Karen Csigas’s room at Lafayette School in Hammond, Indiana, resembles kindergartens everywhere. It contains small wooden desks and tables, cardboard letters hung from the ceiling, a piano, red-and-green blocks, and pictures of triangles and squares. A playhouse with a stove and refrigerator occupies one corner. A honeycomb of cubbyholes holding kids’ gear and drawings and papers occupies one wall. Off to one side is a low-standing sink, and behind that a bathroom. Two green plants are dying by the window.
The names of various youngsters are posted on the wall–Detra, Robbie, Columbus, Tommy, Jose, and Carrie. The student population of Lafayette, located in downtown Hammond, is 61 percent white, 22 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black, and the slightest sliver Asian. The student body is also poor and transient. Fully 90 percent of the kids at Lafayette qualify for free lunch guaranteed by the federal government. Of the 650 children who begin school each fall, up to 40 percent move to new schools by the next spring.
Mary Kay Legg, one of Lafayette’s most active parents, remarks, “This is a place of welfare’ recipients, of kids who get free lunch and free breakfast, and parents who come and go.”
One morning shortly before Christmas, the 18 youngsters in Miss Csigas’s morning class are sitting on a rug. The kids have just finished rehearsing “Jingle Bells” for the holiday assembly. They have sung “Jingle Belle’ twice. “I don’t think we need to do this more than two times,” says Csigas, a sunny, middle-aged woman, “because we’ve been doing this every day since Thanksgiving.”
As scheduled, at nine o’clock in walks Angela Zagoris, the Lafayette speech pathologist. Zagoris is a trim, outgoing young woman wearing a skirt, a plaid shirt, and a sweater vest. At her neck is a blue floppy bow. Amanda, a girl in the front row, peers at Zagoris’s throat; her mouth hangs open.
“You look like a boy with that thing on,” Amanda finally informs Zagoris.
“What is that thing you’re talking about?” asks Zagoris, trying to pry a definition from the girl.
“It’s a tie,” replies Amanda.
Zagoris fingers the supposed tie.
“No,” corrects the speech teacher, “this is not a tie. This is a bow. You won’t find too many boys wearing one of these.”
“Amanda,” Zagoris continues, “give me a sentence that tells me what you think. Say, ‘I think this is a bow.'”
“I . . . think . . . this . . . is . . . a . . . bow,” responds Amanda cautiously.
Amanda’s eyes are pinned on Zagoris, who exults, “Good job, Amanda. Good try.” Amanda appears pleased.
By this time, however, the boys in the class are growing frisky. One lad elbows his neighbor; several boys are squirming on the rug. “Pin your bottoms to the floor,” instructs Zagoris, who can spot a fidget before it appears. She quickly proceeds to the crux of her lesson, which has her holding up a succession of cards and asking the kids to explain what is going on in the picture on each one.
The first drawing depicts two sisters heading toward the family bathroom simultaneously. “The idea here is that you and your sister want to take a shower at the same time,” explains Zagoris. “Now what’s going to happen next?”
“You get to go first,” offers a boy named Tom.
“But what’s the best way to solve the problem here?” inquires Zagoris. “How would you and your sister both get to take that shower?”
“You would fight,” pipes a girl named Nancy.
“That would be a bad idea,” advises Zagoris. “Let’s not have a solution that involves fighting. Come on, what would you do?”
“Tell Mom,” says Tom.
“Oops,” says Zagoris. “We’re not going to tattle on our sister. Come on, what would you do? What?”
The session with Zagoris proceeds for another 20 minutes, and its texture remains similar. One drawing raises the quandary of what one child playing with a toy barn does when another approaches, and the solution of sharing–so prevalent in a middle-class preschool–is never offered. “You’d cooperate,” Zagoris finally has to say. “Oh, that’s a big word.” So is “invitation,” another word Zagoris must define. The responses from the children are often monosyllabic or begin with “because”; rarely is any thought put into a complete sentence, despite Zagoris’s urgings.
These kids tend to express themselves in one- or two-word chunks; they fail to recognize the meanings of words that many a five-year-old would know (cooperate, invitation), and see the solutions to problems in terms of underhanded behavior (fighting, tattling).
