A review of Transforming Sanchez School: shared leadership, equity, and evidence

Bilingual Research Journal
The Journal of the National Association for Bilingual Education
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ubrj20

Anita Caduff (2020) A review of Transforming Sanchez School: shared leadership, equity, and evidence, Bilingual Research Journal, 43:4, 453-456, DOI: 10.1080/15235882.2020.1840457

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/15235882.2020.1840457

In their book, Transforming Sanchez School: Shared Leadership, Equity, and Evidence, Raymond R. Isola and Jim Cummins describe their experience at Sanchez Elementary School, which serves a majority English language learner (ELL) population and students from low-income backgrounds. Sanchez Elementary belongs to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), serving students in grades Pre-Kindergarten through Five, and offering two program pathways to their students: the biliteracy pathway and the English-medium pathway. The authors describe how progressive leader- ship and engaged educators created an inclusive learning environment for the students and the community despite education and language policies that had significant repercussions for ELL.

    A notable example of one of those policies impacting ELL students was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), an education bill signed into law in 2002. NCLB has been argued to have resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a focusing on low-level skills. This has been reflected in standardized high-stakes tests as opposed to “critical real-world skills,” such as critical thinking, writing, and research (Darling-Hammond, 2007, p. 252). At the state level, California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, which abolished bilingual education by requiring schools to provide ELLs with English-only instruction unless parents signed a waiver. Within this broad policy context, in Transforming Sanchez School, Isola and Cummins document how they implemented organizational and instructional changes at Sanchez Elementary School from 1999 to 2012, when Isola was the school’s principal. For 13 years, the school’s test scores’ increase outperformed the states’ average improvement.

    In the preface, Isola and Cummins state: “Our goal is [. . .] to open up dialogue for administrators and school staff to reflect on school improvement strategies that are appropriate and feasible in their own specific contexts” (p. vii). Indeed, this book is relevant for educators and administrators who aspire to change schools that serve students from diverse linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. By providing readers with a detailed account of a school transformation in the pursuit of students’ physical, emotional, and social well-being, as well as their growth and learning, Transforming Sanchez School provides hands-on ideas and inspiration for programs and partnerships.

A look inside Transforming Sanchez School
Transforming Sanchez School includes nine chapters that progress from an overview of education reforms in the United States to the description of various initiatives at Sanchez School ending with “Lessons Learned: Insights from One School’s Experience.” Each chapter wraps up with a section titled “Concluding Thoughts” that summarizes the authors’ reflections. Several chapters have been co- written with teachers, partners in community organizations, or from the University of San Francisco.

    In chapter 1, “Educators Improve Schools,” Isola and Cummins give an overview of the students’ demographics and student achievement at Sanchez School. Further, the authors problematize“corporate reform narratives” (p. 6) that claim that achievement should be rewarded through financial incentives, and those who fail should be held accountable – a narrative that was infused throughout NCLB. In contrast, the authors advocate for “evidence-based reform narratives” (p. 8) that consider both the families’ socioeconomic situation and the school’s educational realities while attempting to close the opportunity gap. The reader leaves with an overview of Sanchez School’s core principles that emerged from their experience in transforming the school and align with research-based policy recommendations. Examples of these principles are developing shared leadership structures and focusing on students’ physical, emotional, and social well-being.

    In chapters 2, “A Brief History of Education Reform and Its Scientific Basis,” and 3, “Education Reform at Sanchez School: A Principal’s account,” the authors look back on 60 years of U.S. reform history and reforms at Sanchez School from 1999 to 2012. Further, Isola and Cummins critique the reform characteristic “scientific fragility” that refers to legislations being “based on ideology masquerading as scientific research” (p. 23). One example of scientific fragility is the assumption that high-stakes standardized tests will boost achievement. Provokingly going a step further in their critique, Isola and Cummins claim that government and corporate leaders involved in educational reforms demonstrated a total disinterest in assessing the enacted policies’ empirical bases and outcomes.

    Chapter 4, “Shared Leadership and the Role of the Principal,” provides an overview of the principal’s leadership philosophy and teachers’ experiences with the implemented leadership structures. The school’s shared leadership system enabled school staff, together with families and community members, to engage in decision-making toward improving instructional practices and student learning. Chapter 5, “Accountability That Connects Instruction and Assessment,” complements chapter 4 by offering capacity-building as a constructive alternative to accountability based on high- stakes standardized testing for school improvement. Citing Boykin and Noguera (2011), the authors describe the initiatives they undertook with a focus on “Opportunity to Learn” standards that measure the extent to which a school provides optimal learning conditions. Figures that illustrate the various roles of the principal, the decision-making process, and the leadership structures are included in the chapters.

