Implementation of the Family Plan in Las Vegas

Shortly after assuming the Las Vegas City Schools superintendency, Mr. Atencio decided to implement his vision of the Family Plan at Memorial Middle School. Like the previous middle school, Memorial was structured as a traditional junior high school and was in need of reform to improve the educational services for an unusually high number of at-risk students. Eighty-five percent of the student population was Hispanic, 80% was on free or reduced lunch, and 70% came from single-parent households.

Mr. Atencio quickly realized that restructuring Memorial was going to be a formidable task for several reasons. First, as Mr. Atencio reported, the school was "notorious for its constant turnover in terms of leadership." Second, in light of their previous unsuccessful experience with the implementation of the "open classroom" approach, staff were extremely reluctant to attempt to implement new innovations. Finally, the staff included an unusually high number of teachers who were considered generally "uncooperative" and ineffective in their teaching practices. According to Mr. Atencio, a number of these staff members exerted substantial influence on other staff and methodically exercised this power. In many cases, instructional programs were implemented based on what these persons wanted to teach rather than what might be best for students.

As a result of these three factors and committed to the belief that schools are for students, Mr. Atencio took a "top down" approach in implementing the innovation. He mandated that the school be restructured to incorporate a new middle school philosophy. Mr. Atencio reported that the decision to restructure Memorial was motivated not only to improve instructional services to students but to return decision making to all Memorial faculty rather than leaving it in the hands of a select few.

Although a number of Memorial's staff lacked a strong commitment to students, Mr. Atencio believed that with the "right kind of leadership" committed individuals at the school would be willing to stand up for kids and would make appropriate changes. He knew his vision would have to be pervasive and his direction would have to be strong. As he explained:

"The leadership is one that they can trust, like when the going gets rough they won't be left high and dry. That is very important. That is something that anybody who takes on the leadership role has to realize again if you are really serious about things you have got to be willing to put things on the line, and then not gripe about it afterwards. The idea of leadership, a leadership that is able to somewhat break the mold of the way people think and be able to say 'wait a minute, you should look at things in such a way that nothing is sacred, that everything can be changed.'"

Being from a small town and Hispanic himself, Mr. Atencio realized that change would be difficult for many of the staff in Memorial, especially for those who were considered "uncooperative". He knew that the cause for this resistance could be attributed in part to an ingrained community culture. As Mr. Atencio explained, "They are born into a community, they stay in a community, they go to school in that community and then they come back [to work in the district] and do the same old thing."

Under the direction of a strong leader, Mr. Atencio knew the more committed individuals would rise to the challenge and try the Family Plan. Consequently, in the two short years that followed, Mr. Atencio along with his assistant superintendent led the restructuring of Memorial from a traditional junior high school to a middle school that was implementing the Family Plan. Students at Memorial were heterogeneously grouped into families of one hundred students, with four teachers from the core subjects of language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science. A family of students rotated among these four classes, and their teachers had a common preparation period in order to coordinate lessons, develop interdisciplinary units and/or address student behavior and concerns. Cooperative learning was used as the primary instructional approach of the school.

The chronology of events that follows delineates the strategies that Mr. Atencio used to implement the Family Plan during his three-year term as superintendent. After leaving Las Vegas City Schools, the implementation proceeded under the direction of Mrs. Holguin, the principal who Mr. Atencio felt would ensure that his vision for Memorial would become a reality.

