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Reformed School

February 24, 1998

Suzanne Johnson
Michael DeMocker

More than 20,000 Louisiana public school students are enjoying "reformed schools" thanks to Tulane, dedicated corporate sponsors, rejuvenated teachers and parents, and a community commitment to improve public education. Public education is in trouble. News reports tell of violence, delinquency, poor test scores, poorer retention rates.

"School reform" has become a catch-phrase that the public views with increasing cynicism. Nothing works. Why pour more money into it? Toss out the system and start over. It's just bad kids, bad teachers, bad schools. But don't use those arguments in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. Over the last five years, parish residents have learned that school reform can work--if you take it school by school, let the teachers make decisions and get the community involved.

It's a model for change they have learned from the 5-year-old Louisiana Alliance for Education Reform, a Tulane-based program that has as its goal nothing less than making every public school in Louisiana one you'd want your own kids to attend. Alliance staff members will be the first to tell you they have a long way to go, but with 34 schools, 1,400 teachers, and more than 20,000 students in three Louisiana parishes already following the Alliance program, they have made an impact.

It all started in a Washington, D.C., boardroom, oddly enough, with a group of Fortune 500 CEOs known as the Business Roundtable. In 1989, as member companies of the Roundtable agreed to establish partnerships with states to develop public education reform, the Shell Oil Co. Foundation looked toward Louisiana, where it had a strong presence, and to Tulane University, with whom it had already formed successful partnerships. There was no denying that Louisiana public schools needed help.

In a review of research, Tulane educators found that of all 50 states, Louisiana had the highest percentage--34.6 percent--of children living in poverty. It had America's highest illiteracy rate, and among the highest rates of unemployment, teen pregnancy and juvenile delinquency. A full 40 percent of the state's high school students dropped out before graduating--the second-highest dropout rate in the nation. Louisiana also had--and this was to become an important point for the founders of the Alliance--one of the most regulated educational systems in the country. School reform programs had been tried and tried again, and most had failed.

What could be done? For answers, Alliance director Ruth Hinson points to the results of more than 50 interviews with teachers and administrators done as part of a study initiated and conducted by Tulane and funded by the Shell Foundation.

"They found that there are four major barriers to school reform in Louisiana," she said. "Addressing those barriers is how we have structured the operation of this program."

At first glance, the barriers seem insurmountable. In a nutshell, they establish that Louisiana schools are in an overly centralized and controlled setting, with decisions made at the state or district level and with no school input. Decisions are dominated by politics, 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, Hinson says. And the state has traditionally held education in low esteem.

As Hinson notes, "We simply do not spend money to invest in our children." 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."

Trouble is, no one knew quite where to start. Traditional school improvement programs have been cookie-cutter approaches targeted toward administrators and leadership training, and few have worked. Enter the Louisiana Alliance for Education Reform, established in 1992-93 at Tulane and initially funded by Shell with the goal of devising a means of reforming Louisiana public education in a way that works.

The initial targets: six schools in Ascension Parish, where Shell facilities were located, and five in Jefferson Parish, a primarily urban parish neighboring New Orleans. Imagine two scenarios. In the first, a seventh grader--we'll call him Lucas--has repeatedly misbehaved and is suspended from school for a day. Lucas thinks this is pretty cool; it's an unexpected vacation. Now, imagine Lucas gets suspended but has to spend that day in school. Not only in school, but working in a classroom with a parent, teacher and law enforcement officer. Lucas is not a happy camper (neither is Mom, for that matter).

Regular classes beat this. Which scenario would be more likely to keep Lucas from being a repeat offender? If Lucas is a student at most public schools, he gets a day off as "punishment" for his evil ways. If he's in Ascension Parish, he's treated to a day of in-school suspension. The in-school suspension program is an example of how the Alliance is working in the schools. Once a school signs on with the Alliance, teachers, administrators and even parents attend 26 full-day workshops over a three-year period. They learn to implement corporate methods to fit the needs of their own individual school: strategic planning, goal-setting, teamwork.

The code word in these sessions is Proactive, Hinson says. As a teacher, you might be given directives from the district or from the state, but how you enact them is up to you. "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." "Proactive" also means working toward your individual school goals, which you have established in the Alliance sessions by identifying your school's strengths and weaknesses.

