A Welcome Change

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Cudahy, Calif.

There was a time, not too long ago, when professional development at Elizabeth Street School amounted to briefing teachers on how to use a new set of textbooks.

The school, in this tiny town southeast of Los Angeles, hadn't caught the wave of education reform. Teachers handed out worksheets and lectured to students seated in carefully aligned rows. Quiet was a prized commodity.

The staff spent most of its energy coping with the nearly overwhelming conditions at Elizabeth Street. With 1,600 students, it was one of the Los Angeles Unified School District's first year-round schools. More than three-quarters of its students weren't fluent in English. Most came from low-income, immigrant Latino families that were constantly on the move.

Today, the school is no longer on its own. Rechristened the Elizabeth Street Learning Center, the school is in its second year of an ambitious project funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation. The corporation--a private, nonprofit organization founded by business leaders during the Bush Administration--is backing nine design teams that are inventing Ébreak the mold" schools across the nation.

The designers who put together the learning-center concept hope it can serve as a model for urban education. The plan calls for rethinking instruction, school management, and social services for students and their families at two schools: Elizabeth Street and Foshay Middle School in South Central Los Angeles, which began implementing the design this fall. (See related story.)

In the summer of 1992, the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit organization that administers several programs to improve schooling in the city, won a $2.5 million grant from nasdc to spend a year fleshing out its reform ideas. Initially, the designers hoped to open the first learning center in a new school, perhaps in a commercial space.

But when it became clear that starting from scratch would take too much time, they began scouting existing Los Angeles sites to find a school big enough to expand to house kindergartners through 12th graders.

Elizabeth Street won by default. The elementary school, on 16 acres in a residential neighborhood, was already scheduled to add middle grades and had enough land to accommodate senior high students.

What's more, the district offered no better testing ground for change: Elizabeth Street was struggling to educate a difficult population with traditional approaches that didn't seem to be working.

"It was the best learning laboratory we could have asked for," recalls Judy Johnson, the program director at the Los Angeles Educational Partnership. "And it's also the toughest work in the whole world."

Teacher Appreciation

The key to success at Elizabeth Street, the managers of the project say, is providing its teachers with rich and varied professional development to help them change their instructional approaches.

The teachers at the school, briefed about the learning-center design, voted nearly unanimously to participate. In doing so, they were buying into a package of reforms designed by knowledgeable outsiders.

"Everyone voted eagerly, but to say that they fully understood what they were voting for is a misnomer," says Peggy Funkhouser, the president of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership. "This was a very traditional faculty with not a whole lot of dreamers."

In addition to helping teachers dream--and giving them the tools to make their dreams come true--the project must cope with the sheer size of the schools. Creating a true learning community, the designers felt, would be best accomplished by having children of all ages on the same campus.

This year, Elizabeth Street has more than 90 teachers and 2,600 students in prekindergarten through 10th grade. In two years, it will add 11th and 12th graders to the rolls. Foshay Learning Center has 115 teachers and 2,700 kindergarten through 10th-grade students; it's also scheduled to add two more grades.

The logistics involved with such large schools are further complicated because they are on year-round calendars, with one-third of their teachers and students off campus at any one time. The high schools, for instance, will never enroll more than 300 to 400 students at a time. Elizabeth Street high schoolers will attend its health academy, while Foshay students go to its finance academy. Both programs are designed to prepare graduates for work or further education after high school.

When the project began, the faculty at Elizabeth Street included many veteran teachers and some novices with emergency credentials. The atmosphere, many teachers said, was stifling.

"This school needed uplifting," recalls Linda Stewart, who has taught at Elizabeth Street for 14 years. "We were all slowly dying. You just did your own thing."

The opportunity to introduce a cutting-edge educational design was an unexpected boon for teachers, adds Mary View-Schneider, another veteran teacher. "We would not have gone out and sought it with this staff and principal," she says bluntly.

Beginning in the spring of 1993, with $3.5 million from nasdc, teachers were barraged with professional-development opportunities. The school also used the money to buy state-of-the-art instructional technology and notebook computers for every teacher on the staff.

The contrast with past attitudes toward teachers' development couldn't have been starker. It used to be "Find it yourself, pay for it yourself, and do it on your own time," View-Schneider recalls.

Peer-to-Peer Training

The designers of the learning-center concept had a clear idea of the kind of teaching and learning they wanted to see at the school. Teachers were to work together to devise an interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum. Children would be combined in multi-age groups of two or three grade levels. Clusters of four or five teachers would work together to plan and teach lessons.

