Lessons Learned: A Decade of Education Reform

By Sarah Ellen Torian

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 pp. 4-13

"It's not a problem to be behind," George Washington Carver Middle School Principal Robert Markham constantly reminds students, teachers, and parents, "but it's an absolute sin to be behind and not try to catch up." Seeing Carver Middle School in Meridian, Mississippi, struggle to meet the needs of its majority-black students, many of whom receive free or reduced-cost lunches, Markham understands the challenge of engaging students. Markham looked beyond the negative media images of urban schools such as Carver that teach poor, black students without many black teachers or administrators to serve as positive role models when he became principal twelve years ago and set high expectations for all of Carver's students. He promotes a "family" atmosphere in which parents, students, and school personnel are working toward the same goal-to have all students reading, writing, and computing on grade level by the time they finish seventh grade.

Five years ago, Gwen Williams left her job as a middle school teacher in Atlanta, to become director of the Peachtree Urban Writing Project. The Project is one of 165 such sites around the world that empowers teachers as leaders and helps them improve their teaching of reading and writing. Williams and her team of ten teacher-consultants host study groups throughout the year. Hosted at Georgia State University, the project offers teachers on-going professional support from Williams and her team, examining integrative and project-based learning. "With project-based learning," Williams says, "students initiate some of their own learning, so that they become critical thinkers and learners. It empowers students to learn through projects that they design."

In Monticello, Arkansas, only 52 percent of the adult population holds a high school diploma. Shirley Martin, the only one of six siblings to earn a college degree and one of the two who earned a high school diploma, is not satisfied with that low level of educational attainment. Since 1994 she has been project director of the Southeast Arkansas Foster Grandparents program, a part of the National Senior Service Corps. She currently leads a body of one-hundred senior volunteers in giving more than five-hundred "at risk" children, ranging in age from birth to second grade, the literacy skills they need. During the last school year, sixteen volunteers worked daily in a pilot program with first and second graders who had scored in the bottom quartile at their schools. By the end of the year, 58 percent were reading at or near their grade level and several were reading one or two levels above. "I want to be a piece of the picture for education reform," says Martin.

As it has for the past ten years, the Southern Regional Council continues to work with principals like Robert Markham, teachers like Gwen Williams, and community partners like Shirley Martin, as well as parents, administrators, community activists, and students. Together, SRC education staff and these leaders have identified problems and obstacles, and sought tools to improve teaching and learning in classrooms and in out-of-school programs across the South. Working as stagehands behind the curtains of reform, SRC's education staff helps communities and schools perform their roles. The production that SRC envisions with the actors is one where parents, school staff, and communities collaborate in systemic reform that will create classrooms in which students are actively engaged in learning and demonstrating their achievements.

Marcia Klenbort, director of SRC's Education Programs since 1991, explains SRC's behind-the-scenes role saying, "When working in and with a community, whatever we do there ourselves will be of short-term value. Instead we come as supporters of the local people who are taking the initiative to make the changes they want. We try to help them find ways to improve the schools and to monitor and grow those improvements themselves. The end result we hope for is a corps of local leaders who work effectively to provide children with a strong education."

The Southern Regional Council looks for places where people are already working to improve public education. It alerts them to support and training provided by the Council and other organizations, thereby fulfilling a mission to develop local leadership skills. Frequently, reforms begin with one person with a lot of drive, gumption, and ability to inform and mobilize others around school improvement.

Anne Cooper, a parent, a three-year veteran of the school board, and a former SRC Community Fellow (an SRC project launched in 1992 to locate and nurture local leaders across the South), has provided that force in Clarke County, Georgia. "It's been difficult to convince the people already on the board that the status quo wasn't working and wasn't serving all of our students," Cooper explains. She has been strategic in bringing new members onto the board and in advancing parent involvement.

In its effort to increase student achievement in the South, the Southern Regional Council has worked with teachers, principals, and administrators to help them cre-


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ate more democratic and supportive governance structures in the schools and student-centered learning in the classrooms. SRC also works with parents and community activists, helping them act as "critical friends" -supporting schools as they push them to improve. SRC also provides training and support to the expanding force of community volunteers who, as a part of the America Reads Challenge, enter schools and out-of-school programs across the country daily to provide children with one-on-one instruction.