When an ambulance whizzed by the classroom window recently, Csigas asked her kids where they thought the ambulance was heading. Somebody got shot, one kid said. Someone got stabbed, thought another. A drug overdose, figured a third. “Nobody said that maybe the ambulance was called because a mother was having a baby,” laments Csigas, “or anything like that.” When a nurse from Saint Margaret’s Hospital visited the class and showed off a jar of flour, everybody adjudged the jar to contain cocaine. One child mistook the nurse’s wheat germ for marijuana.
While most of these kindergartners know their shapes by Christmas, few can recognize any more than the dozen letters Csigas has introduced. “And we’re talking upper case,” adds Csigas. “With lower case the kids fall kind of short.” They may have memorized the letters in their names, but if Csigas says, “Spell your name,” she is met with blank expressions–the concept of spelling has yet to come. Recognizable words are limited to “red,” “stop,” “exit,” and “yellow.” Only half the children can count to ten.
Many of the children find it difficult to put normal household events in their proper sequence. For example, arranging this series of acts correctly is usually a stumper: taking dog food out of a cabinet, putting the food in a dish, and seeing a dog wolf down the meal.
“My kids are just not attentive,” reflects Csigas, who has taught at Lafayette for nearly a quarter century. “They have not learned how to listen because no one talks to them. The verbal communication they experience at home is very low. A lot of it has to do with television but it also relates to a lack of experience. You can’t expect a youngster to know about animals on a farm unless they have seen them. The parents of these kids also feel insecure, have low self-esteem, and by and large read poorly. No one worked with them, so they don’t work with their kids.”
Lafayette used to operate just one kindergarten, both for kids with deficits and for those performing as expected for their age. In the old kindergarten, both the slow and the advanced kids were hindered in their progress because the teacher would have to pitch her instruction at so many different levels. The result was the creation three years ago of another kindergarten: the one in the morning is for youngsters judged to be behind; the other one, held in the afternoon, is for kids on level. Csigas runs one of two morning sections.
The afternoon kindergarten feeds into a regular first-grade classroom, the morning kindergarten into a “developmental” first grade that affords the slow kids an added shot at catching up.
This early form of tracking was instituted with a process started in Hammond called school-based decision making. Lafayette, like every school in Hammond, has a planning team composed of the principal and some staff, teachers, parents, and sometimes students that is allowed to suggest and implement changes to improve the facility. The planning team, a function of what Hammond calls SIP (for school improvement process), saw the two-tiered kindergarten as a way to better serve Lafayette’s widely varying population of five-year-olds.
The SIP team has launched a number of other ventures as well to boost student performance and attitude. Lafayette has elected to “bank” school time, cut from a recess period, in order to run more parent-teacher conferences. A school “hall of fame” honors good citizenship and attendance, and there are Friday-night popcorn parties for those with perfect attendance. Like Big Brothers, individual teachers now tutor and counsel kids who are screwing up academically or feel bad about themselves.
In fact, the Hammond schools are bubbling with various adjustments generated at this building or that. Travel around the town–a fading blue-collar city of 96,000 sandwiched between Gary and the Illinois line–and depending on which school you visit you will find the class periods changed, discipline tightened, a new math program, or reading getting a heightened concentration.
Some efforts work out better than others, and now the whole SIP procedure is being revamped by a task force implemented by the School City of Hammond (the system’s formal name). Certain failures notwithstanding, the SIP programs seem to have imbued the Hammond schools with “cohesion,” maintains Superintendent David Dickson, with the citizens “getting involved in education in an unprecedented manner.” A sense prevails that in many types of settings–even disadvantaged ones like the Lafayette School–education can succeed when important choices are made by a group of people who have a stake in the results.
“The days of the principal sitting in his ivory tower making decisions meaningful to everyone are over,” says Bruce Garrison, Lafayette’s principal. “Let’s face it, somebody has to decide things, but a principal must be sensitive to his staff and parents. I feel now that through school improvement I can take my concerns to the SIP team, and if they like it everybody buys into the idea. At first I thought this all was another big hoopla–you know, in education there’s always another big program–but now I’m a fan.”
Garrison is hardly alone. School-based management is a concept coursing across the nation these days. “‘School-based’ is expanding at a prodigious rate,” reports Carl Marburger, senior associate at the National Committee for Citizens in Education, based in Washington, D.C. “Everybody is saying, ‘Hey, this is what we want to do.'” Cities such as Miami, Toledo, Seattle, San Diego, and Rochester are toying with on-site management, and teachers’ unions, principally the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), are beating the drums. The focus of school-based management programs varies. In Hammond’s case it does not include budgeting by individual schools, merit hiring of teachers, or putting principals on a contract, all issues to be pointedly addressed in the upcoming reconstitution of the Chicago Board of Education. But on-site piloting lies at the heart of reform, and Hammond affords a window on what the vaguely understood concept of “school reform” can mean.
