How do you change a school?
January 23, 2008 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Can you turn a bad school into a good school?

I live in the downtown of the most expensive city in Canada: Vancouver. My catchment area includes two schools. One is an annex, which goes from K to 3. The other is the main school, K to 7. The annex is well regarded. However, the main school is not. The students there have many, many problems. A recent school report shows that 0% of kindergarten students there have personal preparedness skills and that at least 1/4 students is 20 minutes late every morning. 11% of grade 1s can do grade level math. And so on.

The annex has good results. However, because people don't want their kids to transfer to the main school for 4th grade, people move or send their kids elsewhere. By 3rd grade, only 3 students are original to the school and the class size is quite small. (Not that small is a problem.)

The main school apparently has problems with 7th graders bullying kindergarten students. My friend, who is a teacher, says no one wants to teach at the main school, although the annex is a popular destination.

People have apparently hoped to change the main school, but, if you head there for 4th grade, it's hard to get on the PTA. The people who were there from the beginning don't want to give up their spots or vote for new people. And the entrenched people are apparently okay with the way things are. (This is what I'm told.)

Most of the parents I know are great parents. We all have preschoolers. And we're all unsure what to do about school. A few parents have suggested that we could all band together and work to change the schools. The problem is that we'd all want to send our kids to the annex. Then you're in a game of chicken, when it comes to waiting it out till 4th grade. People inevitably panic and pull their kids out before they need to move to the big school for grade 4. And so things never change.

Is there any way to change this? If our kids don't go to these schools, they'd have to go out of catchment, which involves commuting and kind of defeats the purpose of living downtown.

A few key points:
- starter houses in this city are $800k-$1.1M. Housing prices have spiked in recent years; more people are living downtown than ever before, including families.
- the school board decided not to build a new school in this area and instead transferred funding to build a school on the new Olympic grounds
- we've got about 2 years before our kids get to kindergarten
- the nearest French Immersion is over a bridge and so popular that a lottery system is used to award spaces. It is not necessarily a solution.
- we recognize that many "bad schools" actually do a great job in teaching, but the word on the street is that this is not one of them and that the social environment is dismal.
posted by acoutu to Education (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you can turn a "bad" school into a "good" school; however, it takes real commitment. The idea of all of the families of pre-K banding together is a great one. However, insisting that your children all go into the Annex won't help the Main school, so I am not sure how that fits in?

Anyway, to explain where I am coming from: my kids went to a brand new school, the year it opened. We recruited other parents to bring their kids in, too. The school had all the right ideas and all the best intentions, but the first few years were really tough. We went through several administrations. Lots of teachers left, moved, came back (though that is also pretty common in education), and some families decided to call it quits. Yet the last few years at that elementary school were utterly fabulous for the kids! We ended up with an incredible faculty (our math teacher is the best I have ever known), an administration that not only supports and welcomes volunteers but works right along with them, and we built a school playground for the kids two years ahead of schedule as a direct result of parents going out and getting donations. Our fundraisers were massively successful.

That first year in my kids' school, though, I volunteered almost 200 hours. Then next year, I put in slightly less, but I was still there every other day. Over the years, as things came together, I was able to cut back in hours as more families came along and took up the much-needed volunteer work.

That's what making your "bad" school into a "good" one will take--lots of time, lots of community support, and lots of determination. You will need women who are not hesitant to get in to the entrenched group and make waves (oh, and what you are hearing is probably exaggerated--the petty bureaucracies, gossip and back-stabbing that goes on is unbelievable). You will have to find at least one person you can all get behind that you can vote onto the PTA and, if there is really a lot of resistance, you can try entering into the School Advisory Committee or petitioning the principal directly. You will probably end up with the Superintendent of Schools on speed-dial and e-mail, and you should make sure you keep in touch with the local newspapers when you make any kind of progress, so that you can recruit more families to join in to make the school a better place for the kids.

Good luck!
posted by misha at 4:29 PM on January 23, 2008

Seconding misha on her approach. For my son's school, I was concerned enough about what I was hearing that I went part-time on my job in order to volunteer at the school. I've seen our school flourish with every extra bit of time parents can volunteer.