Instead of lecturing and assigning work from textbooks, teachers would be encouraged to try cooperative learning, to give students more hands-on experiences, and to infuse reading and writing throughout the school day.

Although by now these concepts are quite familiar, at first they were a dramatic departure for most Elizabeth Street teachers. Many prided themselves on running well-controlled, quiet classrooms where they--not students--played the starring role.

To ease the transition, the Los Angeles Educational Partnership devised a plan for exposing the teachers to the concepts over 20 full, paid days. First, groups of teachers attended a retreat at a comfortable hotel to discuss the components of the learning-center design.

There, they heard from teachers who had been trying some of the same techniques at other Los Angeles schools. At a workshop on multi-age classrooms, for example, Elizabeth Street teachers could ask their colleagues detailed questions about how the educational theory actually worked in a real classroom.

Encouraging teachers to learn from each other was the most frequently used training strategy, says Johnson of the educational partnership. That philosophy also sent Elizabeth Street teachers into other schools across the district--schools serving children similar to theirs--to see teachers in action. The visits made the new ideas and approaches concrete, Johnson says.

"The usual excuse for not doing something new is the lack of belief that your kids would really benefit," she explains. "When you see children very much like the ones that you work with really being successful, it's much more convincing and makes it worthwhile to try."

After observing lessons, the Elizabeth Street teachers again had time to question the demonstration teachers. In this way, groups of about 25 teachers were exposed to new kinds of assessments, whole-language approaches, and new strategies for teaching mathematics and science.

To provide support back at Elizabeth Street, the educational partnership also selected four lead teachers to help their colleagues find information, present demonstration lessons, plan curricula, and connect teachers with resources. The school also now has a "curriculum toolbox" of materials and information for teachers.

A cadre of teachers with expertise in such areas as the national math standards or bilingual instruction is available to visit Elizabeth Street teachers. Lead teachers help faculty members set up such visits.

Teachers from another elementary school also trained Elizabeth Street teachers to use the wealth of technology purchased for the school. The school's Product Development Center--a room jammed with computers, videocassette recorders, videocameras, and videotape editing machines--provides Elizabeth Street teachers with a variety of high-tech tools for learning.

Eventually, after teachers have built a solid foundation of knowledge and have developed their capacity to perform, they're expected to become expert in a particular area. In this way, the school's teaching teams will include, for example, faculty members who are knowledgeable about teaching mathematics or social studies. Some teachers might also be experts in assessment or in strategies for helping students acquire a new language.

Gradual Changes

For Stewart, who describes herself as "a teacher who wanted to hear myself talking," observing other classrooms convinced her of the need for change at Elizabeth Street.

"I saw organized movement and learning taking place," she recalls. "The children knew everything that was going on in the classroom."

At this point, Johnson says, it's too soon to see much impact on students. "What we have," she says, "are nice stories of change worth patting ourselves and the teachers on the back for."

Now, the project's managers estimate that clusters of teachers are using thematic instruction 40 percent of the instructional day. They're most likely to do so in language arts and social studies.

The infusion of technology also has gone smoothly. Parents can visit the Product Development Center to learn to use computers alongside their children. And some teachers say that having a computer in their classroom helps motivate children who once seemed indifferent to schooling.

Of course, the project designers have hit some rocky points, too. Not every teacher has participated in the training, and some are clinging to traditional ways. But the number of such teachers is small.

Principal John Kershaw, who has been at the school for seven years, says he believes everyone at Elizabeth Street has changed. "Some have been quantum leaps and others have been a little bit," he explains. "I don't think you can push, but you can encourage and support the best you can. Hopefully, the other folks will come along."

In July 1993, the start of the new school year for Elizabeth Street, teachers felt ready to plunge into what they had learned. They decided to begin multi-age classrooms, even though the project managers did not believe they were ready.

In retrospect, that might have been a mistake, says Anola Hubbert, a lead teacher. Teachers hadn't had enough time to absorb all the components of the learning-center model, she explains. "So many things were being put before us," she recalls. "We got so excited, we probably entered into a lot of things more quickly than we should have."

Teachers of 7th and 8th graders also complained that they didn't have enough common planning time to devise interdisciplinary lessons and adjust to teaching more than one grade of students.

Burt Snyder, a social-studies and history teacher, says his team did "a little bit" of interdisciplinary teaching last year. "We were gung ho at first," he says. "We went whole hog the first semester, and things went pretty well for four to six weeks. Then it had run its course."

Interactive Lessons

In the side-by-side classrooms of Bette Stephens and Jan Miracle, who teach together as part of a cluster, a visitor can begin to see the type of education that the learning center is trying to foster.