Under SIP each of Hammond’s 26 schools has set up a management team selected from participants at large organizational meetings. The composition of the team is not specified, other than that it must embrace all segments of the school community (high school teams include students). “Ideally we’re talking about 26 people,” says Thomas Knarr, Hammond’s assistant superintendent in charge of SIP, but invariably the teams are smaller.
At Lafayette School, the SIP team is made up of principal Bruce Garrison, a school coordinator, six teachers, and three parents. The team at Eggers School, a large junior high coupled with a small elementary school, has a similar breakdown. Teachers and students enjoy prominent positions on the 15-person SIP team at Hammond High. At no school do the parents retain control, although control is not what SIP is supposed to be about.
Instead, consensus building is the engine behind SIP. Team members receive up to six days of training the techniques of consensus, depending on what federal, state, or private grants are available, and then they are set free to develop first a “vision for their school.”
A team comes to its vision–a short list of ideals–via “Delphi forecasting.” Delphi forecasting was developed by the Rand Corporation, a renowned think tank in Los Angeles, as a mechanism to bring focus and consolidate ideals and goals. In a Delphi session, you write down your own ideas, share them with the group, and then, in concert, combine and winnow the ideas down to the most salient.
Once the school vision is perfected, the SIP team gets down to thinking about nitty-gritty programs to actualize the dream. All the while outside input is garnered via “pyramiding,” which often translates into a phone tree to communicate with other parents and teachers. The formation of subcommittees also involves others.
The chief SIP team usually meets monthly at each school; the team at Eggers School gives some indication as to how a team functions. To begin with, refreshments are always served, with a different member bringing the goodies each time. The proceedings themselves get going with a “human development activity,” psycho-speak for an adult sharing time. Lately, discussion has been started with suggestions such as “list 25 things you’d like to do before you die” and “give an adjective that describes how you feel right now.” The preliminary discussion “relaxes everyone,” says Chris Fladeland, a parent member, and the team soon moves to its planning stage.
Jane Kendrick, Eggers’s principal, has a strong presence at the school, but at SIP planning sessions she becomes just another face. “She’s no more or no less than anyone else,” says Fladeland. “That way, when the team comes up with something, it’s not seen as Dr. Kendrick ramming a project down our throats. Instead, there’s ownership in the thing by everyone.” Parents are often cowed at first, says Fladeland, feeling they will “say something stupid,” but their fears diminish in time: “They find out that the teachers have the same problems with their kids as we have with ours.”
The grand design, of course, is that all this chumminess breeds unity and the feeling of joint “ownership” in change, and that, in fact, appears to be the result. The ideal of consensus reaches ungainly proportions, however, under the contract the AFT local has with the Hammond school system. By the contract’s terms, any change a SIP team originates must be presented to the faculty before it goes into effect. The teachers vote on a six-point scale, which ranges from six for “enthusiastic endorsement” to zero, indicating an intention to veto the project. Any one teacher can torpedo a plan if he or she files a veto grievance with the union. So far, though a number of zero votes have been lodged, only three actual grievances have been filed. In all three cases, the schools in question have accorded the nay-saying teachers exceptions, allowing them to not participate in programs they don’t support. When Clark High School cut its lunch hour in half, for example, two dissatisfied instructors kept on taking the old, hour-long lunch.
Beyond the built-in requirement that SIP initiatives please teachers, another constraint on the process is financial. The School City budget runs to $62 million, yet like that of most urban districts it’s stretched to the limit. In the past, SIP has benefited from foundation grants, but today the only School City funds spent on the process are for the half-time services of two coordinators, one assigned to elementary schools, the other to secondary schools. The allotment, really a federal grant, amounts to about $20,000 a year. In addition, unlike the Chicago school-reform plan, the SIP teams enjoy no control over their building budgets. “You have to indoctrinate staff members to come up with solutions that don’t touch the budget,” says Assistant Superintendent Tom Knarr. Those constraints notwithstanding, SIP has seen the Hammond schools concoct programs by the multitude and in great variety.