A National Issue

Important nationwide reform efforts and debates over education issues occur daily: the availability and usage of technology; smaller classes; the application of standards and accountability when those standards are not met; vouchers to allow public school children to enter private schools; year-round schooling, and more. Although SRC attempts to inform the debate over some of these issues, its focus is rooted in the belief that lasting changes take place by working with the educators and the local people who can provide their support.

A decade and a half after the 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," brought public attention to education by claiming that the United States actually faces security risks due to its failure to educate its children properly, education reform remains a hot topic. Polls show school reform as voters' biggest concern. US News and World Report recently declared that reactions to the state of public education has changed since "A Nation at Risk" was released, moving from the "Age of Lament" to the "Age of Accountability," defined by a movement toward clear standards for students and schools.

With this emphasis on accountability comes a need to examine the definition of educational success. Standardized tests poorly measure individual children's success. A strong focus on simply raising scores can lead schools away from real teaching and learning. When a school's "effectiveness" is measured only by a multiple-choice test score, and when more pressure is placed on a school to raise its "effectiveness level," classroom teaching in the months leading up to the almighty test date can deteriorate to the level of "How to make good guesses from the multiple choices" and "How to fill in the bubbles correctly."

Raising standards and strengthening accountability will mean nothing if children and teachers are not given the tools they need to meet standards and accountability


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measures. Restructuring schools and changing whole communities' relationships to those schools in order to ensure that children are given the tools they need to succeed, however, is not a simple step.

Although educational systems are complicated bureaucracies that often stymie change and innovation, they can also invite it.

In 1995, then-superintendent Ben Canada invited the SRC to assist in a reform initiative called "Building a Culture for Middle School Student Achievement" in Atlanta's sixteen middle schools. As a part of that intiative, SRC convened meetings with the middle school principals to help them find the information and strategies to make changes in their school bureaucracies. After reading about school reforms, discussing Hayes Mizell's "The New Principal," hearing other principals discuss their experiences, and making site visits to successful schools, many of the principals became convinced of the potential of the reforms.

To successfully implement systemic reform, SRC also engaged parents, teachers, and other administrators. Together they planned goals of increased student achievement. One result was the Performance Project, a pilot program to implement performance-based teaching, learning, and assessment, actively engaging students in the learning process. Three years later, teachers report improved student performance and parental participation has increased 300 percent. Public school stakeholders are learning that, by enlisting the support of all involved, changes can and must be made.

Ingredients of Effective School Reform

As more people become involved in the movement to make our public schools provide a strong, broad-based education to every child who enters their doors, SRC's education team would like to share some of the ingredients that bring about effective school reform.

. Teachers spend the majority of each workday with their students, or planning their next lesson. Parents may drop their children off, but rarely enter the school to meet with teachers or other parents. Principals and administrators are encouraged to compete, to measure their school according to other schools in their district or area. This isolation intensifies in rural and urban areas of the South where entrenched racial and class divisions are still evident in the public school systems and school teachers and administrators can often avoid being held accountable for educating all children.

"When SRC began the Delta Principals Institute in 1992," says SRC Senior Program Officer Anika Jones "we were surprised to find that school leaders didn't know what a colleague ten miles away was doing. Then, when we began to work with large cities, we found the same dynamic-within a single city." An Atlanta principal demonstrated this isolation saying, "We used to only get to talk when our sports teams competed."

Regularly scheduling meetings during which teachers from one school can meet and talk with teachers from their own and other schools and similar meetings for parents and for principals and administrators can relieve some isolation. Such peer group meetings promote sharing of strengths developed and unconquered challenges. These exchanges foster a sense of collegiality and create a peer support network that is mutually beneficial to all involved. Recharged by their discussions with other teachers, many teachers are saying, "I never knew there were others out there who cared as much as I do."

Together, teachers can conceive of a cohesive strategy to reach their common goal of helping students learn and avoid the method of teachers concentrating only on what goes on in their individual classrooms. "So many teachers operate on the model of their classroom being a one-room schoolhouse," notes Gwen Williams. '"I'm in my room. I'm going to do my own thing. In your room, you do your thing.' It has to be a more collaborative plan, if you want to really help children learn."

