How to Get a Whole Community on Board for School Reform
When Roger Sampson arrived as superintendent
of Alaska's Chugach School District
in 1994, he took charge of what he terms "a
mess" -- a district with high teacher
turnover, hostile community relations, poor
graduation rates, and nearly zero college
attendance. "The school board was very
clear," recalls current superintendent
Robert Crumley, who was then a head
teacher and principal. "They said regardless
of what we do, we have to change."
Within a few years, Sampson, Crumley, and their colleagues
effected a complete transformation of the Chugach schools.
They engaged the community and developed a personalized,
standards-based system that has become a model for other
Alaska districts. Sampson went on to serve as state commissioner
of education and early development, and was tapped to
become president of the national Education Commission of
the States this summer.
Involve all stakeholders. When they started, Chugach
administrators didn't know what the outcome of the district's
transformation would be; the course was plotted with input
from teachers, students, parents, priests, businesspeople, and
village elders. "I never dreamed they would come up with the
depth of comprehensiveness that they did," Sampson says.
"They said the bottom line was, 'When kids leave our school,
we want them to have a positive self-concept, respect for elders
and other human beings, and choices for their lives -- whether
that's living in the village or living in New York City.'"
Establish shared values. The educators and community
members began by agreeing on a mission and guidelines for
the process. They determined that their sole focus was the welfare
of the children, and that they would take responsibility
together for the outcome of the change. Whenever their conversations
veered off track, a reminder of these values helped
them focus again. "You must agree that the success will be
shared and the failure will be shared," says Sampson. "As soon
as it becomes finger pointing, you're dead in the water."
Identify the outcome first. It's too easy to get bogged
down in complaints and blame if you start by discussing the
problem. Sampson's advice: "Sit down with the people who
are instrumental to your communities and determine what it
is you want kids to be able to do, what you want them to look
like when they're done with your system, and then work
backward, asking yourselves, "How will we know when we're
there?" And, "What are the steps that have to happen to get
there?" "What's the role of the parent in that? The teacher?
The superintendent? The board?" You will have days, weeks,
months, and years to identify the obstacles to getting there --
that's not the conversation."
Build trust. Crumley recalls that the mayor of Whittier
warned him not to hold community meetings -- relations
between the residents and schools were too strained. Using food,
door prizes, and student performances to entice residents to
attend, however, the district held ten meetings during the first eighteen
months and convinced the community they were true partners
in the process.
"The key was to act on the input and make it explicit by
telling them what action you've taken," Crumley says. For
instance, community members said they worried about kids
being impolite and disrespectful toward elders. The district
added character education to its student-performance standards
and made sure residents knew their wishes had become
Change everything at once. In those first few years,
Sampson overhauled everything: the Chugach budget, curriculum,
policy, staff-development practices, and instruction
and assessment methods. "Here's why reform fails in
America," he says. "When you hear about success stories, they
usually involve some change in curriculum or instructional
delivery style, but it usually doesn't bring with it all the other
key components to make it replicable and survivable. If you
don't have those other pieces, you're putting the roof on
before the walls go up; the roof will stay on for a minute,
until something shakes. Then it falls."
Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.