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Reconstitution: There has Got to Be a Better Way

Over the past month I have posted two guest blogs authored by Los Angeles history teacher Chuck Olynyk (here and here.) Chuck has shared his experiences and feelings as his school undergoes the process of "reconstitution." At Fremont High School, staff members are given the option of applying to stay, or transferring to another school in the district.

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A large number of teachers there have signed a pledge that, on principle, they will NOT reapply, leading to the rather strange circumstance of administrators begging the very people that have been blamed for the school's failure to apply for their old jobs. Parents and students have joined protests calling for the superintendent to reconsider his plan. This photo shows a recent rally, where more than 200 people marched to protest the closure. The two young women are graduates of Fremont who have been teachers there as well.
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Here, police line the entrance to Fremont High, to make sure teachers, parents and students protesting keep out. A permit to hold the rally on school grounds was canceled by the superintendent.

In Brooklyn, New York, plans to close schools there drew hundreds of protesting parents, students and educators who recently stayed until 3 am trying to convince the governing panel to spare their schools this fate.

This process has taken on new significance now that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is proposing that 2000 schools across the nation should be restructured (the fourth pillar of Race to the Top.) The protests from parents, teachers and students indicate that this is a highly disruptive and painful process. Does it have to be so? According to Chicago turnaround specialist John Simmons there is a better way.

In this interview in Public School Insights, Simmons describes the process his group, Strategic Learning Initiatives, has developed. The process focuses on a shared leadership model. Parent involvement in pivotal and is used to build support for changing the climate in the school, and for helping the students meet standards through their homework. Their work has led to as many as 50% to 70% of the parents attending workshops at the schools. The parents themselves are the source of this organization, which is the key to its success. But teachers are also drawn into leadership, and the principal as well, because together they must define a new vision for where the school is headed.

The amazing thing is that this is much less costly than the traditional model of reconstitution. It does not have the dramatic flair, the clean sweep of the cobwebs that is the hallmark of the traditional reconstitution. But the results have been convincing. Eight of the ten schools SLI has worked with over the past decade have made significant improvements.

The reconstitution process as it is being done in New York and Los Angeles is fundamentally demoralizing for the staff and students at a school. It places the blame for dysfunction on the heads of the teachers and administration, and suggests that replacing these people will produce better results. But many of these individuals have done heroic work in these schools. Forcing them to reapply for their jobs is humiliating and dishonors their work. The process of closure is traumatic and divisive, with school employees pitted against one another. These schools are located in communities already suffering from the traumas of violence and poverty. Rather than reinforce these patterns, our school leaders ought to be working to make these schools oases from this dysfunction. They ought to be bringing the community together to solve the issues these schools face.

Another issue that ought to be considered is the means by which schools in need of restructuring are identified. Currently the only measurements in use are standardized test scores. These scores are a very weak diagnostic tool. There may be schools that are good at test preparation but are weak in other dimensions. And there may be schools with many strengths that are overlooked or devalued because of this limited focus. We must have more sophisticated ways of looking at the strengths and weaknesses of a school, and find ways to build on what is working. Sam Chaltain made a fascinating proposal in this regard last week.

There ought to be ways that schools can become reinvigorated, that the leadership of administrators, teachers, parents and students can be drawn upon to reinvent the schools. John Simmons has offered us one model, and I believe there are others as well. Rather than toss a staff on the trash heap, let's look for some ways to rebuild and support them.

What do you think? How should we help struggling schools to improve? How should we determine which schools need help?

photos by Chuck Olynyk, used with permission
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