Soon I will sit down with my colleagues and explain to them why our high school is going to be transformed from one huge (3400 student/120 teacher) institution into four smaller (850 student/30 teacher) schools. We are making this transformation because the campus administrators and 25 teachers in a design team committee (of which I am one) have studied the available research on smaller learning communities, have looked carefully at the needs of our students, and have applied for and received a large sum of money in the form of a grant to follow the current trend in public education of downsizing. I honestly believe this transformation (if executed correctly) will be a positive change for the students and staff of this high school. Now I must convince the staff of teachers and support personnel that this change is necessary and will improve the current performance and long-term success of the students.
I’m struggling a little bit with the “necessary” part. Struggling because while I believe that this is the best course of action, my belief is stronger than my evidence. Teachers appreciate evidence over beliefs, so I feel like I need to come up with a concrete argument to make beyond “I think this is a great idea,” or, “we’re doing this because the principal said so.” The high school I work in already has a 735 API score, dominates the county in most athletic and academic competitions, and sends better than 80% of it’s students to higher education. I believe in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and so I am struggling to find a justification for change at a school that is already great. But of course, it’s not really “great” for EVERYONE involved. For every successful, engaged, enlightened student who is connected to Drama, football, or band, there is one or more who isn’t connected to anything on campus. For every teacher who feels like an effective educator and is crazy passionate about teaching, there’s one or more who feel exhausted, disenfranchised, and desperate for some form of adult interaction and collaboration to help them through their day.
There is a consensus of thought that believes that a smaller population of students taught by a smaller number of teachers will result in students who are better known by their teachers and teachers who will enjoy a more collegial relationship with each other. The key to collegiality here is building time into the Master Schedule for teachers to meet and work together. Seemingly impossible within the standard 6 period day model (5 preps and 1 conference), but the standard 6 period day model works very well for this campus and these teachers. I’m afraid my colleagues will not willingly give up their 6 periods in exchange for 7 or 8 periods (or dare I say, block scheduling) unless they are shown how a change to what works will make what works work far better. In addition, many believe that teachers who usually work in an environment without any adult interaction all day, can benefit from working in closer physical proximity to other teachers of either like subject, or in our model, same smaller school. That means that some teachers will have to move classrooms. I anticipate that this will be a very unpopular aspect of our transformation.
Our born in committee smaller 4-school model has been designed and approved, but the model itself is incomplete and untested. The division including in the model is based on the current administrative structure of the school: we have assigned one of the four assistant principals to manage the discipline of one of the four proposed schools. Our administrators will have to be effective on two tiers: the first as the dean of discipline of their own smaller school while at the same time attending to their more campus-wide responsibilities in areas like testing, facilities, activities, scheduling and the other behind-the-scene support mechanisms that assist teachers in teaching.
The counseling staff is comprised of nine counselors who currently divide up the population of students somewhat evenly. Its only somewhat even because this model gives all of the special education students to one counselor, all of the ELL students to another counselor, while the remaining seven counselors service the balance of the kids. This too will have to change. For some reason the counseling department at our school (and I understand this may be true at other schools as well) is a constant source of frustration for the teaching staff. While a wonderful group of individuals, the relationship between teacher and counselor seems forever frustrated by counselors who never seem fully aware of all of the program offerings and requirements of the teachers, and by teachers who struggle to comprehend the complexity of scheduling students into classes and balancing the number of students in sections. If any one issue holds up the transformation process it’s likely to come from the counseling department that may insist that our new 4-school plan “cannot be scheduled.”
Initially I though that the design team when presenting this transformation to staff would be forced to hard-sell our plan like a used car salesman trying to move an 86 Plymouth off the lot. But after sleeping on it, I think what we really need to do if we are going to be effective is act more like therapists. If I had developed a serious disease and my doctor was explaining his or her preferred course of treatment to save my life I certainly wouldn’t want to be shown charts and graphs along with a clown making balloon animals while listening to the score of Batman. No, I would want my doctor to patiently and carefully speak to me as a guide to my recovery and outline the steps we would need to take to not just save my life but to ultimately improve the quality of my life. I would want a collaborator, a helper, and the absolute reassurance that life would indeed get better for me over time.