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Tuesday, August 10, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tough Decisions -- John Stanford's Book

There's no such thing as a school superintendency without controversy, and John Stanford's tenure in Seattle - popular as he was - was no exception. He didn't have many rocky times, but in his book, he describes one of his toughest situations.

Change is never easy. In fact, it might surprise people who have watched the number of changes we have instigated in our district to know that for our School Board, teachers, principals, parents, staff, and me, there have been many sleepless nights as we've searched for solutions that will improve education for all children. It is especially hard when we have to look parents in the eyes and tell them that we can't give them what they want, what they believe is best for their child.

The most difficult change I've had to make since becoming superintendent was just such a situation. Shortly after arriving in the district, I visited Madrona Elementary School. Madrona was a beautiful old building on a quiet, tree-lined street, but the peacefulness of the exterior belied the state of confrontation inside.

The school was home to two very different programs, a regular K-5 program in one half of the building, the district's elementary Accelerated Progress Program (APP) in the other, and the two programs were highly incompatible.

The K-5 program served 255 students, most of whom were minorities; the APP program served 450 students, most of whom were white. And as you walked through Madrona, it was hard not to feel the division between students, parents, teachers and programs.

The APP side of the building sported decorative bulletin boards with artwork created by parent volunteers, small clusters of children working in hallways and classrooms with more parent volunteers, and an assortment of gerbils, computers, books, and supplies that parents and children had brought from home. If you stopped to read the children's art and writing on the walls, you'd read about field trips they had gone on, about special visitors to their classrooms, about the wealth of programs that had been made possible by parent contributions.

The K-5 side of the building, on the other hand, despite the fact that it received a great deal of support from the APP parents, was considerably more spare. Hall displays were limited to what the hardworking teachers were able to do after children had gone home. Classrooms were stocked with just the district-supplied essentials.

Specialists worked with small groups of children in such basic areas as math and reading, but the parents of the K-5 children did not, or could not, provide the same level of exciting supplemental experiences. Throughout the building was a palpable sense of haves and have-nots, and this inequality did not escape the children. For the self-esteem and the confidence of the K-5 students, the situation at Madrona had to change.

In fact, the district had been trying to do something about Madrona for years. It had examined several sites as replacement homes for APP and had settled on Lowell School as the best alternative.

Lowell, which was centrally located, had a capacity of 450 students but was serving only 250: 220 in a K-5 program and 30 in a program for children with profound disabilities. Of the 220 children in the K-5 program, 164 were bused in from other neighborhoods. Of that number, 26 were fifth-graders who would be moving on to middle school at the end of the year. That meant that if we converted Lowell to APP, we would disrupt 138 K-5 students who could be bused to other schools of their choice, and only thirty children from the Lowell neighborhood who could be given their choice of two other high-achieving schools less than a mile away.

It is never a desirable or easy thing to ask families to leave a school, but this was the least-disruptive way we could create a new home for APP.

Unfortunately, what made sense to the district didn't make sense to the families of the thirty children. They loved their school and were determined to stay, and, because the district had wanted to make this move in the past, they had organized their entire neighborhood - neighbors, businesses, community organizations - to fight the "closure" of their school.

They accused the district of making a decision based on class, of relocating the Lowell children because they were poor and catering to the APP families who were middle class. And in the past, the district, concerned about appearing to bow to elite interests, had stopped short of moving the program. Administrators had studied option after option, hoping to find a less-contentious solution.

After visiting Madrona many times, however, and after attending two large parent meetings at which the divisiveness between the K-5 and the APP parents was strident, I decided that the move could wait no longer. So we studied the alternatives once again, and after several months decided that the best place for APP would indeed be Lowell. We then held several community meetings to discuss the plan with parents and get public feedback.

We were expecting opposition, and we got it. From the moment the news of our plan surfaced, the parents began a coordinated campaign to change our minds. They called our offices daily, they flooded the newspapers with letters and editorials, they held a letter-writing campaign. But in the end, there was simply no place else to move APP.

More than at any time since I'd taken the job as superintendent, I wished I didn't have to act. But I had to. I wasn't making a decision about the 450 students in APP, or about the 255 K-5 children at Madrona, or even about the 30 families at Lowell. I was making a decision for all of them - and for the thousands of children who would be attending those programs in years to come.

I've thought back on the Lowell situation many times since then, not only because it was such a difficult decision but also because it exemplified a truism about making change: Change is rarely simple. No wonder we sometimes look ahead, anticipate the chain of events that a difficult action will trigger, and then, out of fear, or self-protection, or concern that we won't have a 100 percent solution, decline to take that first essential step.

But we can't afford to do that! We are the stewards of our children's futures. They depend on us to do what is right so that they will have the skills and knowledge to build successful lives. We can't let our own fear of change and opposition derail us from our mission. Our children need us. We must put our own fears and egos aside and do what is right for them.

Students wanted a push

One of Stanford's themes as superintendent was the importance of setting high standards for all children. One of the district's strongest moves in that regard was to change the graduation requirements. Instead of asking for only a 0.83 grade-point average - less than a D - for seniors to graduate, the requirement was raised to 2.0, or a C average, starting with freshmen in the class of 2001.

Before we announced our decision to require a C grade-point-average for high-school graduation, I asked students in almost every school I visited what they thought of the idea.

In one of the high schools a group of students gathered around me in the hall. "Don't do it," one of them counseled. "I wouldn't make the cut!" A few others nodded. But the majority disagreed. "I think you should do it," one of the girls advised me. "If we knew those were the requirements, then we'd have to do it." "Yeah," another girl added, "we might not like it, but we'd have to do it." Another one weighed in, "It would make us work harder - and that's probably good." These students wanted us to push them to achieve.

That's what we have to do for everybody in public education because people rise to the level of expectation we hold for them. We must challenge our students to take the hardest courses, to turn every assignment in on time, to raise the quality of their work consistently. We must challenge our teachers to raise every student up to grade level, to find alternatives: ways of teaching the children who are failing, to raise every student's performance, even those who are ahead, by 10 percent each year. We must challenge our principals to set lofty visions for their schools - standardized test scores averaging in the 60th percentile, a dropout rate below 5 percent, zero incidents of violence.

We must challenge parents to send us their children ready to learn, having eaten and slept soundly, having done their homework, having acquired the belief that school is all-important. And we must challenge our communities to help us in this job of public education; we must challenge them to give us their support, to volunteer in schools, to come in and share their expertise, to ask a teacher or a principal, "How can I help?"

Robert Browning said, "Let your reach exceed your grasp, or what is Heaven for?" and he was right. We must set high goals for the people we lead. We must make sure they have the tools to reach them. Then we must love them all the way there.

From the book "Victory in Our Schools: We CAN Give Our Children Excellent Public Education," by Maj. Gen. John Stanford.

Copyright 1999 by John Stanford. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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