Wayne B. Jennings
449 Desnoyer Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55104
STARTING NEW SCHOOLS: LESSONS FOR SUCCESS
Wayne B. Jennings, Ph.D.
The criticism prodding the nation's educators to bring schools into the
modern age is reaching firestorm proportions. From presidents,
governors, state departments of education and parents, persistent
demands are heard to raise student achievement, increase graduation
rates, better serve poor and minority students and reduce
self-destructive student behaviors.
Though the sum total of educational experimentation today surely ranks
higher than at anytime in history, mainstream school practice has
changed little and totally dominates the education scene.
Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander spoke of the need for new
schools as a university president in 1989:
"I've tried to give leadership to efforts to better educate our
children as a governor. And now I see our schools' graduates as a
university president. I'm not so sure that we shouldn't scrap the whole
system and start over again."1
Three major avenues for educational improvement offer promise:
1. Make incremental improvements in schools. For
example, alter the curriculum with interdisciplinary approaches or
introduce an advisor-advisee program.
2. Generate comprehensive change in existing schools.
For example, introduce most of the known effective school reforms all
3. Start over with a new design for learning. For example, plan and implement a totally experiential school.
A good case can be made for any of these approaches. Most efforts to
improve education follow the incremental model by introducing a new
element or two. I would argue that the need for major reform is so
urgent that incremental improvement is too slow and piecemeal. The
second approach, wholesale change of an existing school, is a traumatic
experience for staff and has had a poor record of success, particularly
at secondary levels.
While school reform needs to proceed on all possible fronts, this paper
discusses the third approach, that of starting new schools or programs.
As Ted Sizer said,
"Most of the problems that beset education are obvious, well
understood, and of long standing. Educators and their critics have been
rhetorically hammering away at them for several decades. It is the
remedies that seem problematic. None seems to stick. Why? Things remain
the same, because it is impossible to change very much without changing
most of everything. The result is paraly sis."2
Sizer's point appears to support a new schools' approach to change.
However, we might note that Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools
doesn't involve a comprehensive model for change. The Coalition
advocates rather modest curriculum changes to improve the existing
The approach of working with existing schools dominates because it is
far easier to recruit candidate schools to a new procedure than to
totally reorganize an existing school or start a new school. In fact,
Sizer's coalition was over subscribed immediately and now has
about 200 schools. Lessons from history tell us that the
improve the existing school movement ultimately
disappoints its sponsors.
The education landscape is littered with the dried husks of past
programs %14 successful programs that lasted a few years, then withered
and either disappeared or remained in name but not spirit. Examples
include: the core curriculum, Unified Science and Mathematics in
Elementary Schools (USMES), and advisor programs.
Paul Nachtigal's famous study, A Foun dation Goes to School,3
documented what few remnants of the 34 million dollars for educational
reform granted by the Ford Foundat ion's during the 1960s still
remained when he visited programs just a few years later. That report
led foundations all over the nation to shut off public school education
grants for more than a decade, as a waste of resources.
The U.S. Office of Education's Experimental Schools program of the
early 1970s, in which multi million dollar grants were made to
schools in each of five districts, yielded few results five years
later. Even the extraordinary resources pumped into those schools
failed to produce sustained change in existing programs.
Though millions of dollars have funded innovations with little enduring
results, we may concede, however, that knowledge about change is
accumulating and may yet provide guidance to reformers which ultimately
produces comprehensive and lasting change.
I urge more instances of starting afresh, profiting from what has been
learned in past efforts to successfully implement new programs. A new
school starts with a clean slate and needs only to develop the program
rather than trying to change long standing, firmly entrenched
paradigms and practices.
On first thought, it may seem fairly easy to devise and start a new
school. One no longer has to battle old philosophies, staff factions
and traditions. At least that's the way a number of us thought some
years ago as we worked in conventional programs. We contemplated the
joys of working in a new program: eager, self motivated learners;
staff as a smooth, supportive team; and eager, involved parents.
Little did we realize the landmines, barriers and incredibly long hours
along the way. That same easy optimism is often heard about starting
new programs accompanied by the same lack of awareness of the problems
and stresses of implementing and managing new programs.
Having been a recipient of foundation funding to assist with starting
new programs, I can attest that the real problems of educational change
are less a matter of money and more a matter of attitudes and
In this paper, I look primarily at starting new schools from the
perspective of players at the school site and school district:
principals, teachers, parents, students and central office
administrators. I shall assume that the new schools depart
significantly or radically from the norm, though I am not advocating
any particular type of change. Such a school faces major problems of
implementation. Suggestions will be given for addressing the problems
of starting new schools.
