Small Player, Big Plans

The Panasonic Foundation takes an unconventional approach to bankrolling school reform.

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New Mexico natives often advise tourists to bypass the interstate when traveling from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. Instead, they recommend taking Highway 14, a slower but far more picturesque route better known as the "Turquoise Trail."

Along the winding two-lane route--nicknamed for nearby turquoise mines--travelers pass the state penitentiary, sprawling ranches, and a number of tiny ghost towns that have come to life again as artists' colonies, dotted with cafes and small shops selling pottery and jewelry.

Amid the spectacular mountain scenery and wide-open panoramas, it's easy to miss Turquoise Trail Elementary School, a modern building set far back off the highway, on the southern edge of Santa Fe.

Turquoise Trail Elementary is unique in the Santa Fe district because it was planned as a "reform'' school from the ground up. Multigrade classrooms, cooperative learning, portfolio assessment, and site-based decisionmaking were a part of the school's design from the beginning. Though the school is just four years old, word of its pioneering efforts has spread rapidly. It now attracts more than 200 visitors a year and is one of 10 finalists in the state vying for "charter school'' status.

What makes this neighborhood school especially interesting to observers is that it was designed by a team of parents and teachers, with a helping hand from the Panasonic Foundation, a corporate partner that has worked closely with the school district since 1987.

Turquoise Trail Elementary is just one of the more concrete examples of the fruit borne by the partnership between the district and the foundation.

Indeed, the Santa Fe partnership, one of five similar alliances Panasonic maintains with urban districts across the nation, can point to many successes. More schools have greater control over hiring and staff development. The district has begun giving interested schools power over their budgets. And parent involvement has increased.

But the restructuring process has been a much slower, rockier journey than anyone ever expected, and substantial challenges still lie ahead.

The district's superintendent recently announced his resignation in the wake of intense community criticism of his performance. Communications between the central office and school staff are widely regarded as strained. In a city one observer describes as leery of outsiders, some residents remain suspicious of Panasonic's connections to a Japanese corporation and wonder whether it has a secret agenda.

Meanwhile, reform at the high school level faces serious obstacles. In a recent community survey conducted for Panasonic by the Public Agenda Foundation, a New York City organization focused on citizen involvement, three-quarters of the respondents said Santa Fe's high schools need a "fundamental overhaul.''

Seven years into this marriage, there are those who wonder why Panasonic is still in Santa Fe. Others say they wouldn't be surprised if the foundation is asking itself exactly the same question.

Small Foundation, Big Goals

In the foundation world, Panasonic is relatively small, with assets of about $17 million. (In contrast, the nation's 100 largest foundations each controls assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars.)

Nevertheless, Panasonic has become well known, largely because of the unconventional philanthropic strategies it employs.

Unlike many corporate funders, Panasonic has concentrated all its resources on a single issue: precollegiate education. What sets it apart even further, however, is that it awards almost no grants.

Instead, the foundation spends more than a half-million dollars each year providing technical assistance to a dozen long-term partnerships it has established with urban school systems and state education departments. Panasonic money is used to conduct workshops and seminars, pay for outside consultants, and send educators to visit model schools around the country.

Established in 1984 as the Matsushita Foundation, Panasonic was created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Matsushita Electric Corporation of America, an American subsidiary of the Japanese electronics giant. The name was changed to Panasonic--one of the company's more familiar brand names--in 1990.

At the outset, the foundation awarded grants to a smattering of precollegiate-education programs and Japanese-studies programs at U.S. universities.

But after several years, the foundation found this route unsatisfactory.

"The proposals we were getting were really projects,'' explains Sophie Sa, the executive director and one of only three full-time staff members of the Secaucus, N.J.-based foundation.

"Most of the projects were not integrated into what the whole school was attempting to do, if, in fact, the school was attempting to do anything. They were limited in scope and limited in time, always with the assurance they would institutionalize projects at the school level after funding was ended.'' But that promised institutionalization rarely materialized, Sa says, because most districts had little discretionary funding.

At the same time, Sa realized that most schools and teachers were lacking information about changes in education nationwide. Furthermore, most did not apply what had been learned from good schools in their own districts.