Peer networks raise expectations and help participants see new possibilities. A year after Barbara Franklin became the first female and the first African-American principal at Mississippi's Batesville Intermediate School in 1991, she was beginning to think she had chosen the wrong school and possibly the wrong profession. That summer, when she attended the Delta Principals Institute, created and organized by the Southern Regional Council and the Delta Area Association for the Improvement of Schools, she had the chance to meet Robert Markham and other successful Mississippi principals. Markham recounted the obstacles his school faced and the strategies used to overcome those obstacles, resulting in both the National School of Excellence Award and the National Drug-Free School Award in the same year for his school. Franklin returned to Batesville with renewed energy and an understanding of how a school could be run effectively and meet the needs of its students. Two years after the Delta Principals Institute began, Batesville Intermediate School was honored by the state Department of Education as a state school of excellence-a rarity for a Delta school.

Connect with Families. With competing work and home schedules, building a network of parents can be difficult. At BRIDGES (Building Respect, Independence, and Development Generated through Extended Services), a family resource center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Clarie White works to involve parents in their children's education and to provide them and other family members with skills to be effective educators.

BRIDGES offers workshops for parents and tutoring


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programs for children. "We walk the parents through the education process," says White. "We tell them how important their role is and we suggest how they can help." BRIDGES provides parents with information they need to understand proposed changes in the school and to know what questions they need to ask the school board or teachers. "Cultivating parent involvement is a slow process," adds White, "but I feel we have been very successful. I have seen parents who come to our center and go on to become involved in the PTA who would not usually attend a PTA meeting."

Create a Climate of Honesty. When student achievement is low, teachers, administrators, and parents frequently blame each other for the failures. Anne Cooper has tried to encourage her Clarke County community to move beyond placing blame. "Let's stop assigning blame and let's start bringing people on board."

"Vertical" networks can help break the various barriers that separate the levels of a school community. In the Atlanta middle school reform initiative, "horizontal" peer networks of teachers, principals, and parents have expanded into an all-inclusive Advisory Council. Each network meets on its own, and also sends representatives to gather quarterly-as the Advisory Council, a vertical network that brings in people from all levels who share an interest in Atlanta's middle schools.

When the Advisory Council was first organized in 1995, participants had to break down barriers that exist in hierarchical relationships. SRC staff posed key questions to initiate open and frank discussions: "How can the school system help you do your job?" "What strategies are working in your school?" These questions and discussions helped develop a collaborative relationship around the goal they share-to help all children learn.

Draw Strength from Diversity. American school diversity comes with a long history of resource inequities for minority groups that make up the heterogeneous community of a school or a district. Much of that history still maintains a foothold in our society, and continues to echo throughout the nation and region today.

The people who address training sessions or meetings should represent the diversity in the audience and in the school district. "Having a diverse group of trainers," explains SRC Education Director Marcia Klenbort, "is much more important and critical than anyone who is a member of a majority group can understand. If you usually associate with groups in which you are a part of the majority, you probably won't see the importance of having leaders who look like you, because you have grown used to the benefits of that advantage. If you are in the minority and the leaders and presenters never look like you, you feel you have to do a lot of translating to your own circumstances. And there is a silent ratification of self-for a participant-that comes when the leader looks like you."

The racial and class divisions that exist in both the South and the nation present barriers of animosity and hostility among groups within schools. Displaying-in presenters and all involved with the work in the school(s)-a partnership of equals between people of different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds in the training team and encouraging the school community to model such partnerships can help to chip away at these barriers.

Focus on the Areas of Greatest Need. As more states institute performance standards for students, it becomes increasingly important to provide schools and school districts with the support they need to help students reach those standards. Students from areas of high concentrations of poverty face the greatest obstacles. Their schools will be the ones most affected by the raising of standards and the ones most in need of support. (See "Standards Reconsidered," p. 27.)

Shirley Martin and her Foster Grandparent volunteers understand this kind of need. The fourth graders at nineteen of the twenty-one school districts in southeast Arkansas averaged below the fiftieth percentile in total reading scores. The volunteers are working to turn those statistics around. "I believe we can change the future for these children," maintains Martin. "The issue is accountability. Let's give them the resources they need to succeed, then hold them accountable. But, most of all, we must hold ourselves accountable for student achievement."

