wither like all the other ones we’ve invented,’' said David Bergholz, the executive director of the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland.

Even officials of some Next Century schools caution against efforts to carbon-copy their changes.

“Replication is wonderful, but not if you view it as one thing that can be done nationwide,’' Mr. Ketchum, the Next Century principal in Baton Rouge, said. “You can’t franchise it.’'

Despite reservations, Mr. Bergholz, Mr. Wilson of the ARCO Foundation, and others acknowledge the positive aspects of the project and suggest that it is too early to tell what its long-term impact will be.

Mr. Wilson noted that a Next Century school in San Fernando, Calif., is a constant topic of discussion among his West Coast colleagues.

“All of the people I meet with that talk about school reform are more and more aware of the successes of the experience of the Vaughn Street school,’' he said.

Back in Kansas City, Mr. Lusk, the superintendent, views the New Stanley Elementary School as a symbol of the potential for a “paradigm shift’’ in American education. He is determined to see the program live on after its funding expires next year.

“This project will continue, period, one way or another,’' Mr. Lusk said. “It’s too important to us.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1992 edition of Education Week as RJR Nabisco Lays $30-Million Bet On ‘Bottom Up’ Reform Strategy