More than two decades ago, I was asked to design and start a program
for public school students who were, essentially, unwanted by the
secondary schools in an urban system. In effect, we ran 12,000 high
school students through a sieve to sift out 100 of the hardest to
manage. As we began the program, educators in the system predicted its
early demise believing that such students couldn't be served. Over the
next two decades, we learned that the problems encoun tered in
starting and operating the program, difficult as they were, centered
less on managing students than on dealing with the school system.
In 1971, I became the principal of a new public K 12 "open school"
for 500 students. A group of politically astute parents had virtually
forced the school district to start the school. I had authority to
select a staff committed to progressive education practices. The staff
met for the first time with the daunting task of organizing a K 12
school two weeks before students arrived. The only thing we had was a
general philosophy statement to guide us. We had to generate a
curriculum, fast. The school district leased a warehouse to house the
school just one week before opening.
Given these conditions we should have fallen on our face %14 and almost
did. We worked impossible hours on the program, policies, evaluation
and every other aspect of school operation. There were pitched battles
with the school district which though it approved the school's
prospectus expected usual operations and procedures to apply. For
example, staffing and field trips were determined by district formulas
%14 it didn't matter that we wanted to configure the staff differently or
spend more than the normal field trip allotment.
Nonetheless, we learned to choose our fights and to apply the motto of
change agents that, "It's easier to seek forgiveness than to obtain
permission." Last year the school celebra ted its twentieth
anniversary. I doubt that many of that original staff would undergo the
ex perience again because of the toll it took. Enjoying the high
morale of students and their amazing amount of learning sustained staff
through many difficult times.
In 1982, I helped start a new private school for 150 students in grades
5 12 as part of a nationally known children's theater. The school
provided academic learning plus training for all students in drama,
vocal music and dance during an eight hour school day. The
progressive nature of the program and the oppor tunity to develop
talents attracted many more applicants than could be accommodated. We
also turned many away because the cost of tuition exceeded parents
means, although the per student expenditures were about the same as
public schools. The program was wonderfully successful by all measures
because we were free to staff creatively and adjust the program to
individual student needs. It was one of the few opportunities to start
a school without battling a school district; we were the district and
that made an enormous difference.
Presently (1992), I am designing and implementing a new
comprehen sive public program for "at risk" youth, many of
whom are already drop outs. It involves about 2,000 students a
year in multiple sites, operates year round with extended hours
(days, evenings, Satur days), has differentiated staffing and uses
technology extensively along with other alternative methods of
instruction. The nature of an "at risk" student body confers freedoms
upon practitioners. After all, the regular program was not successful.
I've participated in other start ups of new schools in the last three
years: Saturn School of Tomorrow, Chiron Middle School, and EXPO for
Excellence Magnet School.
I've also been a teacher and principal in regular public schools, and
was a district administrator in charge of staff development. In all of
these schools %14 whether traditional or "new design" %14 I worked to
introduce promising changes that had been successful elsewhere, or
where research and theory supported new practices. Examples include:
advisor/advisee programs, interdisciplinary approaches,
pupil teacher planning, community based learning,
brain based learning, learning based on real life problems
and alternative staffing patterns.
Twice as the principal of a conventional school, I introduced
schools within schools. Any school principal who has traveled
similar routes knows immediately how extremely hard it is to introduce
such practices, particularly at the secondary level. Most of the
practices mentioned in the previous paragraph have been known for
decades as important and needed, yet are rarely found to any
significant degree in schools.
I mention these experiences because important lessons can be extracted
to help implement the next batches of new schools. I believe new
schools represent a robust alternative to incremental improvement of
MAJOR PROBLEMS IN CREATING NEW SCHOOLS
Two major problems appear in almost all efforts to establish new
schools. These problems can be referred to as system problems and
client prob lems. The major system problems involve focus,
resources and staffing. Client problems involve the school's customers:
parents and students.
System Problems: Focus
Focus is defined as the articulation of the program's mission and
description of how the program will operate. Typically, change agents
encounter a plethora of questions about the specifics and structure of
the new program as they begin planning: What exactly is the curriculum
and what teaching methods will be employed? What instructional
materials are needed? What technology will be employed? How will the
program be evaluated? What is the student's day like? What precise
kinds of facility modifications are needed?
