School & District Management

Aspiring To Success

By Paul Bush — May 22, 1996 9 min read
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Budget cuts at Sabattus Elementary School have hurt, says teacher Bonnie Goyette. Music and arts programs have been eliminated and the gifted-and-talented program scaled back. “There’s nothing for the kids to look forward to,” she says. “They have nothing but what the school offers them.”

The main building of the 600-student, K-8 school was once ranked No. 1 among schools in the state that needed to be replaced, but the voters in this rural community refused to approve the money. Goyette and other members of a teachers’ committee wanted to give 4th through 6th graders a leadership program to make up for the cuts in other areas. The plan was to include both honor students and “typical troubled kids.”

“We wanted to give them some opportunities where they were taking charge,” says Nancy Rideout, another teacher at the school.

In creating the program, the Sabattus faculty members went beyond their school. They put to use research done by Russ Quaglia, a University of Maine education professor who has spent more than 10 years analyzing the conditions that help make students successful. Quaglia had been a frequent visitor to Sabattus, as he has to a number of other schools around New England.

The faculty members behind Sabattus Pride, as they called the new program, wanted students to be excited about learning, willing to take risks, and feeling like they belonged at the school--three of the eight factors that Quaglia had identified. Since its start last September, the 40 students in Sabattus Pride can take credit for starting the new school store, which attracted 200 customers in its first two days. They’ve also acted as guides during parent-teacher conferences, among other projects. The effect of helping make decisions and helping others has been dramatic.

Before Sabattus Pride, says Assistant Principal Kristine Fox, “What hit home for me, as a disciplinarian, was the number of kids I saw unhappy, not connected.” This year, she doesn’t see the “tough discipline kids” who belong to Pride nearly as often. What she does see, she says, “is a sense of belonging for kids who’ve never felt like they’ve belonged.”

“It makes me feel like I’m making a difference,” says 6th grader Becky Tavares, a Pride member. “It feels good because they treat you more like an adult, instead of a step lower than them.” Becky and 4th grader Robby Pinard were among eight Pride students who went before the district’s school board to ask for start-up funds for their store.

“I’m used to raising my hand, and I’m not used to talking to people that run the school,” Robby says. “It felt great.” Not only do his classmates try to follow his example and help out more at school, he says, but at home, “my mom thinks I’m a lot more responsible than I was.”

Beyond Ambition

Quaglia’s research has turned up five other conditions beyond those put into place at Sabattus High. He’s found that successful students are curious and self-confident, have a sense of being empowered and of achieving something, and have been mentored along the way. Where these conditions were encouraged, he found, students were successful.

His work began as an attempt to solve two questions bothering state leaders: Why did native-born Maine residents hold so few of the state’s high-paying jobs? And why did Maine students, who graduated high school in large numbers, so seldom go on to further education? “We knew the rolls of leadership positions in business were filled by people ‘from away,’” says Quaglia. He found when talking with students that “our kids had the ambitions, but they didn’t believe they could do it.”

Ambition, he realized, was only part of the picture. To be successful in school and beyond, students also had to be inspired to work toward their goals. “Without inspiration, all you do is daydream. Without ambition, you have a person who is living day to day,” says Quaglia. He called this combination of inspiration and ambition “aspiration.” Last December, the University of Maine at Orono recognized the significance of his work by establishing the National Center for Student Aspirations, with Quaglia as its director.

Quaglia still spends much of his time meeting with teachers and administrators, primarily in New England, to discuss his work. “I’ve been a Russ Quaglia fan for about seven years,” says Howard Ryder, the principal of Lincoln (Maine) Academy. “I’ve seen him not just excite, but ignite educators who long ago cashed it in.”

To give teachers and administrators more information about their schools, Quaglia has developed an84-question survey designed to measure aspirations. More than 6,000 students across the United States and another 6,000 in such places as London, Katmandu, Nepal, and St. Petersburg, Russia, have taken Quaglia’s “Aspirations Assessment Survey.” Using a five-point scale of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” it asks students to respond to such statements as “School causes a great deal of stress for me,” “I feel comfortable asking questions,” and “In general, my teachers expect me to succeed and help me to do so.” The University of Maine’s Center for Research and Evaluation tabulates the results, and the fee for the survey is $1.50 to $1.74 per student.

The 858 students at Burrillville High School in Harrisville, R.I., took the survey last year. Principal Steve Mitchell had been looking for something to help build momentum for school reform. Scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test and the Metropolitan Achievement Test were low. Yet, he kept hearing from students about classes where parroting back what the teacher wanted guaranteed good grades.

“This is the kind of data we needed,” Mitchell says. He reads from the survey: “I do work without knowing why--one-third of the females and two-fifths of the males said yes. That’s not great.