The 1989-90 School Year

  • Mr. Atencio identified Cip Chavez and Jackie Alarid, Memorial's school counselors, as primary change facilitators who would articulate and lead the implementation of his vision at Memorial during the initial year. Mr. Atencio informed Mr. Chavez and Ms. Alarid that Memorial staff would be implementing the Family Plan during the 1989-90 school year. As Ms. Alarid stated, "He came in September and wanted it in place in January and we said there was no way we could do it." Consequently, they compromised on implementing the Family Planduring the next school year.
  • To share his vision of restructuring Memorial, Mr. Atencio sent Mr. Chavez and Ms. Alarid to visit several schools in New Mexico that were implementing the middle school approach. As Mr. Chavez reported, "they returned all excited but ran into a brick wall." Other Memorial staff and parents did not share their enthusiasm for making this huge change. They believed students were doing well academically since test scores were well above the mean for the state. But Mr. Atencio understood that good student performance was not enough; affective issues had to be addressed as well. Consequently, he sent a second group, consisting of parents and teachers, to visit sites throughout the state. This second strategy was effective in winning the necessary support for the need to change; and soon after, staff began the process of implementing the Family Planat Memorial.
  • To combat general resistance to the Family Plan at its introduction, Mr. Atencio convened a number of meetings with Memorial staff in which he discussed middle school issues addressed in the report, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, prepared by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development's Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents (1989). As previously indicated, the staff believed that the school was already effectively educating its students, since test scores were well above the mean for the state. Additionally, they expressed reluctance to change because they saw the Family Plan as a repeat of a previously implemented innovation, and some believed that this innovation was "just another change that will go away." At these meetings, staff were allowed to express their concerns about the Family Plan and its implementation and they also provided encouragement to one another. Furthermore, staff realized that, "Something needed to change. Kids were getting lost in the shuffle". This process of listening and dialoguing eventually led the staff to agreeing to "give the Family Plana try."
  • Similarly, Mr. Atencio held a number of meetings with parents about two fundamental components of the Family Plan­ heterogeneous grouping and cooperative learning. Initially, parents objected to the disbanding of honors science and mathematics classes and the reintegration of these students back into regular, heterogeneously grouped classes. They believed their students' academic performance would suffer. And, second they opposed using cooperative learning as the school's primary instructional method, since they believed that students would be doing the majority of teaching instead of teachers.
  • Mr. Atencio persisted in his vision and persuaded the community that replacing honors classes with heterogeneous grouping would eliminate the tracking system and would benefit all students, both affectively and cognitively. He assured parents that students would receive more attention and more meaningful instruction through the use of interdisciplinary units. Eventually, a compromise was struck and pre-algebra and algebra classes continued, and cooperative learning was implemented as the school's primary instructional mode.
  • Mr. Atencio and the staff used the remainder of the year for planning the strategy to be taken in facilitating the restructuring. Central administration contacted state leaders in the restructuring movement, and obtained from the State Department of Education the guidelines and waivers necessary to facilitate the changes.
  • Mr. Atencio requested the implementation of the physical changes necessary to facilitate the Family Plan. Although some teachers were reluctant to move, teachers were reassigned to different classrooms, so that they would be located in the same area as their family.Portable classrooms were also appropriated to segregate the sixth grade from the seventh and eighth grade classes.
  • Mr. Atencio, with assistance from the assistant superintendent, arranged for a state university to offer the first of four courses on middle school education at Memorial; to be held during the summer of 1990. The remaining three courses, addressing the implementation of change and establishing curricula, were planned for the fall of 1990. These courses assisted in establishing a philosophy that Memorial staff would take in their restructuring efforts. Moreover, staff earned as many as 13 hours of graduate credit for taking these classes, and also received a stipend.

The 1990-1991 School Year

  • Rather than piloting one grade level only, the staff, convinced of the need for change, converted the entire school to the Family Planunder Mr. Atencio's direction. At its initial implementation, students were heterogeneously grouped into families consisting of approximately 100 students, with four teachers who would teach the core subjects of Language, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. Core classes were no larger than 14 to 22 students per class. Cooperative learning and interdisciplinary units were the instructional approaches of the program. There were a total of six families ­ two sixth-, two seventh-, and two eighth-grade families .
  • Throughout the next two years, Mr. Atencio and the assistant superintendent continued to articulate the vision of the Family Plan during their frequent visits to Memorial. As one teacher stated, "I think the previous administration was so set on getting it established that you did hear constantly what needed to be done." Mr. Chavez reported that upper administration employed "constant bombardment" to get staff high on the Family Plan, but the general sentiment was that Mr. Atencio "thrusted" the Family Plan"down our throats."
  • In response to parent and teacher concerns, the assistant superintendent, with assistance from staff members, reorganized the teams to better balance teachers' skills and abilities within groups at the conclusion of the 1990-91 school year. Some teachers were so unhappy with the reassigning of families that they transferred to the high school. But Mr. Atencio capitalized on this situation by hiring new teachers whose attitudes and experiences were conducive to the Family Plan's philosophy. As one staff member explained, these new teachers were then targeted as a group who would easily "buy into" the Family Plan,since they had arrived at the school without preconceived notions and were untainted by Memorial's past experiences. Mr. Atencio believed that if he could build this group to significant proportion, then they would strongly influence the others to follow. In succeeding years, this group increased in size as new teachers were hired to replace those who quit or retired.
  • Mr. Atencio, through his networking, was able to get the State Department of Education's Re: Learning Project and the Rockefeller Foundation Project to begin a long term affiliation with the school. The Re: Learning Project provided Memorial with additional resources while the Rockefeller Leadership Academy trained school staff in planning and implementing fundamental educational change and in developing a system of continual learning.

