Educator's Vision Lives On In Network of 'Basic Schools'

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The small, one-story house in a working-class neighborhood here seems an unlikely spot to find the ideas of one of the 20th century's most highly respected educators being put into practice.

But inside Kelly Community House—where a mother can borrow a business suit for a job interview or pick up a free loaf of bread for her family—parents, professionals, and children are demonstrating what the late Ernest L. Boyer meant when he said schools should have a sense of community.

The house is a project of Clinton Kelly Elementary School, which is striving to become the kind of place Mr. Boyer, the U.S. commissioner of education under President Jimmy Carter, described in his 1995 report titled The Basic School.

Built around four themes—community, a coherent curriculum, a climate for learning, and a commitment to character—the model is not just another fad for failing schools, its supporters say.

Instead, even some skeptics who have seen programs come and go call the Basic School concept a sensible way to organize a school, set priorities, and find a common language among teachers.

"You're always going to have pressures," said John Danielson, the principal at Kelly Elementary. "But the Basic School gives you a way to stay focused."

More than four years after Mr. Boyer's death, the simplicity of his ideas is resonating with a growing number of schools across the country. Better than 100 schools in 22 states have formally joined the Basic School Network, which has its headquarters at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

In addition, says Mary Ellen Bafumo, a former colleague of Mr. Boyer's who directs the network, at least 40 more schools are implementing the principles on their own.

But while the concept is based on years of research into what improves learning for children, the evidence that becoming a Basic School actually improves student performance has been largely anecdotal so far.

That's why the network's board has initiated an evaluation project involving 21 schools that will examine not only academic achievement, but also students' social development and incidences of misbehavior at school. Results are not expected for at least two years.

Concepts Being Tested

With more schools showing an interest in the Basic School model, another question arises: Are those who put the principles into practice staying true to Mr. Boyer's original ideas? Those concepts are being tested, as what began as a pilot project involving just a dozen schools expands to include many more.

"Going to scale has been problematic for everything we've tried to do in education," said Richard Andrews, the dean of education at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who is leading the research project.

Some schools involved in the network are also struggling to carry out all the portions of Mr. Boyer's plan at the same time that they are being required to follow state curriculum requirements.

Still, educators who are implementing the model say that it's flexible enough to fit any school, and that it doesn't force schools to dump everything and start over.

"It is not about throwing out what you've done," Mr. Andrews said. "It's taking what you've been doing and making it better."

The network includes schools from places as diverse as Harlem in New York City, the college town of Iowa City, Iowa, and here in southeast Portland, where most houses are rental properties and the nearby businesses consist mainly of taverns, auto-repair shops, and adult-entertainment clubs.

While Mr. Boyer directed his message to elementary school educators, his philosophy is also taking hold with those who work at the middle school level.

Lake City Middle School in Lake City, Fla., is the first middle school in the country to join the network.

The school was in the midst of changing from a 7-8 to a 6-8 grade configuration, and was searching "for an organization that would support what we were looking at but wouldn't require us to go in a direction that we didn't want to go in," said Kitty McElhaney, the director of secondary education for the Columbia County school system, which includes Lake City.

The school had already initiated a character education program, so the staff believed that becoming a Basic School was a natural step.

'In Black and White'

In fact, most teachers and principals from the network say they chose the Basic School route because Mr. Boyer's book was simply an affirmation of beliefs they already had about schooling.

"A lot of what I did before, I felt I was doing in the dark," said Linnea Gilson, a 4th grade teacher at Portland's Kelly Elementary School. But when she read the book, she said, "there it was in black and white."

A focus on literacy is one of the reasons Mr. Boyer decided to name his plan the "basic" school. And at Kelly Elementary, where close to 80 percent of the 580 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, that means more than just raising the reading and writing skills of students. The school's efforts to improve literacy also extend to parents.

Three times a week, mothers from the neighborhood gather across the street at Kelly Community House for what are called "family stories." Led by a social worker, the meetings are an opportunity for the mothers to express, in words or on paper, their triumphs and struggles. Sitting on comfortable couches around a fire, enjoying a home-cooked breakfast, they read articles they have found to be inspirational and talk about whether they would have made different choices in their lives if they had the chance to do it again.

The literacy program began when the school's former principal, Mary Beth Van Cleave, said she realized the staff was overlooking a critical need among parents at the school.

"I saw too many read-to-your-children fliers on the sidewalk in the rain when kids were leaving school," she said.

Debi Alexander-Shaw, a mother of four who regularly attends the sessions at the house, said until her children attended Kelly, she didn't believe in the 54,700-student Portland school system.

