Engaging the Public: A Superintendent’s View
A superintendent shares his views on the importance of community involvement in transforming a school district.
Larry Leverett, superintendent of schools in Plainfield, New Jersey, says he is on a “mission” to improve urban education.
As much as I would like to think of the superintendent as chief education reformer, I am convinced that there is no one person who, by virtue of charisma or authority or incredible skill, can create systemic school changes that are lasting.
The truth is that in many communities, the real saviors of schools are the staff and community. Well-functioning schools generally reflect a strong sense of ownership, responsibility, and leadership from the community as well as from the ranks of teachers, principals, and other long-term employees who remain focused on quality even as the door to the superintendent's office continuously revolves.
The members of the much-talked-about "village" must own and invest in the approaches to change that penetrate the toxic school and district cultures that have evolved over many, many years.
Plainfield, New Jersey, was still suffering the ill effects of 1960s civil disturbances that had left a number of neighborhoods in ashes when I took over in 1995 as superintendent of the city's thirteen public schools -- which have an ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse population of about 7,300 students. About 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Over a period of two decades, expectations of kids and the expectations that the community had for schools were lowered to the point that residents were hostile, apathetic, or frustrated.
Located about fifteen miles south of Newark, Plainfield had suffered both white and class flight. Realtors warned potential home buyers they would need to build in the cost of private or parochial schools when planning finances. Unfortunately, they continue to advise their high-end clients to anticipate not using the public schools. Re-engagement of the community was an important, logical first step for me as superintendent. The board that hired me wanted change and shared my perspective concerning the important role of the public in shaping the district's vision and direction.
How to Engage the Public
The approach to community engagement had to be much more than a quick fix of a couple of private meetings attended by a few well-connected stakeholders. It needed to involve community members in a sustained effort to design and implement a plan of action that addressed long-standing conflicts and the disconnection between school and community.
I invited critics, skeptics, and supporters in for conversations. I met with a wide variety of people, including college presidents, business people, custodians, retired educators -- almost anyone who ever had an interest in making our schools better.
The many conversations led to formation of a Community Planning Task Force. About 225 people on six design teams worked for one-and-a-half years to come up with recommendations that provided the foundation for the district's strategic plan, which was adopted and funded by the board. The board's actions created in people a belief that their involvement just might make a difference, that we might be able to meet the goals of our mission statement: "The Plainfield Public Schools, in partnership with the community, shall do whatever it takes for every student to achieve high academic standards. No alibis. No excuses. No exceptions."
I next sent a strong message that the "closed shop" approach to the operation of the district was over and our new policy was one of openness and candor. Information once hidden from the public, such as test scores, financial data, the condition of facilities, and the preparedness of the staff to deliver high-quality instruction, had to be a part of our dialogue concerning the future of reform efforts.
The data doesn't always paint the prettiest picture of the school, but it is that picture -- the real picture -- that has the potential for instilling trust and creating a sense of urgency about the necessity for change. People with a full understanding of the problems and challenges of a school or school district are also more willing to help find solutions to those problems.
I was criticized by people within the administration for "airing our dirty laundry," but the benefits of community involvement far outweigh the cost of full disclosure. Superintendents must be prepared for harsh criticism that includes holding them accountable for the transgressions of superintendents past. They are expected to turn the large ship to a new course in a short time, even when such a sharp move is impossible. Through all this, patience must be the watchword -- patience not to promise the world, patience in responding to criticism, and patience in the hunt for the common ground which can provide the basis for productive collaboration.
Community Involvement Pays Off
Less than two years after our public engagement efforts began, we realized a major victory. The Plainfield community passed a $34 million bond measure for facilities and technology, the first bond measure passed in the district in over twenty years, even though doubters had predicted it could not be achieved in such a poor, urban district.
What happened was that our community understood that the bond money would make a difference to our students. They agreed that facility improvements that created library/media centers, full-day kindergarten, art/music rooms, smaller learning communities at the middle schools, and greater access to technology would improve teaching and learning.
Other payoffs as well have resulted from community engagement and a mutual setting of higher expectations for both students and staff. Student attendance and parent involvement have improved, disciplinary actions are down, and schools have adopted nationally recognized whole school reform. Our summer extended-school-year programs drew almost one-third of the district's elementary and middle school students. In addition, after-school programs have expanded, and students are reading more books, writing in more different genres and to more varied audiences, and are taking more responsibility for improving their performance through peer conferencing and conferencing with teachers.
Test scores are still not what they should be, but while accountability is a good thing in public education, it has to be more than a test score. And if it's going to be more than a test score, the school system has to be responsible for engaging the community in defining the terms of accountability and creating a shared responsbility for what does or does not happen in our schools.
Plainfield, like many other school districts, fails in communicating important progress being made that reflects improvements in teaching and learning that are not related to test scores. But accountability remains a central issue in our district, and we are working to develop a system that clearly communicates who is responsible for what and to whom.
Focus, Focus, Focus
Our reform efforts began with a belief that change meant we needed to work on all aspects of the district simultaneously. District leaders and members of the community recognized that many, many changes were needed, and our early reform efforts were spread across a broad agenda of activities and initiatives.
What emerged was a strategic plan with six broad goals. After a year of trying to cover all fronts, however, we learned that we needed to narrow the focus. The whole top of the organization was talking about wonderful changes, but the amount of penetration at the school and classroom level was minimal.