Good questions. But they often overwhelm people proposing a new program
or school. In one instance, the response to a request to start a new
program, resulted in a memo from the district office with sixty
questions about details of the new program. One could picture central
office folks having spent the afternoon brainstorming questions saying,
"There. That should fix them."
The reformers, who have spent their lives in regular schools, usually
have a better idea what they don't want to do than exactly what is to
be done. They have had so little experience in an alternative setting,
their ideas are vague and incomplete. They identify their feelings with
the following statements:
"...when the great innovation appears it will seem muddled and strange.
It will be only half-understood by its discoverer(s) and a mystery to
everyone else. For any idea that does not appear bizarre at first,
there is no hope."4
"If you are on the leading edge you can't explain everything. If you knew all about it, it wouldn't be the leading edge."5
Focus problems become easier after experience in alternative schools.
Then the reformer finds it less difficult to articulate a new program,
though rarely to the satisfaction of conventional administrators and
school board members. Often, the people who have to be convinced to
support the change are so frozen in old paradigms that the new words
and descriptions aren't meaningful. The reformer is left thinking,
"Can't they be more understanding and helpful? They just don't get it."
I remember trying at length rather unsuccessfully to describe open
education to a traditional thinking colleague. Finally, the other party
said, "Oh, you mean it's like the old one room school." Rather than
say, "not exactly" and pursue differences, subtle and
not so subtle, at some point one just says, "Yes, that's
close," and lets it go at that.
The reason the focus problem looms so seriously is that if not resolved
in a conclusive way, endless hassles and misunder standings
continue to gum up future interactions between the new program and the
system for years. Reformers may view the system as an obstructionist
The focus or understanding problem extends weblike throughout the
school district. Not all colleagues in other schools are thrilled to
learn about a new school. If the program is substantially different,
rumors and false information start to circulate. "Did you know the kids
at New School can do anything they want to? They are never assigned
home work?" "That kid that transferred last week from New School can't
even write; they don't teach reading."
New schools appear to compete with or challenge conventional wisdom.
This threatens some people in other schools and in the district office.
Innovators may find themselves excluded from district resource
distribution routines, denied supplies and most crucially, called upon
to prove their program's worth in the first years more rigorously than
is ever expected of conventional schools.
Many a new school administrator has looked up from a mountain of paper
work and forms to ask plaintively, "How come the regular schools don't
have to do all these evaluation activities? Why don't they expect
success of all students at the other schools like they expect of us?"
Why not indeed?
The problem, aside from the overload of work, may lie in unreasonable
expectations for the new school. These may have resulted from the
school's initial application documents which seemed to promise to solve
almost all the problems in education and to do so quickly. Reformers
soon learn the wisdom of the adage, "under promise and over deliver."
System Problems: Resource Allocations
The second system problem is the allocation of resources which
profoun dly impacts what the new program can and cannot do. If the
same formulas for staffing, technology and textbooks apply to the new
program, then operating differently becomes nearly impos sible.
The school district's message to the new school says, in effect, "Yes,
start this innovative program but follow all usual practices."
New programs run smack into middle management administrators with set
processes and standard operating procedures. Seemingly, only dynamite
will dislodge the formulas for allocating staff and other line items of
For example, the new program may wish to install a dance program and
contract for a profession al dancer two hours a day. That makes
sense to the new program people but not to the personnel department who
inquire about licensure, benefits, posting the job; nor to the payroll
department who have no staff category for a non certificated
teacher; nor to the union; nor to the administra tive staffing
division who have no provisions for instruction al services by
By the time the harried new school administrator works through the
morass of procedures and regulations, the school year is over and the
administrator is exhausted and angry. Even the patrons of the school
may begin to wonder about the administrator's managerial effectiveness
in being unable to handle such a simple task.
The three Rs of school management should be Redesign and Reallocate
Resources. It is unlikely education will receive the vast new resources
educators say they must have to lower class size, pay competitive
salaries, provide new specialists for hordes of troubled youth, buy
computers, etc., etc. If new schools could spend existing resources
differently, they might obtain better results.
It astonishes educators, particularly teachers, to learn that the pupil
to certificated personnel ratio is under 16 to 1 in the U.S. and the
ratio of pupils to all personnel, under 10 1. This figure holds in
most districts. Education must do what business and other institutions
struggle with: doing more with less, or at least, more with the same
If additional resources flow, so much the better. Waiting to make
changes until more money gushes to education is like waiting for Godot.
Educators must learn to think more about reallocating present resources
and less about obtaining vast new resources. The new school is often
prepared to do this but the traditional system hasn't caught up to the
System Problems: Staffing
The third system problem involves staff recruitment and retention.
Obviously the new program wants what every program wants, able staff.
It also wants control over releasing them if necessary. A saying goes
that strong staff will find a way to make a weak design work and weak
staff will demolish a strong design.
The staffing problems new schools face involve seniority, bumping
privileges, reduction in force, certification, interchangeabil ity
of staff with the same certification, errors in the original selection
of staff, and filling vacancies.
Once staff are aboard the new program, some may not work out well for
one reason or another. An ugly impasse develops if the errant staff
member doesn't want to leave and decides to hang on to the job. Some
people stay in a program even if unsuccessful because the work site is
con veniently close to home. Few school districts have tackled the
problem of weak staff in an effective manner; nor have they addressed
the special staffing needs of an alternative program. An art teacher is
an art teacher %14 an interchangeable part.
System Problems: Summary
The three system problems, focus, resource usage, and staffing
encompass the usual problems of bureaucracies with many rules and rule
enforcers. In any system there will be rules and monitors. Long
standing rules need periodic housekeeping, not just an accretion of
more rules and procedures. Unfortunately, the people carrying out their
duties of compelling compliance to rules and procedures can get a
little officious and sometimes more than a little mysterious about
exactly how one can satisfy them. This is less a problem in regular
schools where each year is about the same as the last and few changes
are made. For new schools, the situation can be a combination of a
nightmare, Catch 22 and Kafka.
In contrast to system problems, client problems involve students and
parents. If students are assigned involuntarily to the new program,
they or their parents may object strenuously if they don't like the new
program. For example, in one new junior high school organized under
Lloyd Tromp's plan (modular scheduling, student choices, large and
small group instruction) most parents accepted the program. But a
vociferous group of parents, aided by a few dissident staff members
(one a janitor), constantly harped on problems. After four years of
this, the school board closed the program and installed a conventional
Obvious as it is, new school staff need to realize that complainers
make them selves heard more than satisfied people and can bring a
program down even when most parents are happy with the program. Thus,
there is a need for systematic evaluation procedures and an official
representative council to speak for the school.
For example, in a large prestigious suburban high school, a school
within a school developed along the lines of the Summerhill philosophy
where students had an equal vote with staff and had great freedom to
determine their program. The program came under attack on the basis
that students were wasting time and not learning anything. Ordinarily,
such a program is easily eliminated but in this instance, several
parent advocates convinced the school board to take the time to
evaluate the program. Strong support for the program emerged and the
program survived a few more years.
When students or parents complain about a standard school program, not
much sympathy is extended %14 school is school; it doesn't claim to make
everyone happy, so people ought to simply adjust. In the case of a new
program, involuntary placements create big, virtually insurmountable
problems. With voluntary enrollment, different, though substantially
fewer, problems arise.
Although students complain about regular schools, students in new
schools will find that everything is not perfect. Students most
successful in the old system often resist change because they realize
they have to the most to lose. They knew all the right buttons to push
in conven tional classrooms, and they fear losing out in any
realignment. The new program may not employ standard classrooms or use
report card grades. Students used to being told what to do are now
expected to shoulder initiative and personal respon sibility. It
takes time %14 for some students, a long time %14 to assume responsibility
for their own learning.
If the new program is progressive, some parents will feel it isn't
progressive enough or it isn't structured enough. I remember two
parents within the span of an hour complaining about our open education
program. One said it was like a prison; the other said it was a zoo!
A common client problem under voluntary enrollment arises when the
student likes the program and the parent or one of the parents doesn't.
In my experience, the more traditional parent usually wins the argument
but at considerable cost to family tranquility. Staff will anguish over
losing a student who was thriving in the program.
A serious client problem faced by many new schools is becoming
overloaded with "problem" students. New schools soon discover that
schools are eager to cast off their difficult students and will counsel
them to enroll in the new school. If a school becomes over burdened
with more than its share of such students, parents of other students
exit the program and the school will lack a representative student body.
New program staff, concentrating on substantive teaching and learning
issues, hardly expect client problems to loom in their face. They
expect the new program, by virtue of its greater responsive ness
and more effective curriculum, to satisfy clients. While that happens
for many, staff need awareness of potential problems to avoid the
surprise and shock that not everyone is thrilled about their new
The two types of problems, focus and client, if anticipated, can be
managed to reduce discouragement and the enormous energy drain of
constantly responding to problems.