The Inception of the Family Plan

The vision of the Family Plan was conceived by Mr. Carlos Atencio, a visionary superintendent who was regarded as one of New Mexico's most active proponents of systemic educational reform. Mr. Atencio was hired as the superintendent for Las Vegas City Schools during the 1988-89 school year. His prior administrative experiences include assistant superintendent in Cuba, New Mexico, and principal in Tierra Maria, New Mexico.

Mr. Atencio reported that three factors shaped his vision of the Family Plan: (1) his discovery that students' culture affects academic and social performance; (2) his conviction that students should be educated holistically; and (3) his realization that either students drop out or make a mental decision to leave school at grades seven and eight.

The first factor became clear to Mr. Atencio while he was working with Navajo children in Cuba, New Mexico. During his work there, he discovered that the Navajo culture had a major impact on students' academic and social performance in the classroom. As he stated, children "bring to the normal typical school a very different cultural background and a very different family type thing" and educators should realize that cultural "phenomena are very predictive or influence tremendously the academic achievement of the kids." In his experiences at Cuba, Mr. Atencio observed that these cultural phenomena impacted relationships between ethnic groups. He saw that Navajo, Hispanic and white non-hispanic children did not mingle. Moreover, since many of the minority children were bussed to school, they felt little ownership of the school. In an effort to combat this separatism, Mr. Atencio and his staff attempted "to make the school environment as supportive culturally, ethnically, and in every other way, to a group of kids that was for the most part were being kept apart because they wouldn't mingle in a community." Mr. Atencio stated:

"We wanted to try to get within the school structure a deliberate arrangement that would begin to convey to kids that in this world we are in it together. We either survive together or go down together . . . You don't necessarily come up at the expense of others but you come up and bring somebody else with you as you succeed."

After researching middle school educational philosophy and practices, Mr. Atencio decided that a middle-school reorganizational structure called the Family Plan was the exact structure for which he was searching. Furthermore, the families, a concept on which the Family Plan was based, reflected the values of caring, cooperation and a sense of community or oneness that he felt students desperately needed.

Secondly, during his time, Mr. Atencio also realized that middle school students should be served holistically. He observed that their affective needs, although tremendous during adolescence, often went unaddressed. He explained:

"The middle school environment [should] mirror as much as possible a supportive family environment for kids. It didn't make any sense to me that we usually gave kids the impression that as teachers we really had nothing to do with their personal problems and that type of thing."

As a strong advocate of children, he believed teachers must do more than meet their students' academic needs; rather they must try to serve the needs of the whole child, affective as well as cognitive. As Mr. Atencio emphasized:

"You really cannot treat education as if to say 'we are here only for the business of education and don't bother me about anything else. I will teach you math but I don't want to talk about anything else.' That typical attitude I never really liked because you know now that we know more about the fact that you have to treat the child holistically. So that what they bring to school is tremendously important because if you don't deal with that issue you might be able to do a lot of other things, like beautiful buildings, equipment and everything else but if the kids are not ready to learn you just don't have anything."

Finally, Mr. Atencio encountered the third factor: During grades seven and eight, students were "dropping out, either physically or making mental decisions that they were not going to stay in school." He believed that if he was going to change this pattern, he and others would have to be proactive and intervene early, providing students with both the academic and social supports that would curtail this desire to leave school permanently.

These three factors ­ the impact of culture on students' academic and social performance; the need for students' education to be holistic; and the need to reduce the rate of school dropout ­ prompted Mr. Atencio to develop his vision of the Family Plan, a plan that would eventually be implemented at Memorial Middle School. As Mr. Atencio expressed it:

"My vision of a middle school that should be doing its job at this point as I look at that is (1) that it looks at a child holistically, and (2) a school that does not blame the child for failure or the fact that it didn't work. Say that child was not doing very well in mathematics, is the child to blame, or is it the system that is not doing the work, [not doing] what needs to be done. At the very foundation of everything that a middle school has is the notion that no child is a failure and that they all have simply a different way of learning, that it might take longer, take less time but that no child has inherently this issue that they are failures simply [because of] who they are . . . A typical school emphasizes individual achievement and in a good middle school it takes on a responsibility for all of its members. In that sense everybody is responsible for everybody else . . . As a consequence of caring for each other the academic progress and the other typical indicators of school progress will naturally accrue."

While at his previous district, Mr. Atencio attempted to implement the Family Plan, but was unsuccessful. The small size of the school made it difficult to successfully implement the innovation. Soon after, he left this district and accepted the position as superintendent at Las Vegas City Schools.

Next Page: Research Supporting the Family Plan Concept

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 5, Number 4, Confronting And Managing Culture In A Changing Environment (1995)