When we narrowed our goals to literacy, staff development, and technology, we saw much greater progress, even though such focus does not necessarily correspond to interest-group expectations. The reality is that the school board, community, parents, and staff, and to some extent the state, all have different perspectives on how much time it takes to turn the system around. Parents, community members, and the school board have been waiting a long, long time to see change and typically expect a complete turnaround in a year or two. But in reality, it takes much longer to fix a broken school system.
Larry Leverett has been a leader in the use of technology to communicate with parents and teachers.Credit: Plainfield, N.J., Public Schools
Take Advantage of Technology
The use of technology has been invaluable in making strides in community involvement and student instruction, and superintendents who let the cyber revolution pass them by are doing a disservice to their community and their students.
The Internet placed us in the consciousness of the community and parents as no number of town hall meetings could. The number of visitors to our Web site has increased from 2,000 to 5,000 a month. Our Web pages aim to give parents and others all the facts and figures they need to make informed decisions about Plainfield schools, from a school calendar to statistics on student population and educational attainment of teachers, to information about after-school programs and promoting literacy. The interactive nature of the system gives community members a voice and allows teachers to communicate through e-mail.
The computers and technology expertise did not just magically appear. District staffers and myself worked hard to bring principals and teachers on board and to find grant money to wire classrooms and district offices. Plainfield Schools became part of a 1996 Family Education Network pilot project to start school Web sites that would handle a district's communication needs. In 1999, 300 multimedia computers were placed in district classrooms with money from the federal government's Education Rate program.
Computers allow us to better use data about student performance and assess the effectiveness of different programs. Students performing at different levels can be targeted for special instruction.
But ultimately the biggest benefit of technology will come in what and how it allows students to learn. Teachers are learning techniques for creating Web-based activities for science and math, among other subjects. Some courses are specifically designed to give students technology-related skills in such areas as desktop publishing and robotics. While district officials are greatly concerned about access to computers, it is also my hope that the emphasis on technology in Plainfield schools will help bridge the digital divide.
Educators in general and administrators in particular must pay greater attention to the development of the people who work with our kids.
Twenty-first-century expectations of children must be matched with a twenty-first-century investment in the development of our staff. We are asking children to perform at levels way beyond those of any other students in the history of public school education. If we really want our students to perform at high levels, we must ensure that they have access to quality teachers who have the necessary skills and dispositions.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the teacher force has not been trained, either in college or in the classroom, to provide instruction that is commensurate with what we are asking our students to do. To combat such a deficiency, we need to allocate money for research-based, comprehensive staff-development programs.
Rethinking time is an important piece of the reform puzzle. Teachers need opportunities to talk with other teachers about children and their work. Teachers need time to develop relationships with students and their families. Teachers need time to gain a wider exposure to best practices and educational research.
Professional development takes a significant portion of our budget because it is so important. Principals and teachers are frequently freed up to collaborate, study together, and, basic as it may sound to others, reflect. Too little time of educators is devoted to examining their own methods and performance and the effectiveness of long-used programs and materials.
An example of how classroom practices stem from teacher development is Plainfield's reorganization of the physical setup and instructional program for middle school students. We have converted our former junior high schools into seven smaller theme-based learning communities.
The district also began "looping" -- keeping students and teachers together for more than one year -- as a result of teacher interest. In Plainfield's program, students and teachers are paired for three years. Our early experiences with looping have created tighter bonds between students and teachers, given teachers a better picture of student strengths and weaknesses, and allowed for greater continuity in student social development. The benefits of looping are gaining interest from staff in other grades throughout the district.
Make Partners of All Staff
Professional development is not limited to teachers. In the Plainfield schools, professional growth, renewal, and partnership are vital elements of district efforts to achieve the ideal of becoming more and more of a learning organization -- for everyone in the district. I can remember the shock of my secretary when I asked her to arrange a same-day appointment for a custodian who wanted to meet with me in my office to push a facility need in his school.
We have many examples of the success of efforts to strengthen the building of the school as a community: Principals have initiated study groups among themselves; special education teacher assistants are working toward education degrees at a local university; the superintendent and director of curriculum are teaching on-site graduate courses for teachers and others aspiring to leadership roles; and the administration and the teachers' union are collaborating on solutions to the challenges of teacher recruitment, induction, and retention. Custodians and other support staff also have access to professional growth workshops on topics ranging from communications to conflict management.
Such inclusion pays dividends in more ways even than in producing competent, well-informed employees. When the call goes out for help to promote our mission of academic achievement for every student, such as reading to students to promote literacy, the volunteers come from throughout the district and from all departments.
Reasons to Be Hopeful
When I first came to Plainfield, visiting classrooms induced a certain level of anxiety. I didn't like what I saw because the instruction often seemed uninspired and unchallenging, with too much focus on workbooks and ditto sheets. Community participation and our investment in staff development and support for teacher leadership has had a dramatic impact away from such rote teaching. Quite honestly, most of the change has occurred across our elementary and middle schools. The high school remains a challenge.
Today I encourage parents, residents, and colleagues to visit our schools -- talk to the children about literacy, standards, rubrics, and conferencing. Ask them to share their understanding of classroom rituals and routines. Talk to them about author studies, the writing process, and their personal efforts to become more effective readers and writers. There are classrooms where kids are very articulate and able to clearly communicate their work.
A strong system of education that allows all students to reach their potential is possible when schools and communities work together.