The 740-pupil Eggers Middle School is laid out in three separate sections. Formerly, students spent sixth grade in one section, moved to another section for seventh grade, and finished out eighth in the third, but that segmentation lent the junior high experience too regimented a feel. For the teachers, recollects Jane Kendrick, the year-to-year reshuffling of kids meant “it was like you got pregnant, had your baby, and had to give it up for adoption.” In addition, Eggers was experiencing a staff crunch. Under SIP, the junior high was reorganized to put youngsters in one of three Eggers clusters for all three years. Now, says Kendrick, “the sense of family is more acute.”
It used to be, as well, that some kids in the middle school had their main subjects in the morning, some in the afternoon. But there were cries of inequity, so Eggers effected a 12-week rotation to allow everyone to alternate heavy instruction between the morning and the afternoon. Activity periods have also been carved out of the day to launch tumbling, chess, and Russian clubs. In addition, advisers now meet with groups of up to 20 students twice a week to discuss social problems or anything else that might be troubling them. “The important thing is that every child here feels they have one caring adult to talk to,” says Kendrick.
The Scott Middle School, located in east Hammond near the Gary border, pinpointed homework completion as its greatest problem, and its SIP team originated an elaborate method to track students’ work. Those who fail to do their work–failing to heed up to eight warnings in the course of a year–can be suspended. Kenwood Elementary, drawing from Hammond’s wealthiest neighborhood, rescheduled its morning to devote a full 90 minutes to reading, shifting music, art, and gym to the afternoon. Since teenagers from Morton High School were loitering and causing disturbances at businesses in the Hessville area of town, where Morton is located, the school’s lunch hour was reduced from 55 to 35 minutes. Morton parents wanted spring orientation sessions on what classes would be offered in the fall, and they were instituted. Principal Steve Stavros employed SIP to involve teachers, parents, and even kids in choosing an assistant principal, several department chairmen, and the wrestling and basketball coaches.
It all began, however, at Hammond High.
Elizabeth Ennis started work as an assistant principal at Hammond High School in the fall of 1977. Ennis was in charge of discipline. She was 35 years old and had worked in the Gary schools for many years. “I thought I had seen everything,” she remembers now. Clearly she hadn’t.
Hammond High, housed in a cavernous building dating from 1920, was once one of the top-rated secondary schools in Indiana, but over the years a number of factors conspired to give the place a bad name. The school was gutted by fire in 1969, and it was rebuilt despite questions (which still linger) as to whether the construction was worth the price. The middle-class kids from suburban Munster and the city’s more prosperous Woodmar and Hessville districts no longer attended Hammond High, as they once had, and in the late 70s the low-performing yet academically tracked students at nearby Hammond Tech were transferred into Hammond High. The facility had always enrolled minorities–its most famous graduate, in fact, is CBS sportscaster Irv Cross–but by the time Liz Ennis arrived, Hammond’s increasing resegregation had visited severe racial tensions upon the school.
The first day Ennis showed up for work, September 28, 1977, a 16-year-old black boy got into a fight with three white youths in a hallway. The black boy later charged that the whites had drawn a gun on him. School officials called in the parents of all four, which only exacerbated the situation; there was a spate of name-calling and the parents and kids repaired to a tree-shrouded parkway and incited a full-throttle brawl involving 70 people, including teachers. Nine squads of police were required to break up the mini-riot, and the school closed down for a day or two. Through that whole academic year there were plenty of other altercations, among them a February fray that ended in a dozen arrests. “That was some year,” comments Ennis darkly.
The atmosphere at Hammond High was altogether demoralizing. Graffiti covered the hallways, which the students roamed pretty much at will. Locker vandalism abounded. Football games had more fights than touchdowns. Enthusiasm was so low that at pep rallies the band would play the school song and nobody would stand. “The teachers were altogether depressed,” says Wayne Pecher, a math teacher. “They felt that the situation was hopeless. We were patching holes while the boat sank.” The teachers’ lounge turned into a haven of “bitching and griping,” in Pecher’s words, and Pecher, an embittered man who himself had attended Hammond High, led the negative chorus.
Ennis, who took over as the assistant principal for curriculum, grew exceedingly frustrated at the state of affairs. She would commiserate with Ray Golarz, an assistant superintendent, and one day in early 1982 Golarz came to Ennis and said, “Liz, I think there’s a way we can make a difference.”
