How real educational change happens

Debbie gladly agreed to let Superintendent Galvin deal with the school board. It gave her the freedom she needed to move the high school where it needed to go. She enjoyed working with teachers and students not school board members.

Immediately after meeting with the superintendent, Debbie met with her department chairs, teacher leaders in each subject area who taught a full schedule and received a stipend (in too many schools improvement isn’t part of a teacher’s usual role), for providing input on plans to improve academics at Rosemont High School.

First, Debbie shared with this group the data she had uncovered regarding student academic performance, the steep decline in honors numbers as students moved from ninth grade to twelfth grade, which led to the low AP exam participation numbers; the weak test scores on Regents exams; and the hidden dropouts.

“This is something we all knew and we understood,” the chair of the math department said. “It’s also something Superintendent Galvin and the previous high school principal, Tom Meacher, also understood. Everyone just wanted us to paper over it and act like it didn’t exist.”

“The practice of listing those dropouts as transfers to the local GED program started when Tom Galvin was assistant principal at Rosemont High 20 years ago,” the chair of the guidance department said. “We were told all the suburban districts in this area did it, and it was justified by saying we didn’t want to make our school look bad when other districts were doing the same thing.”

Debbie told the group her personal ethics would not allow her to sign a form to be submitted to the state education department that listed those students as transfers if they were really dropouts. Debbie emphasized that they had about 10 months until that form needed to be completed again, and they had to devise a plan to reduce the dropouts and address the weak test scores in that ten-month period.

“We have Superintendent Galvin’s support, but we don’t have any additional funding beyond what’s already being spent at the high school,” she said. She also explained Superintendent Galvin’s expectation that the department chairs and Debbie leave the school board communication completely to him.

“If you are contacted by a school board member,” she told them, “tell me immediately and I’ll inform the superintendent.” Debbie suggested they meet again in a week. Meanwhile, everyone at the meeting was tasked with coming up with suggestions for what could be done to improve the academic results at Rosemont High while working within the school’s existing budget.

When they met the next week, some of the department chairs were ready to move forward and had some great ideas on how to fund the changes they needed and the specifics of what changes were critical. Others were reluctant soldiers in the reform effort.

The reluctant reformers saw the need and understood the best strategies but were fearful of the political repercussions with the school board, with Superintendent Galvin, with the teachers’ union and with the parents who had grown accustomed to doing things the way they were always done at Rosemont.

Debbie told me she left the meeting with her department chairs confused and frustrated. How could she proceed when her staff was so divided?

Then she described to me her own happy accident. She said she went to the gym after the meeting and worked out harder than ever. During the drive home she had an epiphany. Why not make the changes at Rosemont with the eager departments and let the rest sit back and watch.

Debbie formulated improvement plans. “I won’t hide the data,” she told the department chairs. “If we increase Regents, Honors and AP results in math but science continues to slip that comparison will be obvious to everyone.

“If the dropout rate goes up because we finally start tracking it properly, we’ll have to deal with the negative public relations. And I plan to present this data at faculty meetings and parent meetings.

“I won’t force you to make changes but you will be responsible for your department’s performance. You can expect my support if you make a real effort at improvement even if it doesn’t fully succeed. This will be OUR plan; not my plan.”

The math department chair said, “Look I’m definitely interested in changing the honors math program. We all know the present honors system is not working right.”