Progress seldom occurs without taking chances. American schools now have a chance to make some difference if they are willing to risk a little, a visiting Florida educator said.
In Dade County, Florida, most of the stops have been pulled out. Educational experimentation is proceeding largely unhampered by top-down strings, and it is becoming more apparent what does and does not work, said the county's school superintendent, Joseph Fernandez.Fernandez is one of three educa-tors in Utah to talk primarily about training programs for principals. They are guests of Brigham Young University's Leaders Preparation Program, one of more than a dozen around the country creating innovative approaches to training through Danforth Foundation Grants.
With Fernandez was Donn Gresso, vice president of the foundation, and Hunter Moorman, director of the Leadership in Education Administration Development program of the U.S. Department of Education.
Thursday, they spoke to local edu-cators at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Friday, they met with local school superintendents at BYU.
Fernandez said Thursday that Dade County's 27 municipalities (including Miami) and unincorporated area provided "a good testing ground for what is going on in education today." The district was having trouble attracting and keeping teachers and had other problems that were impetus for change.
The school district began a massive reform effort by passing the "largest school bond in the history of the United States" - $980 million - for new buildings and refurbishing of existing schools. The district opened its schools to the public to help sell the bond issue, he said, and also had significant help from the business community.
New schools were designed with input from teachers, administrators and others who would work in them.
A second objective was to improve professionalism among teachers, Fernandez said. The district was having difficulty, in particular, keeping white teachers in racially mixed schools, a requirement of federal programs that provided funding for some programs.
The district responded by giving its teachers "the best salary package for teachers in this country," and gave them more say regarding school decisions.
Schools have been allowed to experiment with governance, creating local councils and using other forms of direction that are not imposed from the state or district levels, Fernandez said. The schools are given free rein to try innovation, with two caveats. They may not spend more money than they are budgeted and they must show that student performance is not suffering.
Schools have done such things are redirecting financial resources to meet particular local needs, contracting with outside sources for bilingual programs, allowing teachers to help select faculty and staff, hiring fewer administrators so money could be used to add paraprofessionals to staffs. Some schools have chosen to institute uniforms for students. Others are holding school seven days a week to allow for flexibility. Board rules and union contract provisions have been waived in some instances to allow leeway for experimentation.
"The first year success is tremendous," Fernandez said. "We expect to make mistakes. Nothing is carved in stone."
Continuing evaluation allows the district to call a halt to innovation that appears counterproductive and to encourage replication of effective programs.