Making Schools Worth Choosing

May 1, 1998

Suzanne Johnson

Am I willing to send my child to public school? It's a question American parents are more frequently answering with a resounding "no," as high-profile violence, drug problems and poor test scores are increasingly associated with a public education.

Public school reform, say the experts, has been largely a bust. So when the Louisiana Alliance for Education Reform was formed on the Tulane campus five years ago as a non-profit corporation, among the first questions Alliance staff members asked were: Why? What can we do that will work?

A Shell Foundation-funded study conducted by members of Tulane's education department revealed four barriers to school reform in Louisiana and led to the founding of the Alliance, says its director Ruth Hinson:

- Louisiana schools are in an overly centralized and controlled setting, with decisions made at the state or district level;
- Decisions are made by politicians, special-interest groups and the media;
- State-level organizations dealing with public education are so numerous that getting a consensus on any program is virtually impossible;
- Louisianans have traditionally held education in low esteem.

The barriers are about politics and organization, about bureaucracy and reporting lines and money. What they are not about, Hinson notes, is children or teachers or learning.

"If you look at those four barriers, you'll see that they have absolutely nothing to do with what goes on inside a school," she says. "It doesn't say that teachers aren't doing the right thing, or that kids are misbehaving, or that principals don't know what they're doing. It says that we've got to address our community as an environment for a school just as much as we've got to address the school."

Following that belief, the Alliance was formed, funded initially by Shell but now with almost 30 corporate sponsors. And the reform methods they devised are working. From an initial test group of 11 schools, the Alliance is now partnered with 34 Louisiana schools educating more than 20,000 students from elementary through senior high school.

The Alliance model for school reform is two-pronged, Hinson says. First, it works with the schools--specifically, the teachers--showing them how to set schoolwide goals and then take state- or district-mandated programs and adapt them to meet those goals. In other words, the Alliance shows the teachers how to take ownership of their schools and classrooms.

"If a mandate comes down from the state and you are reactive, you simply do what you're told to do," Hinson says. "If you're proactive, you see it as an opportunity to reach some of the goals you have for your school. Being proactive instead of reactive makes a huge difference in how something actually succeeds or fails. A program can live or die on that thought."

The Alliance also instructs teachers on how to apply for grant money to fund special projects they think will help their schools reach their goals. And the teachers have been quick learners. Throughout Ascension, St. James and Jefferson parishes, where the Alliance partner schools are located, teachers have applied for and received grants to fund everything from in-school suspension programs to peer-tutoring and family math nights.

A second part of the Alliance reform model, Hinson says, addresses the community: a vital support network if school reform is to succeed, and the element always overlooked in traditional school-reform efforts.

"That's where we have really learned the most--community development," Hinson says. "We still have barely scratched the surface, but we've come a long way from the first few days of our operation. We knew there needed to be involvement beyond normal parental activity at the schools. We also knew there needed to be something beyond parents putting emphasis on education at home. Those are important things, but we knew that whatever we did had to go back to those four barriers we had identified, and that meant decentralizing the decision-making."

The first step was inviting people in the business community and in city government to be involved in their local school's strategic planning.

"When they work side by side with the teachers, they get to know the teachers and they get to know the school," Hinson says. "They start to take ownership in the schools."

Hinson says they learned the pattern of community involvement in the Alliance's early days in Ascension Parish. A small group of 10 or 12 was very interested and quick to volunteer. A larger group took a "wait and see" attitude, its involvement coming more slowly. The reluctance, she says, has come from seeing too many programs try and fail. Once the Alliance proved it could work and intended to stay, interest grew.

Reflecting on the program's first five years, Hinson points to the fact that they have been able to train teachers to take a greater role in decision-making and to convince members of the public that the public schools are theirs. Even more benefits will be visible in another five years.

"By that time, the young teachers who have been involved in the program from the start will be taking over the administrative roles," she says.

In the meantime, as Hinson points out, Louisiana is a big state with a lot of room for improvement. Several other parishes have already expressed interest in forming partnerships with the Alliance, and the Alliance is in the process of developing an adaptation of its successful model that will work better for schools in urban settings. Ninety percent of the schools in Louisiana are in parishes with fewer than 50 schools and would benefit from the tried-and-true methods currently used, she notes.

"We have 1,450 schools in this state," Hinson says. "Our goal ought to be to have every school in Louisiana be a school worth choosing."

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