The Three-pronged Approach

In summer 1992, PSJA had to submit a PSI improvement plan for the 1992-93 school year. Its plan focused on the school's human elements in the belief that feelings that staff, students, and parents had about themselves, their homes, their relationships, and the school environment were affecting student outcomes. School leaders hoped to heighten expectations-including the expectations that students had of themselves-and thereby increase students' chances of success.

To improve the attitudes of students, staff, and parents concurrently, school leaders relied on a three-pronged "development" approach:

  1. change staff's mental frameworks through monthly staff development sessions;
  2. heighten students' attitudes and expectations through retreats and Saturday workshops; and
  3. improve parents' understanding of their role in children's learning through parenting classes and workshops for parents.

In fall 1992, there were signs that the school was struggling. With juniors and seniors back in the school for the first time in three years, expanding the curriculum, enhancing extracurricular activities, and planning for graduation became priorities. Testing and sudden changes in scheduling were also diverting attention away from the PSI plan. The first in-service in September 1992, however, had been a success, and more activities were planned to target the attitudes, relationships, and mental frameworks of staff, students, and parents.

Development of Staff

School leaders made a point of treating staff as accomplished professionals. They were asked to give input on how to increase test scores and design lessons that addressed the state's academic objectives. A campus council was established to promote site-based management, and much of the burden of decision-making shifted from the principal to the council. Each department elected a council representative who was generally, but not necessarily, the department head. The elected representatives relayed information and issues to the teachers in their departments and returned to the next campus council meeting with feedback from those teachers. Refreshments at meetings, incentives for good performance, and a teachers' luncheon were steps taken to enhance the social climate of the school.

PSJA sought and received a waiver to increase the time devoted to staff development to one day per month. The topic of the first in-service in September 1992 was Life Management Skills (LMS). Through activities and working in groups, staff focused on themselves as persons, family members, and teachers. They got to know one another on a personal level and shared their best and worst experiences with teaching. Several members of the faculty commented on the value of this session. One teacher, who had worked at the campus for many years, referred to it as the most valuable training she had ever received at the school. She described the poignant impact of the video Classroom of the Heart, in which a teacher tried to understand students in light of their background and particular circumstances. Overnight she began to question her own attitude toward some of her students, thinking freshly that perhaps they could do better in school. "I had never before felt myself change so quickly," she said. This session was so well received that the school devoted a second in-service day to Life Management Skills later in the year.

At another in-service, data were presented on each teacher's rate of failing students to underscore teachers' responsibility for the success of their students. Several staff reported contacting parents more frequently concerning the students in their classes.

At an in-service held late in the year, school leaders involved staff in a review and revision of its campus improvement plan. Approximately 200 professional and paraprofessional staff members worked alternately in small and large groups to revise the plan in a single day.

Development of Students

On a campus with nearly 3000 students and more than 200 staff, it is easy for students to disappear in the masses. Teachers work in earnest to prepare students for the future, forgetting that students in high school are dealing with their own emotional and physical development, peer pressure, problems at home, drugs, violence, and a myriad of other social problems. To deal with these problems, school leaders organized a Life Management Skills retreat for at-risk students plus four Saturday workshops during the same period that it held monthly in-service days for staff. Like the LMS sessions for staff, these activities gave students the opportunity to focus on how they felt about school, how they related to their peers, and how they communicated their feelings to faculty, friends, and parents.

To deal with gang-related and other problems, the principal designated two staff "liaisons"-a man and a woman-to assist male and female students, respectively. Through individual counseling and support groups, these liaisons worked with both gang members and students who feared the gangs, serving as their advocate in matters involving their teachers or parents. A local police officer, who specialized in gang activities, often gathered two of the rival gangs to discuss their concerns and differences. He helped them to arrive at possible solutions and even arranged athletic events for different gangs in the community.

Students who performed well were given pins symbolizing the school mascot and treated to special activities away from the school that were often sponsored by local businesses.

Development of Parents

The first parent meeting was organized early in the school year to address gang violence at school. From this meeting, the following was learned:

  • Parents felt unwanted at school.
  • Parents felt it was difficult to change their children's behavior at this age.
  • Parents discovered that their children were not the same at school as they were at home.
  • Parents were not aware of laws that affected their children and other juveniles.

This first meeting led to monthly parent meetings that addressed these four issues. These meetings, in turn, led to training sessions on parenting skills that are still going on throughout the school district. Despite the problem of overcrowding, a "parent room" was set aside as a place where parents were welcome to visit or do volunteer work. A minimum of four parents staffed the room on a daily basis. The principal wanted parents to feel that PSJA was their school-not just their child's. He sought ways to build bridges between the parents and the school. Activities for parents stressed how important it was to be involved with their children's school, to communicate with the teachers, and to help out when possible.

Near the end of the school year, the school dedicated a day of in-service to hold "Community Day," a celebration especially for the seniors where students, staff, and community members enjoyed games, activities, and music. Each department contributed to the festivities in one way or another. A play showed a day in the life of a new teacher during the first week of school, and a role-play contrasted different communication styles between teachers and students. With gangs active on and off campus, the leaders took a risk to hold this event, but it attracted a good turnout. Community Day enhanced school pride and crystallized the feeling that teachers, students, and parents genuinely cared about each other and could work together in a cohesive way.

Next Page: Lessons on School Improvement

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 3, Number 2, Changing Mental Frameworks: One High School's Success through a Triad Partnership (1994)