The 1991-1992 School Year

  • Mr. Atencio hired Mrs. Holguin, a new principal, to lead the implementation of the Family Plan since the former principal had retired at the end of the previous school year. Mrs. Holguin was selected for several reasons. First, she had worked in the district for a number of years and thus was not viewed as an "outsider". Second, as a former counselor, she believed in the Family Planphilosophy and its merit for middle school students. Third, her administrative training provided her with the necessary skills to facilitate the implementation of Mr. Atencio's vision.
  • Mr. Atencio and the assistant superintendent supported Mrs. Holguin in all of her implementation efforts. They allocated financial resources, made time for staff work sessions, connected the school with organizations that provided expertise, and arranged for ongoing staff development. Moreover, they were publicly visible in their support for her efforts. As one teacher reported, "Administration would attend meetings, conduct in-services, [and would show] firsthand involvement in staffing patterns. In a way I like that, in that it shows confidence in what we are doing."
  • Mr. Atencio and Mrs. Holguin established a common preparation period for teachers to develop interdisciplinary units and/or to handle student concerns. At this time there were few interdisciplinary units taught - initial units were developed by teachers who had been paid to work the previous summer.
  • Mr. Atencio, with assistance from Mrs. Holguin, reconfigured the position of the assistant principal. During this time an intern from the state university served as interim assistant principal while administration evaluated this position to identify how it could best serve the implementation of the Family Plan.
  • Mrs. Holguin, with Mr. Atencio's approval, added a 35-minute daily advisory period to the beginning of the school day, to allow teachers to work with students from their familieson topics such as self-esteem, or to meet with students individually.
  • Families grew to include other teachers in addition to those teaching the four core subject areas. A familycould now include from one to three teachers of elective subject areas or Special Education teachers.
  • Due to political factors and pressure from the school board, Mr. Atencio resigned as superintendent in November, 1992 and the position was filled in December, 1992.

Over the next several years, Mrs. Holguin carried on Mr. Atencio's work. She hired new teachers who supported the philosophy of the Family Plan, provided training in the use of interdisciplinary units and cooperative learning, arranged for teacher mentoring, improved communication among staff and between staff and parents, obtained additional resources for the school through grants, increased parent and community involvement, and assisted in the school's renovation.

Under Mrs. Holguin's direction and with staff support, the following changes occurred in the structure of the Family Plan over the next few years.

The 1992-93 School Year

  • Sixth and seventh grade students in a family were promoted as a cohort to seventh and eighth grades, rather than being divided into new families.
  • The advisory period was replaced with a bilingual instruction period in response to state bilingual funding considerations.
  • Interdisciplinary units were systematically implemented, since success with these units had been experienced by several of the familiesduring the previous year.
  • Special education and elective subject-area teachers were more comprehensively included into the families.

The 1993-1994 School Year

  • Special education students moved out of their self-contained classroom to join their peers in rotating assignments within a family.
  • Renovation of Memorial was fully underway, with the organizational structure of the families reflected in the school's basic architectural design.

The 1994-1995 School Year

  • The organizational structure of the Family Plan was institutionalized in the school's architecture, with a separate wing designated for each of the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade familiesin the renovated buildings.
  • Cooperative learning was incorporated into all of the classes and although the interdisciplinary units require an inordinate amount of time to develop, several of the families are employing them.

Although Mr. Atencio has been gone for several years, it appears that his vision of the Family Plan has become institutionalized, not only in the school's organizational structure and instructional practices, but even its architectural design. Mr. Atencio's belief that Memorial could and would change, if led by a decisive, visionary risk-taker like him, has become evident. As he predicted prior to his departure:

"I really think that Memorial Middle School will not go back to the way it was. Because there are some good people there. They have bought the dream and I trust them. I think what they tell me is true. That at least gives a person a little bit of hope. What is happening to us is often times we become our own worst enemy, from within there is decay."

Next Page: Outcomes of the Family Plan in Las Vegas

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