Since this article was written 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.
In spite of everything we know about preserving and protecting time for teaching and learning, many schools continue to draft faculty meeting agendas that begin and end with logistical issues.
Administrivia chews up the bulk of meeting time with endless debates over bell schedules, cafeteria behavior, yard duty supervision, adjunct duties, and the like. The best example of the worst use of time is when we dutifully report at staff meetings on the ramblings and ruminations that took place at other meetings! Committee reports yawn on long after any living being cares to hear or chooses to listen. Then, we all wonder why meetings are dreaded, derided, and defamed by everyone involved, from administrators to teachers alike.
Sherman Oaks Principal Peggy Bryan regularly uses e-mail to take care of administrative matters that otherwise would require hours and hours of face-to-face meetings.
Credit: Actual Films
The Importance of Staff Development
While studies have consistently found teacher expertise as the single most important determinant of student achievement, we also know that sustained, focused staff development is the most effective means to build teacher capacity. However, we balk at clearing out the trivia-driven agendas that consume the precious time teachers have together. Is there any hope of ending this nonproductive cycle? The answer is as close as your computer: e-mail.
Sherman Oaks, a K-4 school that opened in 1997, was designed with state-of-the-art technology as a foundation for learning. Our networking infrastructure was designed so that all classrooms have three data, voice, and video drops with a direct connection to the Internet based on a district-designed plan funded through a community bond measure. There are telephones in every room, along with a connection to each school in the district, the district office, and the County Office of Education through T1 lines. Each classroom has a multimedia teacher workstation with presentation software that interfaces with a large screen monitor and VCR plus two to three student workstations with Internet access.
The three Great Rooms have clusters of networked computers where students can work on educational software, perform word processing, or go online to the Internet. Two scanners and two laser disc players are available in the school, and there is one video camera per every two classrooms. With all of these technological features at our fingertips, e-mail is the productivity tool that has made the biggest impact on the staff.
While Sherman Oaks has a wide range of technology available to students and staff, Bryan says “e-mail is the productivity tool that has made the biggest impact on the staff.”
Credit: Actual Films SO: E-Mazing
A Way of Life
At Sherman Oaks, e-mail is a way of life. It is a communication tool that connects every staff member to a hub of fast-breaking news. E-mail at Sherman Oaks covers every perimeter of information imaginable, saving "real-time" communication for things that truly matter in a school environment: teaching and learning. For example, our school recently participated in two days of staffwide training over a Friday and Saturday in February featuring the High/Scope instructional method. We started working on the content of those two days in September. Our first idea was to stage a two-day retreat at our favorite getaway on the coast in Santa Cruz. The staff were surveyed as to who would attend on Friday, spend the night and remain to work on Saturday.
One hundred percent of the staff agreed to attend for the two days. Room and meal assignments were made. Then we heard about a great opportunity to visit a school in the Gold Country which was a "High/Scope" campus. We cancelled the retreat, re-surveyed the staff as to who would attend, and began making charter bus and room arrangements for a staff tour to Amador County. Then we discovered the school's administration had changed, funding was lost, and High/Scope commitment had diminished, so we cancelled the bus trip and went back to the drawing board.
We decided if we couldn't go to High/Scope, we would bring High/Scope to us. After yet again surveying the staff, we contacted the High/Scope organization headquartered in Michigan and developed a training contract whereby a national trainer came to us and delivered two days of training. All teachers attended both days, and we have since had several occasions where we debriefed the training and shared elements of the training being implemented in different classrooms. Of all the planning and replanning described above, the ONLY part that took place with staff physically present was the debrief and follow-up sharing of implementation. ALL other aspects were done exclusively by e-mail, including all contacts to Michigan.
Face-to-Face Meetings Still Important
Even with agendas redirected to support important educational issues, you still need time to meet and confer. Opportunities for meaningful staff development that promote collegial conversations are built into the contractual day at Sherman Oaks. We have a master schedule that showcases staff development and provides meeting opportunities for faculty on a daily basis. Our innovative midday block is a period of time from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. every day, Monday through Friday, when teachers are released together for lunch, personal preparation, and staff development. The students spend that same block of time in a lunch and recreation period supervised by paraprofessionals.
On Mondays and Fridays, no meetings are scheduled -- that time is for personal preparation. On Tuesday, staff group for grade-level meetings, with the fourth Tuesday of the month set aside for our dual immersion language acquisition team to meet. On Wednesdays, we alternate literacy and math trainings. On Thursdays, we alternate staff meetings with cross-graded articulation meetings. All trainings are facilitated by our own staff members. To enhance community spirit, on Wednesdays the staff take turns providing lunch for each other so there is one day a week we sit down together and enjoy a home-cooked (school-cooked) meal.
All of this adds up to quality within quantity -- quantity in that teachers have a significant amount of time (7.5 hours per week) to enjoy lunch together and work in various curricular and organizational groupings that truly make a difference in the quest for raising student achievement. "Quality" meaning that time provided is focused on matters of importance, not the mundane.
E-mail is one answer to the age-old question of where to find more time for teachers. Don't hesitate to contact Sherman Oaks for more information -- but don't call -- e-mail us at Peggy_Bryan@campbellusd.k12.ca.us.
Peggy Bryan is principal of Sherman Oaks Community Charter School in San Jose, California.