“My teachers accept differences of opinion--79 percent of females and 71 percent of males said yes. That’s alarming,” Mitchell continues. “One out of four believes that’s not the case. That’s a sense of belonging issue.

“My teachers encourage me to ask questions--71.2 percent of seniors said yes. But that means a little less than a third believe that’s not the case.” Putting away the survey, Mitchell says, “There are things we need to do differently.” Already, several academic departments at Burrillville are discussing curriculum evaluation and new forms of assessment, but a schoolwide effort won’t get under way until a superintendent’s search, which has slowed the process of change, is completed this summer.

Gender Inequalities

Students at Woodsville (N.H.) High School have also completed the aspirations survey. The school, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, has only 355 students. “This is one of the only ways I’ve ever seen of student input being effectively given,” says Principal Bruce Labbs. “It’s hard to gather information from students that’s normed and real and isn’t hearsay or gossip.”

The survey revealed that students’ sense of achievement was affected by after-school jobs, where they worked longer hours than did students at other schools. Mitchell was required to sign work permits, but he had no way of knowing when students were taking extra shifts. The survey also showed that while seniors felt good about being at Woodsville, some of the younger students didn’t have the same sense of belonging.

However, the most shocking finding of the survey was the degree of gender inequality. A number of girls felt, Labbs says, “that their opinions weren’t valued in class, that they weren’t being called on as much, that they weren’t looked on as valuable or important in the system as others were.” Faculty and staff are now trying to combat the problem, but there’s a belief that the solution requires the help of a much wider group. Consequently, 90 teachers from the area’s elementary and middle schools met for a workshop on the topic in January . Community outreach will be the next step.

“You look at yourself through the eyes of teachers and visitors and the town every time it votes on a budget,” says Labbs. “But to get kids in a situation to give their true feelings, you have so little opportunity to do that. It seems so simple, but you don’t do it.”

Quaglia agrees. “When kids first open the survey, they say, ‘Oh wow, no one’s ever asked me this before,’” he says. “And when we present the findings to schools, the response ranges from ‘We never thought of asking them that’ to ‘I thought so, but I never asked.’”

“In education, we value what kids know,” he continues. “But we’re afraid to ask kids what they think and feel.” And while asking students these questions can expose sensitive issues, as Woodsville High found out, the benefits are tangible, he says. “This is driven by the basic belief that we can make a difference in kids’ lives.”

Interest Abroad

In Lincoln, Maine, Howard Ryder is using the survey to learn why only half of Lincoln Academy’s 460 students go on to further education. The principal wasn’t satisfied with the answer he commonly received: that students simply went to work in the local fishing industry. “I think it’s important that we as classroom teachers understand that there are a number of things we do that have a profound impact on aspirations,” he says. “If I’ve learned nothing else from Russ, it’s that whatever we do in education, kids have to be involved.”

Farther south on Maine’s coast, the staff at Elliot Elementary School, which can count on the parent-teacher organization raising $10,000 every year in suburban Elliot, has noticed changes since the 615 students were included in redesigning the disciplinary code. The old system of “yellow cards” and having to write “I will do better” after infractions has been scrapped. Now, students come up with goals for improving their behavior and name someone at school who can help them succeed.

“They feel more a part of it,” says 3rd-grade teacher Lisa Hippern. Hippern is a member of the school-improvement committee, which chose the redesign as a way of addressing aspirations. She notes that since last fall, the committee has met once a month with Quaglia, rather than once a year as it did before. “He keeps us focused, and he keeps us going,” Hippern says. “He’s funny, and keeps it light. But he’s kind of driven.”

Quaglia’s work has gained notice overseas. He’s been invited to translate and administer the survey in more than 13 countries, including Bangladesh, India, and Hungary. The motivation for foreign educators is the same as that of their U.S. counterparts. “They want to know what they can do to make a difference in kids’ lives,” he says.

Since the founding of the National Center for Student Aspirations last December, more than 250 schools, districts, and other organizations have gotten in touch with Quaglia and his staff. These have included the Boston public school system’s school-improvement committee, a New Hampshire-wide consortium of school superintendents, the Boston Museum of Science, and several businesses.

Besides working with these groups, Quaglia plans to move forward with pilot surveys he has developed for kindergarten through 2nd graders and for higher education.

One of the latest schools to take the aspirations assessment survey is Braintree High School, which lies in a quiet, middle-class suburb eight miles outside of Boston. The survey was given to half the 1,200 students in early February. “I knew it was right on the two days we gave the survey,” says Kathleen Spencer, who is the housemaster, or assistant principal. “For the next 20 minutes, you could have heard a pin drop. There was no whispered, angry ‘These questions are so stupid.’

“They knew the answers to the questions,” Spencer says.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 1996 edition of Education Week as Aspiring To Success


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