Binding the Pieces Together

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints


When Ellen Guiney arrived in Washington in 1992 as the Senate aide overseeing the overhaul of federal K-12 programs, she discovered that the nation's high-poverty schools received money from a patchwork of federal programs, each addressing specific needs of students and none aiming to improve everything the school does.

She spent two years--along with a cadre of U.S. Department of Education officials, legislative aides, and lobbyists--cajoling and persuading interest groups into letting principals in high-poverty schools combine the numerous accounts to create one plan that addresses all the needs of their students.

When Guiney returned home to Boston in 1995 to lead the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools, she discovered that the city's high-poverty schools received money from a patchwork of private grants, each addressing specific needs of students and none aiming to improve everything the school does.

She spent one year cajoling and persuading donors into letting principals combine the numerous accounts to create one plan to address all the needs of their students.

"It's a direct outgrowth of my Washington experience," the former education adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., says from her office on the edge of Boston's financial and shopping district. "It profoundly has influenced what's happening here."

Now, 27 Boston schools are using grants ranging from $23,000 to $49,000 to find ways to improve everything they do in their classrooms.

At the same time, those schools--along with the city's other 98--are scrapping Title I pullout programs. Instead, they are combining federal funds into one pool to try to offer solutions for the root of the school's problems.

It's a tack they can take because of the changes to federal programs that Guiney helped guide in 1994 when Kennedy was chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

"There's a very high degree of agreement [between us] on the goals and agreement on the strategies for getting there," says Thomas W. Payzant, the Boston superintendent of schools, who worked closely with Guiney in Washington, too, when he was an assistant secretary at the Education Department.

The parallels between Guiney's experience in Boston and Washington are striking.

In both places, she found programs started with the best of intentions to address specific needs within a school building.

In Boston, for example, the John Hancock Insurance Co. subsidized a middle school program. Another donor paid for field trips for 1st graders.

"It was a wonderful program, but it only affected 18 kids the first year and 18 kids the next year," Joseph Shea, the principal of Sumner Elementary School, says of the field trips. "When the money dried up, the program stopped."

From her Senate office in Washington, Guiney could see that schools received money from a laundry list of federal programs: Title I for impoverished children, special money for migrant students, professional development for math and science teachers, and so on.

Although the programs helped specific school concerns, they created separate agendas and were rarely combined to create a comprehensive plan to improve the schools.

Guiney had seen that in Boston as former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn's education aide for three years and as a parent advocate for eight years before that.

Her three children all attended the city's schools, a rare occurrence for middle-class white children since federal desegregation orders spread impoverished students throughout the system. Her daughter, Anne, was referred to a Title I pullout program when she struggled to read in the 1st grade, but Guiney refused to let her daughter into the program.

Anne was "reading very well by the end of the 2nd grade," Guiney says. She later qualified for a National Merit Scholarship and then graduated from Harvard University.

The Washington experience "deepened and made very, very firm my conviction that federal programs were contributing to a confused and chaotic experience for poor kids at the school level," Guiney says from her new office.

Both in Washington and in Boston, the fight to persuade people to change has been difficult. In Washington, for example, the Department of Education suggested that schools in which half the children are poor be allowed to establish schoolwide programs.

Before 1994, only schools where 75 percent of the students enrolled came from impoverished homes could create a schoolwide program--a designation that enables principals to combine federal funds.

The department's proposal met one of the goals that Guiney and Kennedy had set for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But first they had to recruit reluctant members of their own party to go along.

"We just got creamed by the Democrats," she says. "They said: 'No way. This is going to take money away from poor kids.'"

They persuaded skeptical Democrats in the Senate to broaden the eligibility by dropping the school poverty rate to 30 percent. The proportion was eventually raised to the 50 percent level that the department had requested as a compromise measure with the House.

Now, all schools with half their children in poverty--meaning all of Boston's 125 schools--can establish schoolwide programs. It's a piece of flexibility that Payzant is using.

At the Boston Plan, Guiney feared that she would step on donors' pride by eliminating several programs bearing their names in favor of one with a generic title--21st Century Schools.

"I told them what I'd do based on what I learned in Washington about needing to end fragmentation in schools," she says, remembering her job interview with the group's board of directors. "I got them to agree to pool their funds and create one fund."

She was pleased to win a quick vote of confidence from the corporate CEOs and leaders of the academic community who sit on the Boston Plan's board. The board, which oversees a $28 million endowment, decided to keep a scholarship program intact, but all others were merged into 21st Century Schools.

Board members even helped select the recipients in a series of visits to each of the city's 125 schools, choosing 27 to receive money for the four-year project. Four of them are designated "lead schools" and are advising the rest on how to rethink what they're doing in their classrooms.

The trouble for Guiney in Boston is putting the plan to work, advising principals how to set up their budgets, and organizing seminars so that successful schools can share their secrets with struggling ones, with but a staff of three working more than full time on the project.

"Things are going well," Guiney wrote to the board of directors last month, "but I cannot state too strongly how very difficult this undertaking is."

"Getting people to use resources differently and to assume different roles takes time and intensive support," she wrote in a separate note.

With the power to guide programs, without the need to compromise as in the legislative process, Guiney believes she can avoid some of the mistakes made in the reconstruction of Title I.

For example, 21st Century Schools participants must spend between $12,500 and $20,000 of their grant for a "coach," a college professor or professional expert who helps them identify their needs, research solutions, and arrange for professional development.

Participants see these coaches as invaluable aides in helping them think creatively and persuading teachers of the need to make changes.

Principal Shea describes Guiney as a conduit for finding schools with model programs to visit and research to inform decisions. "It takes a load off our backs in trying to do the legwork."

Had Guiney had her way during the reauthorization of Title I, all schools would be required to spend a portion of their money on such intensive professional development.

But in the compromises to ensure bipartisan support, the professional-development requirements got lost, she says.

Rep. Bill Goodling, who at the time was the top House minority member with a say in education policy, stood in the way when the House and Senate met in a conference to compromise on their bills.

Goodling, a former teacher and superintendent, thought professional development "was a crock," Guiney says. "He would not put up with it, and it was at a time when they needed Republicans to sign off on it."

While Goodling got his way on professional development, his York, Pa., congressional district failed to win enough money under the Title I formula for him to support the final bill.

So Goodling got the final say in the bill, but Guiney has the chance to make up for the omission in her hometown.

"We're trying to get [educators] over the hump of saying, 'The kids can't do this,' to saying, 'Maybe it is what I'm doing every day that is not the right stuff for everyone in my class.'"

Vol. 16, Issue 30, Page 38-39

Published in Print: April 23, 1997, as Binding the Pieces Together
Related Stories

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories