George Lucas Educational Foundation

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."
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Tatitlek, Alaska, where learning is constant.

Credit: Grace Rubenstein

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Northern Lights: These Schools Literally Leave No Child Behind."

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.

The Chugach educators based their approach to change on Onward to Excellence, a school-improvement process developed by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, in Portland, Oregon. Here, Sampson and Crumley outline the key elements of their strategy and what they learned:

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 school policy.

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.

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