Some comments about the specific problems you mentioned:

The main school apparently has problems with 7th graders bullying kindergarten students

The school should develop a lunch and recess schedule which keeps the older students away from the younger ones. At my son's school of K-5 700 students, the Kinders do not share lunch or recess time with any but other Kinder classes. They also have their own play yards, as the equipment suitable for older kids isn't appropriate in size or skill for 5 year olds. Grades 1, 2-3, 4-5 each have staggered free time schedules where they are the only ones using the lunchroom and play yards. Additionally, programs could be set up where selected upper-grades students mentor younger grade students in a supervised environment. The place to start with these concerns is the main school's principal. I've found that going in with an plan and offer to help execute it gets more results than going in and simply complaining.

no one wants to teach at the main school, although the annex is a popular destination

It would be good to know exactly why teachers don't want to teach at the main school. Is it due to conflicts with the administrators? Differences in pay? Differences in environment? Knowing exactly why will help your group of parents voice their concerns at the district and school board level. You *can* get principals reassigned, just so you know.

it's hard to get on the PTA.

I wasn't aware that PTA (as in this org) had councils in Canada. If your school does indeed have a PTA unit, their bylaws stating details such as officer term limits and election protocols must be on file with the regional PTA council. Those bylaws are available for inspection by any PTA member, which might give you enough information to get one of your own elected. The other way, and the one which applies if your school's group is actually a PTO is for all of your concerned parents to join the school's PTO/PTA, attend meetings and vote. One need not be a parent of a current student to join a PTA unit, however, a PTO may have different bylaws. If there's enough of you voting as a bloc, you shouldn't haven't much difficulty effecting change in that group.

Echoing misha's wish of good luck. I've put a lot of time into my son's school (I'm currently their PTA president) but I don't regret a moment of it as the results have been worth it, times 700.
posted by jamaro at 6:09 PM on January 23, 2008

Thirding commitment. Having the right people running the place makes all the difference.

When I was in grammar school (81-89), it was k-8, 650 students, and run by one guy (the principal), a secretary and an assistant. He was an educational madman- he knew what it takes to educate kids, it was one of the best in the city. He retired along about the same time the local school councils started getting power over the day-to-day operations in the school. Not surprisingly, it has gone downhill. They hired the teachers and administrators that impressed them, not the ones who knew what to do.

Good educators make all the difference. It will be hard to make much of a difference if the school system has a structural problem.

Which is my long-winded way of saying, good luck.
posted by gjc at 8:03 PM on January 23, 2008

With problems as entrenched as these seem to be, you're really looking at needing a systems wide change. You would need administrators, teachers, parents AND students on board.

Have you spoken with the administration? Ultimately it will be the principal who will set the tone for any changes, what does he/she think about the current way the school is operating? I would recommend using Appreciative Inquiry to talk to him. This book is good. Appreciative inquiry is all about focusing on strengths and peak experiences, looking at the values of the organization and imagining what might be. As opposed to a problem solving model (which is focused on what's wrong and how to fix it), appreciative inquiry gets you talking about what you would ideally want and how you can get there.

As previous posters have said, the bullying problem could be dealt with by changing schedules around so that the younger and older kids aren't together. Do you know if there are any anti-bullying programs built into the curriculum?

The problem here is that when you have a school that is having so many issues, it's really not something that can be easily fixed with one magic cure. As I said before, it really does require a systems wide call for change. Good luck.
posted by Nickel at 8:30 PM on January 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all your replies. No one wants to send their kids to the main school, because it has such widespread problems. Some people say that, even if we banded together, we would have little hope for change, because we'd have seven grades above us.

I said PTA, but I guess they are called parent advisory committees or school liaison committees here and not part of a formal PTA, like you have in the US.

Getting people to volunteer for 200 hours would be hard. Most of the parents are professionals. If they had to put in 5 hours a week at a school, they could instead do freelance or consulting work for $50 or $150 an hour and make enough to send their kids to private school. Or they could use that amount of time to commute to the schools across the bridge.

I looked at what the main school is fundraising for...textbooks, bathroom supplies, bathroom sinks. Wow. With so many low income families in the area, that would be really hard. I guess people would rather send their kids to an existing good school where there are more affluent families to fund things. That's very sad.

I'm kind of heartbroken when I see the odds stacked up like this.
posted by acoutu at 2:32 PM on January 24, 2008

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