"Currently, not every child has the support and resources to be successful in school," says Atlanta's King King Middle School principal Carolyn Huff. To help provide all students with the necessary support and resources, Atlanta Public schools are developing "Opportunity to Learn Standards," a series of guidelines that define the financial, technical, and staff support schools will need to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to meet state and local standards.

Although the past twenty years have seen a great change in the process of dollar allocation among schools in a given district, vast inequalities exist in the resources schools can call upon. Affluent parents are likely to be more active, demanding the most qualified teachers, up-to-date equipment, and comprehensive class offerings. The effects are obvious. A report by Education Trust, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, shows that poor and minority secondary students are more likely than other students to be taught by teachers lacking a college major or minor in the subjects they are teaching. In such a situation we are not "giving them the tools they need to succeed"!

Foster Feelings of Ownership. Members of a school community invest themselves in reform efforts when they know it is their effort and their goals. Trainers cannot construct this feeling of ownership, but they can help


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create an atmosphere in which the community gets its ideas on the table and begins working on them.

The teachers whom Gwen Williams trains in the Peachtree Urban Writing Project, frequently come to the training with the feeling that nothing can be done to make a difference in the children's lives. When the trainers can help them break through that mindset, they become inspired and rejuvenated. With that renewed mindset, the teachers from three Atlanta schools-Slater, Garden Hills, and Thomasville Elementary Schools-made the project their own and brought it into their schools. After attending the bi-monthly study groups hosted by Williams, they have initiated their own professional study groups with teacher teams in their schools. They meet to discuss research on writing such as A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves and Black Teachers on Teaching by Michelle Foster and Lisa Delpit.

Deborah Mitchell, a teacher at Slater Elementary School and Atlanta Public Schools' teacher of the year for the 1998-99 school year, is the facilitator of Slater's teacher study group. "I am the facilitator-not the leader-and I certainly don't know it all," explains Mitchell. "We all know something; each teacher brings all of her experience and knowledge. Our ideas drive our discussion and learning."

Anne Cooper has also observed the benefits of cultivating ownership among all involved in reform efforts. She has been advocating for children in the Athens/Clarke County, Georgia school system since her son began kindergarten in 1984. In that time she has witnessed some of the morale problems that develop when reform planning is concentrated in the higher levels of school administration. "When the leadership-and this goes all the way to the top-fails to really articulate the goals and involve people in substantive planning that moves people closer to goals that are meaningful, people become disenchanted and cynical about what they are doing," says Cooper.

Principals Are Key. Teachers affect the students in the classrooms, but principals affect all the teachers, all the classes, and all the students. They affect the community too. Principals, through their visions, can set the stage for what will happen in a school. They can create an environment that encourages people to formulate and propose ideas by bringing staff and parents into planning sessions.

Controlling or autocratic principals cannot be effective in reforming an under-performing school. Principals must be ardent believers in the potential of the school community to provide its own answers. They must lead by example, and they must trust their staffs and delegate. King Middle School Principal Carolyn Huff in Atlanta,


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describes her role in the school saying, "There is overwhelming responsibility on me to lead, but I try to do so by embodying those things that I ask staff to do."

Principals are a necessary part of any successful school reform effort, but they do not need to be the initiators of that effort. Teachers, parents, or other administrators can and should introduce change. It is imperative though, that they seek the principal's input and support early.

Theodora Perrot is site manager for a Seniors for Schools volunteer project in Port Arthur, Texas. Seniors for Schools is a demonstration project that enlists men and women over the age of fifty-five to help children learn to read. Perrot has seen the benefit of seeking the principal's support early on. Noting the benefits of the cooperation and strong hands-on approach of Sharon Adams, her school's principal, Perrot says, "When the program was being introduced, we first sold it to Principal Adams. Once she bought into it, she sold it to the whole school." Now Adams is a key advocate for the Seniors project with the district and the larger community.

Addressing Race and Class Barriers

During the 1960s and 1970s, the strategies discussed in this essay would not have worked in the American South or in much of the country. First, it was necessary, through legal challenges such as Brown v. The Board of Education, to attack the blatant racism of separate and very unequal that defined the public school systems in the South.

