Belief in the possibilityWhere school reform begins
At the core of school reform is an unwavering belief in possibility: the deep conviction that teach and every student can reach higher academic levels than typical expectations would have us settle for. This belief in possibility acknowledges the potential of every student to learn, every teacher to teach, and every family member to partner willingly and authentically in a student’s learning. If a school community embraces this belief in possibility, there emerges an opportunity to create an environment where students, staff, and families may succeed beyond initial predictions or goals.
I understand the power of belief in possibility. My life, my professional success, is an example of it. All four of my grandparents immigrated to San Francisco from Tuscany. They struggled financially once they got to the US. To make ends meet, my father left middle school in eighth grade to work in fruit and vegetable markets. But my parents, my teachers, and I believed that my educational future was limitless. Because of our shared belief in my potential, I recently graduated from the University of San Francisco with a doctoral degree in International and Multicultural Education.
But how is a climate of possibility created in a school? Who, to use Gloria Ladson-Billings’ term, is the ‘dreamkeeper’ for a learning community charged with nurturing potential? As principal of Sanchez Elementary School in San Francisco Unified School District, I have grappled with these questions. In a school of approximately 350 students – with 85% eligible for a free or reduced lunch and52% learning English as a second language, and an ethnic composition of 54% Latino, 28% AfricanAmerican, 15% Asian and 3% Pacific Islander and/or Native American – there exists a rich array of opportunities to transform these possibilities into reality.
I arrived at Sanchez with the goal of creating a school of possibility with a clear educational vision, premised on elevating expectations for all students, while closing the gap in achievement between them. During four years of team-building with my staff and community, I have gained insights into the unique role principals playas instructional and cultural leaders to transform a vision into reality. One aspect of this role requires principals to be dreamkeepers for their schools and communities.
Adding the charge of dreamkeeper to the principal’s responsibilities requires a new vision of the principal’s role and what kind of leader s/he must be. This style of leadership must combine passionate conviction about human potential together with the skills of a social architect. The principal must embrace the renaissance notion of a breadth and depth in best practices related to instruction, curriculum, professional development and parent/family participation. S/he must communicate and demonstrate the belief in expanded possibilities and an expectation of increased achievement for all members of the community. This combination of characteristics facilitates the creation of a school where the atypical- achievement beyond standard expectations – could and should be the norm.
At a time when the definition of student academic success is becoming narrower, school learning environments must be places for all students, underpinned with the understanding that they all possess unique qualities and learning styles. The visual and performing arts are excellent channels for creating opportunities for students to express their individuality while contributing to and feeling connected to a scholastic learning community. Additionally, the arts help develop critical characteristics such as self-discipline, organizational skills, self-confidence and problem-solving. For struggling and/or reluctant learners of conventional academic tasks, the arts enable them to experience success while they are striving to master essential core academic skills.
Sanchez School is one of two elementary schools selected by the Arts Education Funders Collaborative whose mission is to advance arts education opportunities for students in San Francisco. Last spring, a third grade teacher’s class went through a competitive process in order to participate in the San Francisco Youth Arts Festival. A dance and movement instructional specialist helped prepare the students to present a beautifully choreographed narrative dance performance communicating students’ learning experiences through dance, music and narration. After talking with the students about what they learned, it was evident that some of their learning highlights were associated with public speaking, self-confidence, teamwork, and the satisfaction experienced in achieving a standard of high quality.
Although there are many examples of success to affirm the belief in possibility at schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done in order to narrow achievement gaps between class, gender and ethnic communities. Schools can only achieve equitable school reform outcomes through collaborative endeavors with district offices (LEAs), colleges and universities. They also need to work with community based organizations that empower school communities to confront and overcome very real challenges that emerge from conditions of poverty, discrimination, and marginalization. Only through unified and collective efforts can schools create conditions where students, parents, and staff realize what is possible in each and every student.
But, as the Chinese proverb says, dreams only come true when you are awake. We dreamkeepers of school reform therefore must not rest. Sanchez School is closing the achievement gap while raising student achievement. California standardized test scores show that Sanchez students performed at double its improvement target, with Latino and African-American students meeting their respective goals four and five times over. Bay Area School Reform Collaborative coach Katherine Barr credits a number of key changes. While computer, literacy, and dance specialists worked with students, teachers were given two hours a week to participate in cycles of inquiry. Thinking critically and reflectively in grade-level (key stage) teams, they used this time to strategize and take action aimed at improving student learning. The school also improved student assessment practices and teachers’ professional development.
The improvement of student achievement through teacher effectiveness is one of the primary goals of educational reform. Professional development is at the heart of enhanced teaching methodology. Although there is much current educational research on teaching, little attention has been given to the role teachers can play in generating a knowledge base founded on their classroom experiences. Lack of significant teacher participation in producing the research that guides teaching and in identifying research agendas is problematic in the field of education.
Three years ago, I was awarded a research grant through the president’s office of the University of California system to identify systemic factors that support professional development for classroom teachers. The conceptual framework and research design were based on the involvement of ten teachers who had participated in the National Science Foundation’s Language Acquisition through Science Education in Rural Schools (LASERS) project for at least two years. Participatory research was the method employed. Specific processes of empirical inquiry were used which included the gathering of qualitative data intended to deepen both the researcher’s and the participants’ understandings of issues germane to specific research questions.
The participants’ insights and experiences of professional development indicate that three major inter-related components must be in place for professional development to have a profound impact on teachers (See Figure 1). The first component is connected to the types of strategies that encourage and inspire professional development. Action research, cognitive and critical reflection, peer coaching, and team meetings for both collegial support and as a problem-solving mechanism were identified as essential by the participants.
The second component can be defined as characteristics of professional development strategies. They are: (a) an orientation towards building home/school understandings; (b) inquiry-based knowledge generation as opposed to a transmission of information; and (c) collaborative-interactive power sharing that enhances group support, pressure, and accessibility to resources that foster a mindset of diversity.
The third component participants recognized as critical to their learning is the culture in which the professional development strategies are implemented. Specifically, conditions of mutual respect, effective and consistent leadership, a safe and trusting environment, and an organizational infrastructure which values professional development and creates opportunities for an exchange of ideas and information, all had a significant impact on teachers’ participation and the influence that those experiences had on teachers’ overall development and competence.
This, then, is the professional development model currently being implemented at Sanchez School: it is producing positive student outcomes that strengthen the belief in possibility: where school reform begins.