    Chapter 6, “Pre-Kindergarten: A Foundation for Academic Growth,” first summarizes evidence showing that high-quality early childhood education is a vital component to reduce the opportunity gap affecting students from low-income backgrounds. Next, the authors describe implemented initiatives at the Sanchez Pre-Kindergarten, such as the detailed documentation of student learning through different media, including photographs and quotes. Their instructional approach was influenced by the Reggio Emilia early childhood programs, which position the student as an active, curious, and competent constructor of knowledge, and the teacher as a facilitator and researcher who systematically assesses the children’s activities and progress. Through various vignettes from one pre- kindergarten classroom, the reader leaves with an impression of what affirming and cognitively stimulating preschool education in Sanchez School looked like.

    Chapter 7, “Enhancing Educational Quality through School and Community Partnerships,” provides the reader with the inspiration for how schools can support their students beyond education through also covering basic needs. Sanchez School pursued and maintained community partnerships to promote student health, including dental and vision, and to draw on local expertise to improve food and nutrition for students and their families struggling with food insecurity. For example, Sanchez School partnered with a local food bank to establish a food pantry on campus that provided healthy seasonal food once a week. Other collaborations with local businesses allowed the school to enhance its programs in gardening, communication, literacy development, and arts. The arts are also the focus of chapter 8, “Expressing the Self: Integrating the Arts Across the Curriculum.” Isola and Cummins elaborate on how they were able to garner funds to integrate the arts, to offer educators the opportunity to teach the whole child and challenge students’ intellect and imagination. The authors also report on evidence that establishes a relationship between the arts and achievement.

    Isola and Cummins conclude the book with chapter 9, “Lessons Learned: Insights from One School’s Experience.” They reflect on how their experience connects with the broader body of research on school improvement. They highlight that teachers and administrators can exercise agency and exert impact on various levels to counter harmful policies. As a reader, I left encouraged by Isola and Cummins’ belief that “equality of educational opportunity can become a reality [. . .] if educators [. . .] make instructional choices consistent with their identities as educators” (p. 188).

Concluding thoughts
Transforming Sanchez School provides a detailed account of how school leaders addressed linguistically diverse students’ various needs while cultivating their talents by providing a rich and broad curriculum. Inspiring and relevant, this book exemplifies the possibilities feasible despite challenges due to, among other things, legislations infused by corporate reform narratives, inequitable funding, and demoralizing accountability systems. To address these challenges and engage in school improvement processes, shared leadership structures, dynamic learning communities with collaborative decision-making processes, evidence-based teaching practices focusing on the whole child, and the support of strong parent and community engagement were vital to the success of the school.

     Although many examples of meaningful parent engagement practices are provided throughout the book, a future edition of the book might dedicate a chapter to summarizing and connecting these practices. Giving parent engagement practices their own chapter would have placed these practices at the same importance level as, for example, community partnerships, particularly as the authors note how vital parents were to the success of the school. Additionally, more explicit information about how Isola and Cummins identified evidence-based instructional approaches could be incorporated into the next iteration of the text, facilitating greater clarity of how solution identification can occur. The authors strove to link the initiatives undertaken to research evidence, as well as provided anecdotal evidence from Sanchez School students, teachers, and parents, which provides for an accessible book filled with resources. As a reader, I was intrigued that initially not all initiatives were evidence-based. For example, the initial steps toward the shared leadership structure were based on Isola’s “intuitive orientation toward a collaborative rather than an authoritarian leadership style” (p. 63) and not on research evidence as most other initiatives are positioned. A unique feature of the book is that several chapters were co-written with teachers, community members, and university partners; ergo, the perspectives presented in the book draw from several school and community members.

    Isola and Cummins wanted to initiate dialogue for administrators and teachers. Indeed, Transforming Sanchez School provides food for thought and dialogue for educators aspiring to trans- form their schools. Also, I believe that educators reading this book will appreciate the very hands-on ideas and tools, such as the inquiry template for language and instructional planning in chapter 5, which guides teachers to identify strengths and areas of improvement in the instruction collaboratively. In addition, policymakers can benefit from the experiences and resources encapsulated in this book: the book provides them with a better understanding of reforms’ impacts on schools and educators, which allows them to create informed legislation on the district, state, or national level with the aim to close the opportunity gaps. Additionally, the book serves as an excellent account of the impact of federal education reforms such as NCLB on a school, educators, students, and the community. Transforming Sanchez School can be read from start to finish or in the form of single chapters. For example, the chapters on shared leadership or community partnerships are mostly self-contained. Overall, Transforming Sanchez School is an important contribution that provides resources and ideas to educators navigating adverse policies and social and educational inequities while striving to provide their students with a high-quality education.

Financial support by the Jerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Endowed Dean’s Fellowship is gratefully acknowledged.

Anita Caduff
University of California San Diego, USA
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