Mary Wilson (left), principal of Manitou Park Elementary in Tacoma, Washington, is working on a doctoral degree in SPU's School of Education.
"Success." It's a word you hear all the time in conversations about education. School teachers and administrators are striving for success. Some boast of success by pointing to the numbers — graduation rates, grade-point averages, low dropout rates. Others call for sweeping education reform. But what does success in education look like?
When Andrew Lumpe visited Federal Way High School in mid-October, he was impressed by what he saw.
"I was reminded of how intense it is to have to address the needs of such a diverse set of learners," says Lumpe, associate dean of graduate programs and director of doctoral programs in SPU's School of Education. "This was unbelievable."
Federal Way High's students are mostly ethnically diverse, poverty-level students whose parents have not gone to college. "The school is really stressing academic preparation and rigorous coursework for all of those kids," says Lumpe. "In the face of the challenges, I think it's exciting that Federal Way is having such success."
In that spirit, SPU hosted a panel discussion among leaders with experience in improving schools for children, their families, and educators during a time of heightened public scrutiny and calls for reform.
Panelists included Lindsay O'Neal, a national board-certified teacher from Federal Way High School; Tom Alsbury, SPU professor of educational leadership; Mary Wilson, principal of Manitou Park Elementary School in the Tacoma School District; Mark Flatau, superintendent for the Cle Elum-Roslyn School District; and Matt Chase, principal in the Cle Elum-Roslyn School District. This sold-out event — the second in SPU's series of events called "Looking Beyond No Child Left Behind" — took place on Monday, November 7, 2011.
The panel faced difficult questions about how to establish trust between schools and teachers, how to build collaborative teams, how to make families feel welcome in their schools, and the role of grading in evaluating student progress. They also discussed how city schools can address the needs of students from different racial and cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses.
Alsbury offered a list of characteristics that identify quality schools, including "a relentless commitment to the success of all students," and a rejection of "one-size-fits-all reform programs." And he encouraged schools to distribute power and leadership, and to cultivate "a culture of care."
O'Neal, who is earning a doctorate in education at SPU, spoke about the need for shows of trust between administrators and teachers. She explained that Federal Way High School administrators "give jobs to people they know can do those jobs well, and trust them to do those jobs." She added, "In my experience, the culture that's been built in our district has been built on that trust."
"A model of shared, distributed leadership is essential," Chase agreed, "where principals are empowering teachers, and our teachers are empowering students."
In the panel discussion, Wilson spoke about restoring balance to education. She noted that one effect of No Child Left Behind legislation had been to take away some classes children enjoyed. "We've brought back more music, more art; we have a chess team," she said. "My PE teacher is (begrudgingly) teaching dance. We'd forgotten about those things. And this is how we educate the whole child."
Remember that phrase. You'll probably hear more about it. Lumpe notes that Puget Sound schools are embracing a new national initiative called "Educating the Whole Child," which comes from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
"We can't say, ‘Send us better kids,'" says Lumpe. "Parents send us the kids they have. Sometimes they come to school hungry. They come with emotional problems. Learning often can't take place until some basic needs are met. We want to make teachers aware of this, and help them develop strategies and identify partners who can come alongside and help."
These rich discussions may not bring immediate transformation, but they're inspiring discussions that help teachers and administrators navigate the stormy seas of change.
"I taught in an inner-city school a long time ago," says Lumpe. "I wish I'd had these connections, someone more experienced than me to help along the way." Meanwhile, SPU faculty and doctoral students continue to conduct cutting-edge research in the area of school improvement.
The series of forums continues in Spring 2012, focusing on how school districts and school systems can become more effective.
Watch the entire discussion at spu.edu/itunes.