"More often than not,'' she remarks, "there were barriers thrown at the schools trying to do things differently.''

What schools needed more than money, she concluded, was guidance and information.

Because the foundation's board of trustees was skeptical about how much of an impact it could have through a limited number of small grants, Sa recalls, "the idea that we could try something that was very new, and take that kind of risk, was something that was appealing.''

A Change in Focus

In 1987, the foundation's board approved a plan to support long-term partnerships with urban districts and state education departments that would be focused on systemic change. After launching its first such alliance with Santa Fe, the foundation gradually began giving fewer grants to K-12 projects and allocating more funds to providing consultants and underwriting workshops for its new partners.

"The issue for me is not whether you give a grant or not, but whether the schools get the type of assistance they need,'' observes Joan Lipsitz, the director of the education program at the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based foundation.

"When Panasonic convenes grantees, which they do, and gives technical assistance, and creates an information network among the grantees, they are in effect giving grants to the schools,'' she points out. "It's just a question of how the checks are being cut.''

"If it turns out that with some enlightened decisionmaking and artful targeting of limited resources you can get the same kind of results, or maybe even better, or maybe just slightly less, than with the six-figure grant, that's something we should all want to know about,'' she concludes.

In a sense, says Peter Gerber, the education-program director at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, Panasonic has "turned itself into a consulting outfit. And as a consulting outfit, they're a pretty good one--they have a good stable of people.''

"My impression is that they have helped these schools be clear about what they're trying to do, and what they were doing that kept them from doing what they wanted to achieve,'' Gerber says. "And that's what good consultants do.''

Not Missionaries

Unlike many corporate funders, Panasonic does not limit its largess to the geographic areas where its parent corporation has business interests. It is free to choose any school district that is "ripe for change,'' notes Mary Leonard, the director of precollegiate programs at the Council on Foundations.

"They only go where they are invited, and where there is top-level commitment to this kind of change,'' she observes. "They are not missionaries; they find people who are ready to convert.''

Santa Fe was the first place Panasonic chose. Founded in 1610 at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the northern Rio Grande Valley, the city's name means "holy faith.'' Its heritage is a melding of Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo cultures.

With an enrollment of 12,854, the city's schools are 61 percent Hispanic, 36 percent white, 2 percent Native American, and less than 1 percent African-American and Asian.

The district's superintendent at the time the partnership began, Edward Ortiz, who died in 1990, was widely regarded as a thoughtful risk-taker.

"It was a time in Eddie's life when he was ready to do something different,'' recalls Ortiz's widow, Eleanor, now a deputy superintendent in the Santa Fe schools.

At the same time, she says, the district had "a bunch of teachers who were ready to go, and they jumped out like horses at the starting gate.''

One group of teachers and parents, for example, spent three years working with Ortiz and the Panasonic Foundation to design Turquoise Trail Elementary, which opened in 1990.

The parent-teacher design team also hired Teresa Gonzales-Sadler to be the school's principal. Ortiz never met her however; he died the day she arrived in the district from California.

From the beginning, the school put into practice many current trends in school restructuring: multiage classrooms, team teaching, student portfolios and other alternative forms of assessment, and site-based decisionmaking. It has generally eliminated tracking and pullout classes, except for a gifted-and-talented program one teacher describes as a "concession to parents.''

The school's tranquil blue-green interior, illuminated by skylights, gives the illusion of being underwater. Just off the main entrance is the library, named for Edward Ortiz.

"Eddie Ortiz was a tremendous visionary,'' says Shari Schmitt, one of the teachers who founded the school. "His total trust in teachers was exceptional.''

On a breezy spring morning, two students are waiting at the main entrance to greet a visitor. Fourth graders Tammy Vinton and Savannah Rodriguez begin a school tour in Theresa Vargas's kindergarten/1st-grade class.

Like many other classes in the building, it is hard to identify "the front'' of the room. There are no rows of desks facing a blackboard. Instead, students are scattered in small groups.

One group is using toothpicks, rice, and cardboard tubes to construct rain sticks, a Native American musical instrument.

