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Professional Learning

Peggy Bryan: A View on Schools as Communities

October 1, 2000

Since this interview was held in 2000, founding principal Peggy Bryan has moved on from Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, but current principal Irene Preciado carries on the school's original vision.

Peggy Bryan, Principal of Sherman Oaks Community Charter School recounts how she came to her current position, what went into shaping the school when it was first created, and how the community was involved in that process.

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1. Prior to Sherman Oaks, what type of involvement did you have in the education community? Why were you chosen to create Sherman Oaks and how did the process work?

I started out not so long ago, actually, in the life of education. I've only been in education for about twelve years. But quickly in that twelve years I moved to the fringe. I was working in alternative ed, which is high-risk high school kids, teen pregnancy, all of that. And then I started moving back into the mainstream to see if I could take some of those ideas that worked for alternative schools into the mainstream and to the main school.

I went to a middle school and exhausted my possibilities there pretty quickly and moved to elementary and tried some different things at the local elementary school, which is just up the road. And then when the bond passed, and they said they were going to open this school, I threw my hat in the ring because they wanted the school to be a different place.

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2. What did you hope to accomplish? What was your vision for the school?

The superintendent said to me, essentially, she wouldn't want to walk onto this campus and see something she's ever seen before. So that was the starting place. As it turns out, that's not quite possible to do. I'm not sure it's possible to do. I think you'll walk through here and see lots of things that look pretty typical. But beneath it all are a lot of atypical discoveries that we made along the planning process in relationships that we built. We're not there yet, but we're moving towards that.

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3. What does it mean to be a "school community"? What did you do to solicit the community's involvement?

Well, what I brought to the table when we were trying to figure out what to do was a lot of ignorance. I just owned the fact that I didn't know how to do it. The schools I had worked with prior to, we didn't make any headway really on gaining parent participation or community involvement. So, I just said, "You know, I don't know how to do it." That was our starting point. So our collective claim on not knowing what to do led us to an organization, a community activist organization called PACT, which is Parents Acting in Community Together. And we said to them, "We don't know how to do this. Can you teach us?" And they did.

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4. What were the parent's expectations?

It wasn't all over the map. You might think it would be, but we distilled it down. High interest in technology -- their phrase was "To keep the computers running day and night if we could." That was key. Another element was the arts. They really wanted to see art education as a big part of this school. And the third thing they said was, "If you can communicate with us as much as possible, please do." I think they felt the opening and they felt reassured enough to say, "Could you keep doing what you're doing? Can you keep letting us know what's going on? Can you keep apprising us of how we could be involved?" So those were the key areas.

We had an idea about a multigraded school and they said, "Okay," kind of. But what we wound up with was looping, in terms of teachers keep their classes for one or two years. The parents were okay with that, but they weren't too keen on the multigrade. And actually after we analyzed everything, we weren't. We didn't feel really confident with that either. So that was one of the areas where we gave a little and we probably, by listening to the parents, were better off than if we just rushed right in and tried something on our own.

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5. Now that you can look back and reflect on your beginning years, what elements were essential to creating the plan for Sherman Oaks? Has it been the community's involvement?

What we always look back on and say made the biggest difference was the reaching-out effort because when we opened, you could feel it. It's different. And you can walk on our campus and you can still feel it's different. People come here. They have breakfast or lunch with their children. They cruise in. They cruise out. There's a lot of trust. There's times that things haven't gone real smoothly. You can imagine just trying to open a school. We were overcrowded. We were built for 460 and we opened with 522. We had kindergarten classes of forty and forty-five. So you could have had just a total "OK Corral" here day one, but the parents knew us. They knew us. And they hung in there with us.

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6. What contributions have both teachers and staff made that you are most proud of?

The leadership that's been built. Again starting by actually handing over the leadership to the parents right off the bat. That's come back through on all angles. The staff, they can go anywhere and promote this school. They stand on stages in front of three- to five-hundred people at national conferences talking. So they're equally comfortable doing that, in going in and talking to someone one-on-one.

The staff is an amazing group. They just exude enthusiasm and belief and confidence, and it's contagious. And that's what our kids have picked up. So my kids, my students, they can do the same thing. I'll bet you I could pull any random student you'd want and they could come in here and talk to you as confidently as they could talk to their families. And I would expect, if given an opportunity, they could stand before a group of 300 people and make a point.

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