Lowery Middle School in Donaldsonville, about 30 miles southeast of Baton Rouge, took a long, hard look at itself and decided that discipline was an area that needed work. In order to address the discipline problem, Lowery staff members took another cue from the Alliance workshops: if you come across a big roadblock called Budget on the path to school reform, don't stop. Find a way around it. Using grant-writing skills obtained through the Alliance program, Lowery teachers applied for and received a Title I Schoolwide Program grant to fund their in-school suspension program, which Lowery's assistant vice principal, Vincent Giardino, says "keeps the kids off the street and they receive individualized instruction all day."

The suspended student's parents must also sit at school with their children. In 1994, Lowery recorded 500 suspensions. At the end of one year with the in-school program, the number dropped to 190. Expulsions plummeted from 16 in 1994 to four in 1995. Lowery also instituted a successful means of preventing fights and arguments among students, as teacher Pat Sotile--one of five teachers in Ascension Parish who have now been trained as Alliance instructors themselves--applied for, and received, a grant to fund a peer-mediation program.

The Center for Dispute Resolution in New Mexico trained Lowery teachers and about 100 students in the art of mediating disputes, reducing fights among students and providing students and teachers with new problem-solving skills. In the program's first year, Lowery students conducted 254 mediations on campus and 145 in the community. Those are just two of the success stories visible throughout Ascension Parish, where 17 of the 19 schools have now joined the Alliance program. A new mathematics curriculum, Mathworks, has been implemented parishwide.

There are now computers in all schools, and grants have been obtained to fund part-time teachers in areas such as physical education, art and music that have traditionally been part of budget cuts. Family Math programs bring parents and children together at the schools to work on fun educational projects. After-school and peer tutoring programs have been established. All because of being proactive.

"It's powerful," Hinson says. "Being proactive instead of reactive makes a huge difference in how something actually succeeds or fails as part of a school program. A program can live and die on that thought."

When members of the Alliance began their initial task of devising an effective method of school reform, they looked at the barriers and realized making changes in the schools was only part of the task. The community--parents and business people--had to be involved as well. The public schools had to involve the public. "That's where we have really learned the most--about 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 parent activity at the school. 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. And the only way to decentralize decision-making is to get people involved." The first step was inviting people in the business community and in city government to be involved in their 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 understand the dilemmas that are there, the constraints of the bureaucracy, and the positive aspects of the school's programs. 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. Five years later, the Ascension Parish Chapter is thriving, and the Alliance chapters in neighboring St. James Parish and in Jefferson Parish are growing.

In addition to helping with goals and plans, community members form committees to help schools improve their technological capabilities, for example, or publicize new programs or policies. Members of the business community donate both time and expertise. Just ask Bryan Babin, vice president of Electronic Babin International and chairman of the Ascension Parish Chapter's technology committee. Babin's company donates about 20 hours a week of time to local schools by repairing donated computers, salvaging parts from old equipment and training teachers. Or ask Ron Anderson, plant manager of Star Enterprise in Convent, La., who likes the fact that the Alliance is training teachers using proven management techniques.

"Most other programs start with administration and programs that teachers are forced to implement," he says. "This is an entirely different philosophy. The teacher has more knowledge of what's going on in the classroom than anybody in any administrative office, anybody in any state education department, anybody in any office in Washington, D.C."

Proof of the Alliance programs' success in the community lies not only in individual volunteers but in corporate sponsorships that have put the program on a sound financial footing. While Tulane houses the central Alliance office on its uptown campus with three staff members, the program is operated as a non-profit corporation with active chapters in each of the three parishes currently participating.

It continues to receive support from the Shell Foundation, but has also added almost 30 other sponsors, including Air Products, Albemarle, Allied Signal, AMPRO, Boh Bros. Construction, Borden Chemical, Brand Scaffold, Chevron, CF Industries, FNBC, Foundation for the Mid South, IBM, IMC Agrico, LaRoche Industries, Lockheed-Martin, Occidental Chemical, the Ourso Foundation, the Reily Foundation, Rubicon, St. James Bank, Shell Capline, Star Enterprise, Texaco Foundation, TRIAD Nitrogen, Turner Industries (Harmony) and Vulcan Chemicals.

From elementary level through senior high, Alliance schools have grown to 34 with the recent addition of the remaining eight schools in St. James Parish. Reflecting on the program's first five years, Hinson points with pride 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 growth. 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 noted. "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."

Suzanne Johnson is editor of Tulanian and manager of editorial services in the Office of University Publications. Tulanian Spring, 1998


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