The way out Golarz proposed had to do with Gary Phillips, a staffer for a Dayton, Ohio, think tank called IDEA (for Institute for Development of Educational Activities), itself an outgrowth of the Charles Kettering Foundation. Phillips had been experimenting with school-based decision making in Indianapolis high schools, and through a grant from the Lilly Endowment he was coming to Hammond to conduct some information sessions on consensus-building management techniques. Ennis decided to attend, and she asked Pecher to accompany her.
The only problem was that Ennis and Pecher couldn’t stand each other. “Every day we battled,” Pecher admits. But Ennis recognized the value in the oldest of manager tricks–enlist the house grouch in your mission and you’re set–and one day she summoned Pecher to her office. “She shut the door, and she said, ‘One of us is going to walk out of here–and it’s not going to be me,'” reports Patrick O’Rourke, a Hammond High faculty member and president of the teachers’ union. “Liz and Wayne yelled at each other for an hour, and she brought him around.”
That is, almost around. Toward the outset of the first session, Pecher remembers, “They asked you to imagine that a dump truck had taken 100,000 ping-pong balls and dumped them in your gymnasium. I wasn’t going to sit still for that dumb exercise, and I told them exactly what they could do with the ping-pong balls.” Then Pecher headed for the door. “Liz grabbed me physically in the hallway and said, ‘Stay till lunch.’ So I did.”
Gradually Pecher’s skepticism dissolved, and he emerged as a staunch advocate for on-site operating. SIP was born at Hammond High in 1982, around the time Ennis took over as principal (becoming one of only two female high school principals in Indiana). Within a year the process was mandated for two junior highs–Spohn and Eggers. Eggers principal Jane Kendrick was enthusiastic. “I was young enough that I wasn’t entrenched in the old ways,” she says. She quickly embraced SIP wholeheartedly. In 1984, with the vigorous assent of the union, the School City spread SIP to every facility.
At first, the rest of the faculty at Hammond High was as cynical about SIP as Pecher had been. “When we tried to explain all this to the teachers, they’d say, ‘What are you going to do to clean up the halls?'” The upshot was an attempt to crack down. Promptly at eight o’clock each morning a tardy bell would ring, and any kid showing up late would be shagged into a detention center (“We had 200 kids in there at first,” Pecher recounts), and at every other hour of the day two teachers stood on duty to shunt idlers to detention. The halls were painted. A no-smoking rule was rigorously enforced.
Under SIP a student leadership campaign enlisted kids themselves to combat errant behavior; there were weekends at the school where kids were “locked in” and treated to social events as well as propaganda about alcohol and drug abuse. The student leadership group, entitled SLIP, now numbers 200, according to Pecher.
An adult booster club was rejuvenated to raise money for Hammond High through Las Vegas nights and tag days. The football players and cheerleaders, in full dress, “would stand out on a corner near the school and beg,” remembers parent Mary Gramhofer, but it has worked. Over the last three years the booster club has pumped some $40,000 into the school, helping to underwrite everything from football pads to a novel math program. The math curriculum, called AIM and drawn from Calgary, Canada, enables kids to move ahead at their own pace.
Some moves have failed (such as an attempt to have good teachers tutor lousy ones), but the atmosphere at Hammond High has changed. The names of achievers are posted on the marquee out front, and there was joy, not indifference, this fall when the football team made it to the state semifinals (where, sadly, the squad lost to Goshen). The green-carpeted halls are free of graffiti. Vandalism has fallen off dramatically. The fights that do occur, at the much-reduced rate of one a week, are just fights, not tumultuous racial clashes. (Hammond High is now 55 percent white, 30 percent black, and 15 percent Hispanic.)
“We’re not the same school we were back in the 50s, but we aren’t back in the doldrums of the 70s, either,” says Pecher, who chairs the math department as well as coordinating SIP citywide. “There is a feeling of optimism now.” Adds Mary Gramhofer, who is the mother of one graduate and one junior, “Kids are no longer embarrassed to say they go to Hammond High.”
Still, the school has not had a complete makeover. Many of the faculty remain “check teachers,” says longtime history instructor Ron Galosich, “the first ones out the door after they’ve been paid. And we still don’t know how to teach the one-third of our kids who don’t give a damn.” Some 28 percent of the 1,250 students drop out each year; only half the youngsters entering as freshmen stick around to graduate, according to principal Cassel White. White, who replaced Ennis in 1984 when she moved on to become director of high schools for Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, doesn’t even keep track of test scores. “I’d like to say that overall grades have improved,” he sighs, “but I don’t have information to support that. But this I can say”–his face brightening–“attitudes toward learning are on the upswing.”
