This teacher posted an answer to reader Alice’s question: What do we do after we win? He describes how teachers transformed his school, using their ingenuity, their professional wisdom, and their knowledge of the students. The successful school was torpedoed by the “reform movement.” But the model sounds awfully smart.


He writes:


I began teaching in 1965 at The #1 school in our district that slowly changed as the city moved north. Then I moved to the HS 2 blocks away….27 years of challenging but rewarding teaching. Then moved on to a middle school in the socio economically deprived SE part of town. Kids attendance was poor, behavior was worse. Community wanted the best for the kids but didn’t have the resources and the principal was unresponsive. Then we got a new, inspired, caring, skilled principal who had enough insight to give his faculty an open hand in developing curricula and setting policy During hot summer days, we visited the home of every incoming 7th graders and talked to students and parents alike. Between 1992 and 1995 we reduced the suspension/expulsion rate from the 3rd highest in the district to the 3rd lowest and the attendance rate went from the 3rd worst to the 3rd best in a district of 106 schools and 80,000 students. Disciplines integrated, teachers came to school early so kids could get extra help and they stayed late. If I got to school at 6:20am or 6:30 am I was rarely the first one in the parking lot and the principal was ALWAYS there by 5:30am. Schools need to start at 7:00am and have classes until 7:00pm, staggering the staff depending on who wants to start early or later. It best serves the needs of families and for our parents who often worked 2 or 3 (low paying) jobs, it was a life saver. Art, music and technology played a big part in re-interesting students, but what really changed the atmosphere was our physical education program. For the most part we threw out the old “Athletic Model” of PE and introduced active lifestyles and we got kids out of the neighborhood into the natural world. Skiing and fly fishing units took kids into the mountains and to both local rivers to fish and also to participate in the “Trout in The Classroom Program” which we did with great success. We used heart monitors and taught fencing, golf, dancing and bocci ball and a whole host of new and novel activities. The students response was amazing and heart warming. Kids started coming to school because they WANTED to and their behavior, their intra-personal relations improved in quantum fashion. Even though we were not part of the “academic teams” the classroom teachers welcomed us warmly into the fold and we interacted with them at every opportunity.


Parents became more involved with the school, the community bought into what we were doing in complete fashion. The local paper did 3 separate articles on our physical education department and a couple of others on the school. The faculty liked our program so well that they voted to take one extra student in every class so that our class sizes, traditionally very large, became equivalent with theirs and we were able to provide a wealth of new experiences for our students, but also able to meet and deal with them as individuals, not as a barely manageable group of 55 or 60 middle schoolers.


Schools can be made better, more functional, more interesting, more meaningful if administration at all levels gives its teachers more say in the totality of the operation of the school. Flexibility is one key and novelty is another. The brain loves novelty more than anything else, and our program was able to provide that and the vast improvements that I have mentioned came in surprisingly short time. The positive neuro-physiological and emotional/social, academic effects of art, music, hands on learning and physical education are well documented and should form an integral consideration of any educational system. We weren’t a charter school, just an inner city middle school led by an open minded, dedicated principal who had trust in his teachers, which we proved to be fully justified. Yes it takes more finances to accomplish this, but restructuring is achievable if all parties can agree to compromise and to do see that the end results benefits students in the most effective fashion. An extended school day costs more and often strains facilities, but the benefits are more than worth the cost. Virtually all teachers I’ve talked to support the idea because it can be beneficial to them and to their families. In 1995-96, we were voted the outstanding middle school PE program in California.


The so called “Reform Movement” has stultified education in our schools and it remains to parents and teachers to step forward and insist on change, going back to some of our old practices as is fitting and instituting new concepts based on science and common sense understanding of children and young adults. We cannot acquiesce to the “test and then test again” insanity and we have to stop demeaning our public school teachers if we expect to get the best they have to offer. Educating all children in equal fashion makes sense and has been and must continue to be the goal of a civil society. I only hope that we’re up to the task.