"I brought one in, and they wrote about what they thought it was,'' explains Cate D'Amboise, Vargas's student-teacher. "Then we cut one up and found out what it was made of.''

Another group is making fish out of brightly colored tissue paper. The children do not work in silence, instead chattering happily with each other as they work.

D'Amboise considers herself lucky to be working here.

"So much of what I'm learning,'' she says, referring to her education classes, "they're doing here, and that's not the case in a lot of places.''

For Judy Montano, who teaches a combined 2nd- and 3rd-grade class, Panasonic's contributions have been immeasurable.

"How do I say it? Wonderful, fantastic. It changed my whole life!'' she exclaims.

Montano had been teaching for 12 years when the partnership began. "I loved teaching, and I felt like I was doing a good job, but I felt like there had to be a different way to do things,'' she says. "It was a teaching totally dictated by the book-publishing companies: You bought the series and followed the directions.''

Panasonic's involvement opened new doors for her.

"Sophie Sa and the people she works with, they don't care how dumb your question was or how silly,'' Montano says. "They listened, and made you feel like a professional, which no one had done for a long time.''

Other schools in the district have also adopted innovative practices.

Several years ago, Sweeney Elementary School eliminated the principal's position. Now, classroom teachers take turns serving a two-year term as the school's "facilitator,'' assisted by a three-member executive committee.

In the classroom, hands-on instruction has become more commonplace. In one 5th-grade ecology project at Sweeney Elementary, for example, students have conducted oxygen, nitrate, turbidity, velocity, and temperature tests on water in the Santa Fe River to determine why there are no fish in one section.

Meanwhile, at Capshaw Middle School, educators have embraced many of the principles of the emerging middle schools movement. The school has been split into "families,'' each led by a team of five teachers, an administrator, a guidance counselor, and a special-education or Chapter 1 representative.

Teams meet daily during a common period, giving them time to plan more interdisciplinary, thematic instruction. Block scheduling allows them to vary the time allotted for lessons.

Panasonic "gave us time and money for our staff to grow professionally and be treated as professionals,'' Principal Tom Switzer says. Members of his staff have gone on to act as consultants to other districts undergoing restructuring. Panasonic "opened up the rest of the country for us,'' he says.

The Education Resources Group, a New York City-based consulting firm, evaluated Santa Fe and two other Panasonic districts in 1993. Its report concludes that in schools actively engaged in reform in those districts, there is "strong evidence of capacity building, some evidence of developing reflective practitioners, and--perhaps most promising--evidence that systems have been put in place which have the potential to result in greater student learning.''

"Academic standards in these schools have been raised,'' the report continues, "instruction has become more creative, more collaborative, and more reflective, and students and teachers are more engaged in the learning process.''

Turbulent Times

But the Santa Fe partnership also endured its share of turbulence.

Having survived Ortiz's death in 1990, it must now confront the departure of his successor, Amos Melendez, who recently announced that he will leave in January.

Communications problems between the district's leadership and the schools remain a persistent source of frustration. In the recent Public Agenda Foundation survey, researchers noted that while they had "seen the same front-line versus central office tension in other communities, in Santa Fe we were struck by the intense, personal focus on the superintendent.''

In addition to calling for an overhaul of the high schools, parents and teachers expressed concern about a lack of discipline and security, and described a pervasive "atmosphere of lawlessness'' during focus-group meetings the researchers convened.

In an effort to create a more personalized high school system that would address some of these concerns, the Santa Fe school board last month approved a resolution empowering the district's two high schools to divide into smaller, school-within-a-school units, a reform also under way in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities.

But some teachers and parents are now criticizing that decision, saying that although they talked about personalizing learning at a community meeting last January, what they meant was creating smaller classes, not schools-within-schools.

"I'm not keen on the idea of it being imposed from above,'' says Steve Dobuszynski, a retired Santa Fe High School drama teacher and parent representative on the school's site-based-management team.

Sitting in the teachers' lounge at Santa Fe High one afternoon, he and Nancy Porter, a parent who is the team's facilitator, contend that the school-within-a-school concept was foisted on the board by Panasonic. They would rather see the foundation and the board invest energy in addressing what they see as a lack of leadership in dealing with discipline problems at the school.