At other schools, the effects of SIP have been evident though not dramatic. At Lafayette School, the reading and math scores for fifth-graders, the oldest class, ride slightly below national norms. Principal Garrison considers that a testament to the job Lafayette does, given that the school draws from a pool of the decidedly disadvantaged. Yet those scores have not changed appreciably since SIP arrived, he concedes. Average daily attendance has edged upward, though, from around 90 percent some years ago to an impressive 97 percent today, and Garrison guesses the success of the two-tiered kindergarten will reap a bounty of academic gains somewhere down the road. Garrison, who was principal at Kenwood during the early stages of SIP, claims the excitement over school improvement there helped swell enrollment by two-thirds in three years.
At Eggers both reading and math scores hung two grades below the norm a decade ago, when Jane Kendrick was hired as principal. Now eighth-graders are reading at level and computing nearly a year over expectations. “I think the best schools are run by the best principals, whether there is other attention or not,” observes Kendrick. “When you have both, you have dynamite.”
For Hammond as a whole, school vandalism has dipped 50 percent since SIP came in, according to Knarr. Over the last four years reading and math scores have been on an incline, reports Richard French, the School City’s supervisor of testing. An average Hammond 8th-grader reads at the national norm and does math five months better; an 11th-grader sustains a similar record. “With [SIP] there have been activities that have directly impacted on the better delivery of education to kids,” hazards French. “Those activities have had an effect [on scores], I think, but I don’t know exactly how to scientifically evaluate this.”
The city schools have picked up 500 new students over the last two years. The gain relates some to a rising birth rate, but it also reflects “a new confidence in us among people who, in the past, have sent their kids to parochial and private schools,” insists Dickson. “Younger people starting families no longer feel they have to move out of Hammond, and I think people are even moving in from Illinois.”
You can find corollary, albeit nonscientific, effects of SIP throughout Hammond. Since 1985 Superintendent Dickson has utilized the SIP example to enlist the help of teachers, parents, and (in the case of high schools) students in selecting new principals, assistant principals, and a couple assistant superintendents. (Dickson, however, has made the final choices.)
The concept of consensus has smoothed union contract negotiations to the point that, when coming to terms, the board and union meet congenially around a table instead of caucusing in secret. “There’s just an atmosphere of total honesty and trust,” bubbles union chief Pat O’Rourke, who says he has become buddies with board attorney John Friel (“We go out to dinner all the time”). The last teachers’ strike to cripple Hammond was in 1969, and at least in O’Rourke’s view, the new-age relations between board and union have made another one unlikely.
For his part, Wayne Pecher credits SIP with rejuvenating not only his career but his personal life. His pride had been so wrapped up in Hammond High, which he had attended, that its downfall coincided with his own. “Wayne didn’t used to talk, he groaned,” recollects a friend. Yet once SIP caught hold of his soul, he embarked on his own personal self-improvement plan, which includes cooking monthly meals with his wife and athletics. He ran his first triathlon in his late 30s.
Yet difficulties have arisen with SIP.
As it now stands, each Hammond school must go along with SIP, and there has been some resistance. Milford Miller, the principal of the Maywood School, an all-black facility, has balked at SIP; though Maywood has a school improvement plan on paper, Knarr concedes that Maywood has yet to field so much as one program. Remarks Miller tartly (before slamming down the phone), “What I think about [SIP] and what the superintendent thinks about [it] are diametrically opposed. But I’m only a couple of years away from retirement, and I’m not about to make ripples.” Says Pat O’ Rourke, “Miller hates this, because he sees it as a way for teachers to get more power over him than they can at the bargaining table.”
While many teachers subscribe enthusiastically to SIP, some are indifferent. Morton High School, which serves the Hessville neighborhood, has an aging teacher corps–the average age is 40, and quite a few are nearing retirement. “Our faculty is fearful of all this,” admits assistant principal Theresa Maerik. “You could say they fear change, but from past experience in education they also feel their votes don’t count. These people have been teaching so long that school improvement just seems to them like one more whim.” Union chief O’Rourke contends that even in schools considered enamored of SIP, “half the faculty goes along, and the other half of ’em think it’s bullshit.”