But at Kelly, "just the little things they do make you feel invested and involved," she said.

Out of Kelly House has also grown a cooperative preschool, run by mothers who originally attended family stories for their own enrichment.

Linda Kidd, a Title I coordinator at Kelly Elementary and the school's Basic School liaison, said teachers are noticing an improvement in the performance of children who have attended the preschool once they reach the early grades. Previously, most youngsters entering kindergarten at Kelly had no preschool experience.

Building Relationships

On the surface, Kelly Elementary School doesn't show off the fact that it's on a mission. The Basic School ideals—whether it's building caring relationships between staff members and students or teaching responsibility—are being reached in more subtle ways, classroom by classroom.

In Ms. Gilson's room, her 4th graders gather their chairs in a circle for a class meeting, a technique that the teacher uses to address conflicts between students. On the agenda is an argument that erupted between boys over a science project and led to an outburst of anger from one of them.

When the teacher asks the students what they can do to help their classmate take better control of his emotions, the students offer suggestions such as, "If we are nice to him, then he'll be nice to us."

It's a significant improvement, Ms. Gilson said, over the more punitive recommendations that used to come from the group, such as denying a student recess or assigning him extra homework.

"I really think kids need to think about other ways to fix things, rather than making sure someone is getting it," she said.

Down another hallway, Laurie Schneider's students, a mix of 1st and 2nd graders, have used their imaginations to recreate scenes from "The Phantom of the Opera," a musical most of them have never seen, but now know by heart. Ms. Schneider unknowingly sparked their interest in the story by playing the music from the show as the students cleaned up the classroom. "It's almost more powerful than a book," she said.

Over the children's heads now hangs a hand-made model of a chandelier that they raise and crash to the floor at just the right dramatic moment. And at the back of the classroom sits an opera house and the phantom's lair, built with blocks.

"It was one of those things you don't plan, but it just evolves," Ms. Schneider added, as the pupils held up phantom masks that they had made.

Meeting Standards

The arts are seen as a central part of the curriculum in a Basic School, not an add-on. But because of limited resources, some schools find it difficult to fulfill that part of the plan.

Here in Portland, for example, where the school district has faced sharp budget cuts in recent years, a teacher from one of the other two Basic Schools in the city says her school can't produce a student musical because it lost its music teacher.

Some also have a hard time following the Basic School's outline for curriculum when they're also trying to meet state academic standards.

The Basic School plan organizes content areas into eight "core commonalities": the life cycle, the use of symbols, response to the aesthetic, membership in groups, a sense of time and space, producing and consuming, connections to nature, and living with purpose.

While Mr. Boyer, in his report, said students in Basic Schools should be well-prepared for district and state tests, some teachers say they have felt pulled in different directions. Such was the case for some at Kelly Elementary, which was becoming a Basic School at the same time the state was phasing in new standards.

"Even though they can mesh, it's a lot of work to make that happen," Ms. Gilson said.

Still on Track

Unlike with some school improvement programs, becoming a Basic School doesn't require a huge financial commitment, and many schools use federal Title I dollars to cover their costs. That is possible because the Basic School plan is one of the comprehensive school reform programs eligible for funding under the federal education program for disadvantaged children.

Schools that pay the $95 fee to join the network have access to one of its five regional centers. They can also request the guidance of a mentor, and summer institutes are held throughout the country.

Schools, however, often have to scrape together the money to send teachers for training—costs that range from virtually nothing to more than $400 per teacher, depending on the training's location and duration. And even the regional centers, which offer services for a fee, are not large operations. Technically, the regional center in Oregon is Ms. Kidd's desk in the Title I classroom at Kelly.

While the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where Mr. Boyer served as president for 15 years until his death in late 1995, helped establish the first group of Basic Schools, the foundation is no longer officially involved with the network.

The greatest financial support for the project now comes from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., which has given close to $2 million since 1994. The philanthropy also supports the regional center in Kansas City.

Some wonder, though, how much larger the Basic School movement might be had its founder lived longer.

"Ernie's death was a terrific blow," Ms. Van Cleave, the former Kelly principal, said. "It had to become much more of a grassroots effort."

But Ms. Bafumo, the network director, says that even though the network doesn't have a leader with the same clout Mr. Boyer had, everything has stayed on track. A revision of his book, now in the works, should also draw more attention to the program.

"We are directly in line with his vision," Ms. Bafumo said.

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Educator's Vision Lives On In Network of 'Basic Schools'
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