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Change - from the grassroots up.

We put 25 chairs in a circle for my third-hour science class. "One of our district outcomes, accessing information, is important to the success of your science fair projects," I said to the 6th graders seated around me. "Let's talk about that. How have you gone about getting the information you need?"

"I called the 800 numbers on the backs of three detergent boxes," offered Kristen. "The companies are sending me information, but I've got to call one back tomorrow. The Cheer ad says that it's the blue crystals that have the cleaning power. I want to know what's in those blue crystals."

"I called the Amurol gum company," said Tim. "They sent me a whole package of information about gum. They even made me a member of the Candy Tasters Club!"

There were occasional passes, but almost everyone said something.

"I've got a problem, too," I added. "I broke a mercury thermometer. The mercury is contained in a beaker, and I've called the EPA. But their closest drop-off point is 50 miles from here. Does anyone have a parent or neighbor who might know of a closer drop-off point?"

Our comments amazed me. This didn't sound like the conversations I was used to having with 6th, 7th, or 8th graders. "It's happening," I thought. "All of the committee meetings, the reading, the conferences, the classes, all of the planning time. Change is really happening here."

Noting Early Changes

Change began in our school district of St. Charles, Illinois, with a few teachers implementing new ideas in their own classrooms. Organized change began as principals and other administrators encouraged teachers to learn and grow.

A request from the community triggered one of the first major changes. In 1984, the school board expressed concern about the writing skills of students. In response, a team from the district attended a conference led by Donald Graves, which inspired them to explore process writing. During the year that followed, representative teachers and administrators from elementary, junior high, and high school engaged themselves in the writing process, as writers first, then as teachers.

Sandra Wright, a former English teacher and present assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, notes, "Process writing encouraged us to abandon our roles as |dispensers of knowledge' and |imposers of tasks.' Instead we became learners, writers, editors, and facilitators of learning. When we returned to our classrooms, our students exceeded our expectations over and over again. By March, many of our 1st graders were writing whole stories with characters that came alive and plots that kept their readers in suspense!"

Our enthusiasm for process writing spread, and many teachers attended process writing seminars or courses. Because of the variety of courses and styles, factions began to develop. Our district stepped in with a strong staff development program. Through institutes, after-school courses, summer courses, and curriculum writing projects, any teacher could learn the methods and philosophy of process writing that other members of the teaching staff were using.

Accelerating Change

Once our district encouraged one change, other changes quickly appeared. Elementary teachers embraced math manipulatives and hands-on science. Some teachers replaced their basal readers and workbooks with whole-language instruction.

Our district again responded with support and staff development. The district hired one coordinator for K-12 language arts support and another for K-12 math and science support. Two teachers in each elementary school were trained and then paid stipends to support colleagues in whole-language instruction. Curriculum writing and in-district courses were offered. Elementary schools changed almost overnight.

At the middle school level, change also began at the grass roots. A group of junior high teachers became fascinated with the whole-language instruction at the elementary schools and its impact on the middle level. During the summer of 1990, 11 teachers used grant money to write integrated curriculum for the gifted program. Instead of creating activities or units, these teachers developed a philosophy for curriculum integration at the middle school level.

When we began using the new integration model, we quickly realized that curriculum should be integrated for all students. The district supported our work, allocating money for teachers to attend conferences and to write integrated curriculum. We reached the same stumbling block - each teacher was interpreting curriculum integration differently - but again the district used staff development money to offer a summer class on curriculum integration.

A process for change had developed, but because teachers were initiating changes independently, hoping for district support, the process was still serendipitous. Change was systemwide, but not yet systemic.

Making Change Systemic

While teachers were exploring whole-language instruction and integrating curriculum, the district took the first steps toward systemic change. In 1989, a strategic planning team of 25 citizens and staff members produced a mission statement for the district and a set of beliefs. About this time, the district also entered into a partnership with a worldwide corporation, and using the works of W. Edwards Deming, began Total Quality training. In 1991, with input from staff members and the community, the team of 25 developed a strategic plan with district outcomes to serve as a framework for future changes.

Each school also created its own vision statement. At our junior high the statement reads:

Thompson Junior High School is committed to nurturing and involving students and adults in an environment that emphasizes cooperation, discovery, and enjoyment.

Our school community strives to develop responsible citizens who possess positive self-esteem, respect for others, and an interest in lifelong learning.

As Kurt Anderson, the principal of Thompson notes, "This is one of the few vision statements in which both students and adults cooperate to enhance the learning of the other."

This vision statement reflects an incredible change in mind-set: we realized that only the students could make learning meaningful. This changing view of students as creators and the ultimate controllers of their own learning allowed us to make another critical move. Recognizing how vital students were to every committee, curriculum plan, and classroom, we added students to the team revising the strategic plan.

Embedding Change

We have now entered another step of the process, embedding the changes, working to meet the needs of our "customers," the students. At the end of each nine-week period, we ask the students to evaluate the work just done. Based on their input, we revise the curriculum. Student committees advise the principal on proposed changes at school, and students serve on the Total Quality teams, working to improve the transportation system, the cafeteria, and the high school's integrated American Studies class. As members of the strategic planning committee, they help define the district's future goals in curriculum, instruction, communication, finances, facilities, and technology.

The students remind us on a daily basis to continue the changes we have begun. Only three days after the outcome-based science fair discussion, I moved the chairs in my classroom back into rows. We hadn't touched the textbook in months, and I felt a need to cover a topic. Because we had always learned about earth history and fossils in February, we began reading the textbook, making plaster fossils, and creating the traditional 4.5 billion year timeline with glued-on trilobites, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals.

Finally Ben asked, "Mrs. Koski, why are we just using the books? Why aren't we looking for real fossils and calling up scientists to see what they know about dinosaurs?"

I knew then that, like the dinosaurs on the timeline, I could not bring the old ways back to life, nor would I choose to. I was glad my students would keep reminding me of that even when I forgot.

Through years of innovating, strategic planning, and Total Quality training, we have created systemic change in the St. Charles School District. We have not reached our destination, but our students, staff and community work daily to achieve our present goals. We look forward to the goals we have not yet envisioned, believing that we now have a system that will help us attain them.

Mary Koski is a teacher at Thompson Junior High, 705 W. Main St., St. Charles, IL 60174. She is also Coordinator of ADAPT for Grades 6-12 for the St. Charles School District.
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Author:Koski, Mary
Publication:Educational Leadership
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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