There has been resistance in other quarters as well. A couple SIP plans have been vetoed by the School City board. Last spring Eggers wanted to change its way of teaching foreign language so that kids could be exposed to French, German, and Spanish all at once rather than just concentrating on one language; reading was also to be stressed. The board said no, feeling that an exception for Eggers would abridge overall curriculum rules.
The other hitch involved Kenwood School. Grading at Kenwood had teachers doling out only three marks for first- and second-graders–an S (for satisfactory), an S+, and a U (for unsatisfactory). But principal Dan Boits says some people at Kenwood felt the three-mark grading was “too nebulous,” and in the fall of 1987 a SIP subcommittee started pondering a return to letter grades. The teacher-dominated subcommittee dispatched a survey to parents of primary-age youngsters, and nearly three-quarters of those responding approved moving to five letters for a trial run. The subcommittee felt it had a mandate, but in February a number of heretofore quiet parents grew disturbed over the looming alteration.
“My feeling about letter grades is that they emphasize failing,” remarks Sarah Spector, a Chicago schoolteacher whose two children attend Kenwood. “Giving an F to a kindergartner is to say he has failed, and I don’t think you should do that. The old system is not ambiguous to me, but what they were proposing emphasized labeling.”
After the SIP subcommittee seemed unwilling to reverse, Spector and her husband Alan, a sociology professor, spearheaded a drive to overturn the letter-grade decision. Negative letters peppered Superintendent Dickson’s office, and a group of objecting Kenwood parents appeared before the board to question both letter grades for primary kids and the way the Kenwood decision was reached. The board turned down the Kenwood request and ordered a review of all school grading.
“I’ve grown leery about [SIP],” says Spector. “Parents have become less and less important to this.” In Chicago, parents furious over the 19-day teachers’ strike in 1987 embarked on a holy crusade to enact changes. In Hammond, reforms were wrought by administrators and teachers, and to this day SIP remains a creature of school employees. The fear is that even those parents who do participate in SIP are handpicked. “An administrator will try to choose somebody who will mirror his own policies, and there’s a danger in that,” posits Marilyn Ambos, a member of the Kenwood SIP team. “What you want is a variety of opinion.”
The Kenwood protests particularly disturbed Kathy Hall, a nine-year veteran of the School City board, a former Kenwood parent and administrator of the local Montessori school. If there had been adequate parent input, Hall speculates, the veto of the Kenwood plan could have been avoided. “But in Hammond the team members who are selected tend to be those who have the same views as the teachers and the administrators. That can be a danger. You need people with independent views, I’ve come to feel, who do research on their own, who don’t just parrot the gospel that’s given them.”
But the dynamics of Hammond (and perhaps of the school culture in general) do not encourage the freethinking parent. “A lot of principals feel ‘this is my building and I’m going to run it the way I want to,'” reflects Linda Lawson, a Hammond police officer and School City board member. “And parents are still intimidated by teachers and principals. Jeez, I still am. I still tend to call everyone in a school building ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ I’m only a parent, is my thought, and I don’t have a bachelor’s degree. We have some real vocal parents, trust me on that, but it’s still only a smattering across the city.”
“We have run into small glitches,” allows Assistant Superintendent Tom Knarr. Consequently, the School City has formed a strategy committee composed of two dozen people that has been meeting this school year to fashion revisions in site-based improvement. Every item from the acronym SIP to “a lack of commitment by all 1,500 [School City] employees” lies upon the table, but among likely changes are these: that participation in SIP becomes voluntary and that any program can win an OK if only two-thirds of the teachers at a facility vote in favor. There is also a move to focus SIP more closely on curriculum and scheduling, specifically directing it away from selecting staff.
As the strategy panel mulls the future, fresh on-site improvement is on hold in Hammond, but Dickson promises it will continue once reform has reformed itself.
Meanwhile, school-based decision-making advocates predict that SIP or some variation will soon become the norm in elementary and secondary education. “This is all consistent with the way society is going,” suggests Gary Phillips, now an independent consultant based in Seattle who works exclusively on disseminating site-based techniques. “More and more decisions need to have the input of the constituents who work in any organization. That’s true for corporations, and it’s true for schools. This is not a quick fix, and it doesn’t apply to people who like to haggle, like the members of OPEC. Picture this as an ongoing mechanism by which schools all over will come to operate.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.