Today, entrenched divisions along racial and class lines continue to divide communities and schools. Many city, county, and school governments still rest firmly in the hands of wealthy white elites who might not even send their children to the public schools. Without a direct connection to the school system, those in power can be content with a status quo that is far from acceptable. Even if the children of white elites do attend public schools, their parents can be content with a system that, through tracking and other unfair policies, segregates its students and does not strive to offer all students a strong education.


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Karen Watson, a community activist in Sylvania, Georgia, has run up against this form of barrier. For more than ten years, she and the Positive Action Committee(PAC), a group of parents and concerned citizens in Screven County, have been fighting to provide the majority-black families in Sylvania/Screven County's schools a voice in their own education. (Watson was an SRC Community Fellow in 1992.)

Every official employee of the city and county governments was white. "The only positions that blacks held in local government were sanitation," Watson explains. "Not even one policeman." The school board was all-white and almost all teachers and administrators in the public schools were white. At the same time, the majority of children in those schools were black and many were being tracked into lower level classes. Evidence of racism was there, but the school board ignored PAC's requests for changes.

PAC spent years documenting the situation and carried the resulting facts and figures to the Office of Civil Rights, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and the court system. Their efforts brought Secretary of Education Richard Riley to the state in 1994 and brought an end to some of the detrimental tracking policies. The seven-member board now includes three African Americans; a principal, an assistant principal, and the director of Title I programs are also black.

Although Watson and PAC have witnessed some success, she remains concerned, knowing that similar situations continue to exist across the South. "It is clear that black children who attend schools in states and counties which have a history of practicing racial discrimination, are more likely to receive an education inferior to white students." Watson says. "When there are few or no black adults in the school system, it increases the chances that negative and unfair things can happen to black children."

To combat these lingering pockets of unabashed racism in the public schools, Watson is working with Brian Kintisch and the Center for Children and Education (CCE), helping parents in situations similar to Screven County's advocate for themselves. While working for Legal Aid in Washington, D.C., Kintisch discovered that he was primarily representing parents whose children had been suspended without cause. Kintisch organized CCE to work in areas where parents and students are disenfranchised and allowed no meaningful roles in the education system.

The Southern Regional Council partners with the CCE and supports its work. SRC focuses on locating the strengths in the schools-because all schools do have strengths-and then helps the schools to develop collaborative models to make the most of those strengths. When groups such as CCE confront and challenge unfair practices, SRC helps to re-establish relationships that can build progress on the foundation created through the conflict.

Whether conflict is required or not, the education of all of our children is the key to our nation's future. But more importantly, as Shirley Martin learned and now believes, a strong education is also the key to their futures. "I believe that we can change the future for our children," says Martin. "I know learning certainly changed my life."

Sidebar: Robert Woodruff, Principal, Simmons Elementary School

Robert Woodruff served as a senior Guide Principal with the Delta Principals Institute, a peer leadership development project led by SRC 1992-1997.

I have been in the Hollandale, Mississippi school system for thirty-nine years, as both a teacher and an administrator.

I got into education by accident. I was a pre-med major and on my way to medical school when I stopped to visit my old roommate in Hollandale- my first visit to the Delta. My old roommate was an educator and, at that time, was teaching summer school. During my visit, his father, a local principal, asked me to teach a summer school science class. After I worked a few months, I decided to teach a year before I went to medical school.

I can't describe the experience. The kids were encouraged by someone taking a great interest in helping them learn. The Delta is very rural and the main source of income at that time was agriculture. Most people lived in shanties. The conditions were just terrible. It was like a third world country.

So here are these kids, bright-eyed, really wanting to do something. I felt I could make difference. I still intended to go to medical school, but after working that year, I decided to stay another year and then another. That's how I ended up in education.

We've reduced class sizes and we've brought in some new programs. We give the students who score in the bottom quartile extra help--tutoring or whatever is necessary--to bring them up to grade level. We've gone back to some of the basic things that were successful in the past. We teach phonics again. We have after-school programs and before-school programs. We run on a ten month school year.

Hollandale's population is about 3,500 and our school teaches seven hundred students with a staff of about sixty-five. The students are about 98 percent African American and about 98 percent of my kids eat free lunch.