Their students are studying immigration--a potent topic in the lives of children whose families are immigrants themselves. The lessons began with discussions of the children's own experiences. Teachers helped students see parallels between the reasons their own parents left Mexico and Central America and the reasons that people immigrated to settle the British colonies.

Then the students began studying the westward movement, mapping the routes pioneers took across the Plains.

On this day, groups of students are making butter, writing their own stories on computers, and reading books about the settlement of the West.

Some of the students' work, gathered into portfolios, can be stored on teachers' lap-top computers--including reading logs, computer-generated illustrations, and science lessons. An eager student quickly calls up her portfolio on a classroom computer. It includes a short autobiography titled All About Me, by Sandra Cobos. For the lesson about pioneers, she's written and illustrated Sandra's Story of the West.

Miracle, who has taught at Elizabeth Street for 15 years, says she has adjusted well to the many instructional changes. Before the school became a learning center, she says, the only professional development she had was when the school's curriculum committee picked a new textbook that teachers were taught to use.

At first, she says, she wanted the "experts" to tell her how to teach. But as she's grown more confident, Miracle and her colleagues have realized they have a lot to offer. "We're still good teachers," she says. "We're not totally changing the way we're teaching."

Stephens, a 20-year veteran, says she was more hesitant about change than some of her colleagues. Some of the schools she visited, she says, were "idealistic settings" not relevant to life at Elizabeth Street.

"We still have our certain beliefs that we will always keep," she asserts. "I require a certain amount of quiet at times."

Feature Attractions

The learning-center design has attracted new teachers to Elizabeth Street, many of whom said they were frustrated with conditions at their previous schools.

"I see myself as a teacher-researcher here," said Eduardo Munoz,no accent. a 10th-grade English teacher hired from another Los Angeles high school. "That means constantly reading, being innovative, searching, evaluating, and sharing with other colleagues what I'm doing in the classroom. I see myself as part of a larger community."

For Monique Lopez, coming to Elizabeth Street meant finding support for the teaching methods she'd been trying alone at another school. "It was like fighting an uphill battle. I felt I wasn't being supported by my peers," she explains. "Here, it's a given that you're doing what the latest strategies and studies are saying to do."

Teachers also can take comfort in knowing that the learning center is actively addressing some of the daunting conditions that make it difficult for their students to learn.

Cudahy, a community of 23,200 people packed into 1.1 square miles eight miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, was founded as a rural ranch area. Its large lots, once home to livestock, are now jammed with modest stucco homes and apartment buildings. Still, many families face a housing shortage and can pay $500 a month to live in a motel room or garage.

The city also is relatively cut off from the social services that its young, low-income, Spanish-speaking population desperately needs. The Elizabeth Street Learning Center is expected to play a crucial role in linking students and their families with helping agencies. The school also is considering opening a clinic in partnership with a local hospital.

Eventually, all of the students at the two learning centers will be linked with people who will monitor their school progress and help them through difficult times. The plan calls for groups of about 30 students of all ages to be linked with three adults, who might be teachers, community members, or businesspeople. Within each group, students will be paired with older "buddies," says View-Schneider, who is coordinating the support system.

The groups, which will meet on a regular basis, will work on school-related projects as well as make time for dabbling in arts and crafts, playing games, and reading in pairs. Over time, the groups are expected to stay together, providing a sense of responsibility and stability for students.

"The whole community is there to work as a family," explains Roberta Benjamin, the project director. "It's like the early frontier schoolhouse--returning to that concept."

Already, Elizabeth Street Learning Center has begun to serve as a hub for the Cudahy community. On any given day, about 150 parents can be found at the sprawling campus, a mixture of 1920's-era stucco buildings, 1960's additions, and new two-story buildings built around a vast concrete courtyard. Parents can take English as a second language, study computers, learn to sew or paint, and help with the many after-school programs offered for students.

Maintaining Momentum

For this school year, the learning-center project has received $4 million from nasdc. The bulk of the money goes for buying technology and paying for staff development at the two sites.

In the future, though, Elizabeth Street will have to figure out how to keep the momentum going without huge infusions of money. Last spring, teachers and parents were involved in the budget process, making decisions about spending more than $1 million.

View-Schneider, who is a lead teacher, says she's confident that the school can write grant proposals and make innovative use of the money it already receives. It's unlikely that Elizabeth Street's teachers will accept anything less.

"Students are relaxed and learning and having fun at school, and it's not recess time," Stewart says. "That said it all for me."

Vol. 14, Issue 03

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories