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SCHOOLS COLUMN: Dialog shows district is on track to reform

Superintendent Gloria Johnston says staff and parents in the West Contra Costa Unified School District have begun to talk about all the right things. Teachers know students have a wide range of needs, and that educators must have a variety of strategies to meet those needs. The district has set goals for student achievement, including having 90 percent of students reading on grade level by third grade, and rarely does she hear anyone express doubt that those goals can be met.

Johnston notes that Michael Fullan, an authority on school change, says reforming an elementary school takes three to five years, a high school six to eight, and a district eight to 10 years.

Johnston says her first three years set the stage, the next three should be devoted to implementing changes, and the final three years to refining what has been implemented.

“The first year or so the conversation was about the past,” she says. The discussion then turned to where we are today, including recognition that many of the district’s buildings are in terrible shape.

The passage of two bond measures to provide funds for major renovation of all district schools addresses some of the district’s most basic needs. The overwhelming community support for the measures provided a morale boost, she says, as did the selection of the district as one of six in the nation to receive a grant from the Stupski Family Foundation.

Early reform work included developing a list of seven strategic priorities in the areas of student achievement, safety, professional development, facilities, family and community partnerships, equity, and communication. Each of those priorities – such as “Provide the highest quality education for all students to become well-rounded, life-long learners and contributing members of society” – is at varying stages of being fleshed out by data collection and preparation of detailed plans.

The work of the next three years includes carrying out the construction funded by the bonds, providing staff with the training, support and feedback needed to improve instruction, and establishing an infrastructure of technology and systems that will allow staff to do tasks such as order supplies and access student achievement data on-line.

“If we are going to be a high-performing district,” says Johnston, “communication and information are key ingredients.”

One of the instructional focuses is adopting a standards-based language arts program and providing staff with the support and training needed to use it properly.

“You don’t just give teachers a new language arts series and say, ‘Go teach this.’ It takes a couple of years to learn how to use it well.”

Johnston says the community can best support the district’s goals for improving student achievement by celebrating schools’ successes and getting personally involved with students.

“If you’re looking to make a difference, pick a school, get involved and make a difference with one student.” Volunteers can help by giving as little as an hour a week. “If enough people do that it would be really powerful.”

Businesses have often been looked to for contributions of money and equipment. But Johnston says Kaiser hospital provides a model for another kind of business involvement. Employees volunteer at nearby Peres and Lincoln schools, while other employees ensure their responsibilities are covered.

“What we’re looking for is adults having positive interactions with kids.”

This column was written by Wire editor Betty King Buginas for the West County Weekly, an insert in the West County Times, an appeared in that publication April 19, 2002.
Run dates: 2002-04-19 - 2002-05-03

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