School & District Management Commentary

‘This Is a Nice Private Public School’

By Lew Smith — February 17, 1999 10 min read

The aura that surrounds private schools has taken control of the debate over public schools. Scratch beneath the surface of controversies over vouchers, or choice, or funding formulas, and you will find assumptions about the nature of private and public schools.

Consequently, we can ask ourselves three basic questions: Can public schools become as good as private schools are presumed to be? What would those reconfigured public schools look like? And, how would that conversion take place?

From my own recent experience, I offer the following case study that may answer some of those questions.

The Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York state isn’t quite sure whether to call itself urban or suburban. It is a consolidated district that takes in the small city of Newburgh and two adjoining suburbs. It has 10 elementary schools (prekindergarten through grade 6), three middle schools (grades 7-9) and the Newburgh Free Academy, the high school (grades 10-12).

And the split personality extends into Newburgh’s school culture. Like many districts, it has a large number of traditionalists who would prefer to keep things as they are and a few progressives who believe that change is not only inevitable, but necessary.

The high school exemplifies these contradictions. In 1987, it won national recognition as a School for Excellence. But in 1994, the high school was placed on the the state’s Schools Under Registration Review list, which is New York’s way of saying that a school is in so much trouble it is a candidate for state takeover. Despite the state’s warnings, driven by unacceptably high dropout rates, and despite citations by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights focusing on inequitable programming practices for minority students, most of the high school’s staff still believed that all was well.

In April of 1997, the Newburgh school board hired a new superintendent, Laval S. Wilson. The previous superintendent, retired after 13 years, was known for financial planning, keeping taxes down, and maintaining a sense of order. He was not an innovator. Laval Wilson, fresh from leading the state-takeover district in Paterson, N.J., presented a contrast in leadership style, energy, and willingness to take on tough issues. Fixing the high school and its three feeder middle schools became his priority. He created a 35-member secondary school strategic-planning committee and hired a consultant.

Two factors emerged as strong incentives for helping the high school do what it did not want to do: (1) the condemning reports by the state and the OCR, which the district was legally as well as morally obligated to answer; and (2) an impending proposal to spend close to $15 million on facility renovations, which had to be resolved and implemented.

The new superintendent determined that any renovation plan for the high school had to be in response to an educational plan, not the other way around, with school organization and instruction conforming to the renovated physical facilities. But what was the educational plan, and the philosophy behind it? What did the high school purport to do?

As the planning committee’s lead consultant, I recommended that we provide answers to that and developed a series of meetings designed to help us. The 35-member committee had the virtue of being widely representative, made up as it was of school and district administrators; teachers, nonteaching staff, and students; and parents, partners (churches, colleges, and community-based organizations), and community members.

The process that unfolded, which focused on both the high school and the three middle schools, raised these fundamental questions:

  • Who were our students and what were their needs?
  • What were other secondary schools across the country doing to meet the needs of their young adolescents and teenagers?
  • Which of the various reforms and nationally accepted “exemplary practices” would work best in the Newburgh setting?

How Newburgh answered these questions and what it drew from the process is a story best told by fast-forwarding to Sept. 15, 1998, exactly one year after the planning committee first convened. On that day, the associate superintendent for instruction and I were walking into a partially renovated building at Stewart Air Force Base, on the outskirts of Newburgh, and were mixing informally with the 65 10th graders, just starting their high school experience, and the six teachers working with them. These were happy adolescent faces. The students were engaged fully in aviation, their theme of instruction. And the adults, though tired, seemed excited. Something was happening. As one of the teachers put it to me, “This is a nice private public school.”

Reformers spend too little time and energy seriously considering what schools might be, and even less trying to understand the process that might be used to create such a product.

And, indeed, it was. The six teachers, working closely together as a team, knew all 65 of their students and knew each other well. A sense of ownership, of full responsibility for the welfare of their charges, had grown among the adults. A sense of community now existed, as both the adults and the students understood that they were jointly shaping their new “school within a school.”

In the morning, these 65 pioneers in a new, theme-based academy study English, social studies, science, and an elective with aviation-centered problems and examples. They are bused back to the main high school building for math and physical education in the afternoon.

This is a private school disguised officially as a public school. This public academy has all the trappings of nonpublic education. Students and their parents have chosen to be there. Teachers have been carefully selected. (In fact, they chose themselves, since they developed the proposal for their school.) The school’s size is manageable: small enough for everyone to know each other. The curriculum is shaped by the teachers. A sense of community pride has developed, as evidenced by special parent orientations, school T-shirts, and a bit of peer bragging. Teachers meet daily to discuss two major items: how their students are doing, and what is being planned for the next day’s instruction.

