Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Inventing the Future
This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.
Communicating the Vision
It was then, with an attentive and embarrassed audience, that I shared a vision for the school. I disclosed my own background of growing up in a family of nine, on welfare, and headed by tenth grade educated parents. In the ensuing moments I attempted to gain credibility with an audience of brown, yellow, black and white faces that had a common denominator of lacking green - the vast majority were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. As I rattled off, from a personal memory etched by trauma, the contents of the government commodity box of welfare food I could detect facial expressions among the audience that acknowledged I spoke from experience.
I had overcome many of the same obstacles they faced and now pledged to assist them in Aiming HIGH in a quest for success that would lead to acceptance, from others, and, more importantly, from themselves.
I presented the formula for acceptance and clarified each of the major components. These operational definitions were later produced in a brochure that was made available throughout the attendance district, distributed to the media, realtors, and elementary schools that sent learners to Horace Mann, and to area businesses.
Attendance was not just about coming to school every day, it was about making a difference. Everyone was expected to be involved and actively participate in the various activities supplied at school.
The Amarillo school district, in attempt to increase student attendance, and therefore the state aid they would subsequently receive, created a recognition program that rewarded the schools at the elementary and secondary levels that had the highest percentage daily attendance and the most improved daily attendance. Not only did we win the $500.00 award each semester that first year, we were the only school that thought it appropriate for a student to accept the check on behalf of their school.vi After all, they were the ones who won the award, not the principal or staff. The funds were placed in the Student Council account and used for the student body.
Attitude was represented by expectations to be positive, act like a winner, give your best effort, and smile. I habitually exercised this behavior in hopes that modeling it would encourage others to exhibit similar actions. During the initial semester I was at Mann a local reporter prepared a story on the improvement within the school. Among the points she made in her article was a reference to the exchanges among staff and students.vii One teacher admitted that she had previously been intimidated whenever any students were in close proximity to her but now she could practically feel the enthusiasm of the kids.
Another aspect of attitude was reflected in vandalism. After examining budgets from the last five years I determined that the school had spent an average of $3,600.00 per year responding to acts of vandalism. I shared this data with the new superintendent and persuaded him to have the business office issue a check in that amount to the Mann Student Council.
I reasoned that the district annually expended that amount anyway so why not try something to deter the repeated costs. I assured him that any future vandalism costs would be extracted from the Student Council account if the Council was able to keep any difference between the $3,600.00 and the actual year end repairs. This placed the responsibility on student leaders with the promise that they could enjoy the benefit of any savings.
The Council leadership announced the proposal over the intercom. From now on the student body would bear the costs of any destructive acts committed in school. Any graffiti, broken toilets, and any other incident, would cost the kids. Any savings could be invested in something positive for the student body. At the conclusion of that first year the costs of vandalism was approximately $300.00. The Student Council provided an interesting and constructive end of year ceremony and dance for the student body.
Achievement was defined as trying your best at all times, expecting (not hoping for) success, and Aiming HIGH. Achievement had always been a source of shame and embarrassment for the students and staff. The local newspapers that presented district wide achievement data on each school publicized this painful experience. The standard measure was the percentage of learners who passed all of their classes. This criterion emerged out of the state’s “No pass, No play” edict that required anyone failing even one class to be suspended from participating in any extra-curricular school activity.