The two reel off a list of complaints. Students openly smoke cigarettes on campus--a violation of school rules--and administrators look the other way. And when a teacher reported a student for bringing a weapon to school, Dobuszynski maintains, a building administrator laughed at her and told her not to take things so seriously.

Mathematics teacher Mary Hacker joins the discussion, telling of students standing outside her classroom, trying to persuade pupils inside to cut class with them.

"Panasonic supports reform among the teachers, but closes its eyes to what the administrators are doing,'' Dobuszynski charges.

Meanwhile, he adds, the central administration "has mostly been responsible for threats against teachers who disagree.'' One assistant superintendent, several people say, told teachers that if they didn't buy into the Panasonic program, they should start looking for another job.

On the wall of the lounge hangs a computer printout of a quote from journalist Edward R. Murrow: "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.''

At one point, journalism teacher Beverly Friedman recalls, teachers held a series of meetings to discuss how to reduce absenteeism.

"Well, Panasonic's comment was, 'If you make your classes interesting, kids will come to class,''' Friedman says.

"We all agree with that,'' she notes, "but we also needed help ... to give us something to build on.''

Yet, Friedman is less pessimistic than others at Santa Fe High about Panasonic's contributions.

"If nothing else, Panasonic has ... stimulated people to look at education a little bit differently,'' she muses.

She thinks that Panasonic gradually came to view the Santa Fe High staff as reluctant to change "and basically backed away from the school,'' with the exception of an existing school-within-a-school.

But, she says, "It's not that [the staff has] never tried new approaches; a lot of times, we've never had the support, either verbally or monetarily.''

Future Prospects

Some suggest the solution to the problems lies in a new superintendent and a new high school principal. Others warn that excessive reliance only leads educators to abdicate their own responsibility for promoting change.

"I think many times when a system breaks down, people look for a magic bullet,'' cautions Mark Daley, a teacher at Capshaw Middle School and the president of the teachers' union. "Change the man or woman at the top, and somehow the system will magically transform and no one has to do a thing.''

Turnover in superintendents and school board members has been problematic for other Panasonic districts.

Such transitions have proved "more difficult for the foundation than it bargained,'' says Mary Leonard at the Council on Foundations.

Panasonic's partnership with the East Baton Rouge, La., schools, for example, has been inactive for about two years because it lacked support from the school board, according to Jan Gravel, the vice president of education and leadership at the Greater Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce.

Some individual schools do maintain contact with Panasonic, she adds, and the foundation still helps the district on occasion.

"It's really been left up to our school board, and its focus is on other things right now,'' Gravel says.

Of the 12 partnerships that Panasonic has forged, seven--those in Dade County, Fla.; Seattle; Rochester, N.Y.; Englewood, N.J.; East Baton Rouge; and the Minnesota and New Jersey departments of education--are now defunct or inactive.

In addition to Santa Fe, there are active partnerships with San Diego; Minneapolis; Allentown, Pa.; and the New Mexico education department.

"We're looking for new districts right now,'' Sophie Sa of the foundation says. "I think at this point we're looking at maybe three new ones. We're also always trying to think of other ways we may work in this field.''

Although other corporate funders are often reluctant to acknowledge flaws in the programs they support, Sa does not attempt to gloss over the problems Panasonic has encountered.

"If you want to see change, you have to enter the policy fray, which is not easy or comfortable,'' she observes. "The more honest we are, the more all of us will learn from each other.''

The foundation began its five-to-10-year commitment to Santa Fe in 1987. Sa jokingly relates that some have interpreted this to mean the foundation will remain for 7 years.

On a serious note, Sa says she does not expect the foundation to end its partnership with Santa Fe "unless we're asked to leave.''

"Santa Fe is not the best district or the worst district,'' she says. "Because of all the controversy, one might think they're really in trouble, but they're not really in trouble.''

"Reform has touched every school in Santa Fe,'' she remarks, "and I would say that's unusual.''

Vol. 13, Issue 38, Pages 25-27

Published in Print: June 15, 1994, as Small Player, Big Plans
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