Our kids are not exposed to a lot of things that urban kids are. We don't have the library facilities, the museums, and the parks. Therefore, our curriculum is designed to get kids out of the classrooms. If we are discussing the Mississippi River, we go to the Mississippi River. They go on field trips to Jackson, to Memphis, to Washington, D. C., to Houston and the Dallas area. It's a whole community; we go to the community and the community comes to us.

We use a curriculum designed by the Audrey Cohen College of Human Services called the American School Model. It is purpose-centered education. We have gone from the traditional teacher-centered mode to a child-centered format.

There is no magic formula. But we have experienced a lot of success in teaching African-American children. I attribute a lot of that success to having good staff. There is a critical shortage of teachers in Mississippi. But we attract and retain good teachers by treating our staff as family members.

This family atmosphere helps them work together across grades to help the kids. Instead of criticizing each other about what you didn't do in the prior grade, you can be critical of what children don't know before they are promoted, but from a positive standpoint

We still need more community involvement and support. We have a lot of trouble with the private schools here. Most of the white kids go to the private schools. So you have some community neglect of public education. We make the difference up through grant funds and similar programs, but we still need a greater commitment.

Being in a rural area, with the mechanization of agriculture, people are realizing that you can't put an uneducated person on a $100,000 tractor anymore. The power brokers now realize that they need an educated worker. So, the community is coming around. Our churches and banks have supported us. My staff is now about 50-50 African American to white. We recently hired a lot of white teachers. Once they begin working here, you pull in their husbands and families and now they know that, "Hey, they're doing a good job over there. We didn't know that."

We are unintentionally destroying the private school system by gradually drawing away their staff and their students, too. A lot of the problem has been that they just didn't know that we were really serious about educating children. Now that they are aware, we will continue to make great progress.

In the forty years I've been in Hollandale, we have produced about twenty-one or twenty-two black doctors from this school district. We can't get them to come back to the Delta, but we have produced them. So, we have a track record of producing good students.

Sidebar: Dr. Lisa Delpit on Educational Excellence

Dr. Lisa Delpit is the Director of the Center for Urban Educational Excellence and holds the Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Educational Leadership at Georgia State University. Author of the book, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Delpit has engaged in teaching and learning about multicultural societies and public education in Fiji, Papua, New Guinea, and the United States--including Alaska. Using a similar model, Delpit's experience ratifies the Southern Regional Council's approach to changing schools.

In an urban setting like Atlanta, the first issue in improving education is to ensure that teachers believe that the children are capable of learning anything anybody else is capable of learning. You have to give teachers visions of what can be. They are so accustomed to being a part of failure that they don't realize that children who look like their school's population can and have succeeded in other settings. The teachers also need to be willing to use a multitude of instructional strategies rather than just using one strategy over and over again to ensure that all children are grasping the issues that they need to understand to be successful. When teachers teach only through one model, and the kids don't learn, then they think something is wrong with the kids. Instead, the problem maybe that teachers aren't reaching the students.

That's what I do. I try to change those perceptions because the reality is that nothing can change until the classroom changes. You can make all the systemic changes you want, but until what goes on in the classroom changes, then I don't think a whole lot will change.

You almost have to work from all sides of a school system at the same time. If you leave any one area unattended, it can create a black hole into which all of your good work and success gets sucked.

For example, if a group of teachers were trying to work together to integrate curriculum, but the principal does not understand the value of what they are doing, that principal might do something as simple as change a planning schedule so the teachers are unable to meet together. That could destroy their effort. Or maybe the school does not make an effort to engage the parents in the planning process. The parents, if they don't understand what the school is trying to do, can see it as shortchanging their children and they can attack or destroy the program from that direction.

You have to work with all of the players. You have to work with the teachers to help them develop ways to work together and feel comfortable with each other. You also have to inform and work with the parents.

You need to get folks with a lot of energy and commitment and just do it. Provide them with a vision of what could be and then have the teachers themselves plan it and work on it. It empowers them at the same time that you are creating the vision and the new instructional methodologies.

Sarah Ellen Torian is program assistant in communications at the Southern Regional Council. SRC education staff contributed to this article: Marcia Klenbort, Anika Jones, Tenera McPherson, Robyn Davis, Gale Greenlee, and ReneƩ Wood.