What happened between Sept. 15, 1997, and Sept. 15, 1998? How did this “private school” get created in a public school? It came about through a strong emphasis on thinking about both product and process. That started with the planning committee’s deliberations, where attention was paid to both the kind of school that might be created (product) and how to bring about those changes (process).

The planning committee members were asked to consider what is now termed “whole-school reform.” What would their ideal school look like in instruction (how would students learn); organization (how would staff, facilities, time, and resources be deployed); governance (how would decisions be made--and by whom); and accountability (how would the school measure its success)? Committee members engaged in imaging and imagining the proposed product, seeing the potential school, and believing that there could be another version of schooling. The first set of tasks, then, involved figuring out the proposed product.

Equally important--and sharing equal time on the slate of learning activities for the planning committee--were questions related to the process. How would the journey of moving the school from here to there be undertaken?

This is counter to what usually happens in school change. Reformers spend too little time and energy seriously considering what schools might be, and even less in trying to understand the process that might be used to create such a product. This is why there are so many failed school reform efforts. To counter this, I advocate activities centered around what I call the three C’s--context, conversation, and capacity. These can become the building blocks for facilitating change:

  • Create and develop a context. In Newburgh’s case, a golden opportunity to pursue serious questions about the nature and practice of schooling surfaced because of the press of external forces. The superintendent chose to look at those deeper questions rather than simply respond to the most immediate needs for change. He shaped the change context by defining the job that had to be done and providing central-office support for it. Substitute teachers were hired so that site visits could be made to other schools. Meeting times were scheduled for planning sessions. The district funded a weekend retreat for planners. Office personnel helped prepare materials, provide food for meetings, drive buses to site visits, and write grant proposals. And, critically, the superintendent was willing to demonstrate that decisions would be made, that the plans would not merely sit on shelves, collecting dust.
  • Foster and facilitate conversations. This means dozens of conversations, formal and informal, among policymakers and practitioners, educators and parents. The planning committee had two study groups: one focusing on middle school reform, using the Carnegie Corporation’s landmark study “Turning Points” as a basic text; and the other looking at high school reform, with “Breaking Ranks,” published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, as its reference guide.

The conversations centered around students’ needs and interests. Teams visited other schools and reported what they liked and didn’t like. Exemplary practices ranging from block-scheduling, to advisories, to interdisciplinary approaches were examined. Teams discussed how to engage students in instruction and how to measure their progress and growth.

Finally, we arrived at this design: The three middle-level schools (each with over 900 students), would be reorganized, over a four-year period, into three theme-based “houses,” with only 100 students per grade. At the same time, the 2,700-pupil high school would be divided into nine theme-based “academies,” each also with only 100 students per grade. So Newburgh eventually will have nine semiautonomous or “private” schools at the middle-school level (called middle-level theme-based houses) and an equal number of high school theme-based academies in the one high school building.

Volunteer teams of teachers came forward with proposals for creating these new entities that the planning committee reviewed. For this school year, the goal was to create three middle-level houses and three high school academies, each accepting only an entering class of from 60 to 100 students. (In the end, because the committee was so impressed with the submitted proposals, we had four theme-based middle-level houses for 7th graders and four high school academies for 10th graders.)

Conversations during the planning process also centered on how to build support for this drastic change. Plans for addressing potential parental concerns, for encouraging teachers to buy into the new scheme, and for attracting and engaging students were proposed. We even discussed how the persistent change-resisters might be either won over or stymied in their opposition. In short, the planning committee confronted and carefully considered with one another all the dynamics of change.

  • Build capacity. In the end, our questions turned to the attributes and opportunities of those who would actually put the plans into action. How could we empower teachers to do school differently? We dealt with such issues as needed financial resources, planning and professional-development time, building changes, and the requisite supplies, books, computers, and audiovisual equipment.

Most importantly, however, we asked ourselves this: How could we build the capacity of the teachers, administrators, and parents, so that they would be able to make the critical decisions, lead, and bring about continual change? So while we planned for their professional development, for learning experiences, and for technical assistance, we also considered what they needed emotionally and psychologically. We helped them learn to work in teams in new and significant ways. In effect, we unleashed the hidden capacities that already lay dormant in them: their ideas on how students best learn; their organizational abilities; their readiness to respond to unforeseen challenges.

Schools ought to be learning organizations with a commitment to inquiry, growth, and personal fulfillment for all their constituencies--staff members, students, and parents. In the words of one educator, Max DePree, they ought to be “places of realized potential.” But these simple notions too often are misunderstood, except in the case of private schools--or those public ones, like Newburgh’s, that have taken on the best qualities of private schools.

Lew Smith is an associate professor at Fordham University’s graduate school of education in New York City and a co-director of Fordham’s Leadership and Research Center. A former high school principal, he is also an independent consultant specializing in school restructuring.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as ‘This Is a Nice Private Public School’


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