School reform breaks the rule

THIS fall, dozens of schools in Washington State will be breaking the rules. And state government will cheer them on. Challenger High School in Tacoma, for example, has decided to hold classes only four days a week - but for 11 months a year.

At West Valley High in Yakima, students will come back 10 days early - to study types of ``think-ing skills'' to be used in subjects throughout the year.

Curriculum at Seattle's Shorecrest High has been redesigned around expansive themes: Ninth-graders will grapple with the idea of the individual - physical, social, intellectual, and ethical approaches to self. Tenth-graders will focus on community. Eleventh-graders will delve into issues dealing with the Pacific Rim. Twelfth-graders will take on the world in a global studies curriculum.

These schools are at the beginning of an innovative six-year state initiative that may be one of the most promising examples of school reform to hit the public sector - one that removes rather than adds state requirements and allows both radical change and more accountability for student learning.

The program is called ``Schools for the 21st Century,'' and it's based on the concept that effective educational reform is a local effort and requires specific changes from within individual schools - by teachers, principals, and parents - rather than by impersonal state-imposed mandates.

The ``top down'' state dictates of recent years, such as more class time and standardized curriculum, have chilled school reform, educators contend - inhibiting the creative talent and stifling the interest of teachers and principals.

Last year Gov. Booth Gardner, with an eye to the economic future of his state, decided to circumvent that problem. If teachers and principals - those closest to the students - can design and run a better school, why not let them do it, subject to review, he asked.

The Washington Legislature liked the idea so much it set aside several million dollars, and last February invited all schools in the state to submit as radical a redesign plan as they dared. If teachers, administrators, and local school boards approved the plan, which had to include detailed evaluation methods, then the state would waive all requirements other than civil rights laws and fire codes. Each year for six years, winning schools would be given funds for 10 extra days of teacher time, plus an unrestricted $50,000.

Applications came from 136 schools, with plans that ranged from using new satellite technology and data bases in the classroom, to starting school day-care centers as vocational education, to mixing student age groups, to creating partnerships with local universities, to eliminating the labeling and separating of disadvantaged and disabled children.

Last month a 10-member special task force of college deans, business leaders, teachers, and PTA officials gave a ``21st century'' nod to nine elementary schools, six secondary schools, four districts, and two partial districts.

Winners included the rural Colton district, which even passed a local tax levy aimed at enhancing the technology in its schools; and the Yakima district, which will be experimenting with new ways to teach basic academics and cultural heritage to potential dropouts.

Education reformers say the 21st Century schools take reform out of the realm of talk and into the realm of action, and will provide important new information. Individual schools can tailor their approaches to serve a specific community (rural, urban), much as private schools or public magnet schools do.

``It's the single best test case in the country for finding out if educators and parents, given more opportunities, can create distinctive, visionary programs,'' says Joe Nathan, director of the Spring Hill Center in St. Paul, Minn., and author of ``Time for Results,'' the 1986 National Governors' Report on Education.

``Kids shouldn't have to go to private schools to get a good education,'' says Washington State education consultant Carol Gadwa. ``This plan allows schools to try what the privates and alternatives have been doing for some time.''

Central to the reform is the enhanced role of teachers. Karin Cathey is the principal of Sammamish High in Seattle, which will develop a global curriculum and cut back on lecturing in exchange for more student-teacher interaction around large-scale interdisciplinary projects (at the same time meeting district tests). Giving teachers an open slate at Sammamish unleashed a flood of energy, she says: ``We sat and brainstormed for four months! I've been a principal for 10 years and there's never been a time when we spent more effort talking about basic education.''

The school restructuring plan is based on Governor Gardner's own successful business approach, says his education aide Ron Robinson. ``You hire good people, establish clear goals, then get out of the way,'' Mr. Robinson says. ``We don't care how student performance improves - just as long as it does, and we are removing either the excuse or the reality that rules get in the way. We are giving teachers more freedom and responsibility in exchange for more quality and accountability. Over six years we'll find out if it works.''

The main surprise so far is how few rules have had to be waived. As teachers and principals discussed new methods (Can you take two English classes at the same time? Does a class have to be exactly 55 minutes long?) and looked at policies, they discovered that the majority of new ideas do not conflict with any requirements. Most rules were based on tradition or established practice and eventually taken as gospel.

``We found a lot of the limits in schools out there are self-imposed,'' says Edmonds district superintendent Brian Benzel, a member of the judging task force. ``Most of the innovative ideas don't break any rules at all.'' The dawning of that fact has caused a stir in hundreds of Washington schools, Dr. Benzel reports.

``Teachers and principals imagine there's a big policy manual - a `don't book,''' says John Anderson, principal of Challenger High. ``So it's been important for our teachers to actually look into policy, to not depend on central administration to interpret the rules for them, but to read for themselves.''

``Most of us haven't looked at the laws,'' adds principal LaVaun Dennett of Seattle's Montlake Elementary. ``Now we are going to be able to challenge the status quo from the basis of information.'' Montlake has set up a community desktop publishing center in its library. It also has reciprocal teaching arrangements with the University of Washington, and an already-successful program that academically integrates ``disadvantaged'' children and removes that label.

``Once you demonstrate you can really do something,'' says Ms. Dennett, ``it's going to be difficult to go back to the old ways.''

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