by Marion Marks
Leadership locally has been shaken up in the last twelve months with a new Shreveport administration and educational change at both the central office and recently in school board governance. Superintendent Lamar Goree has an appropriate, yet ambitious, Transformation Zone plan, even when measured against the state of Louisiana’s shifting goal posts and the quandary all educators and tax payers are facing.
On December 17th Goree’s Transformation Zone coordinator, Billy Snow, led a tour to three Transformation Zone elementary schools for approximately twenty community members who have been outspoken or committed to improving the parish’s educational needs. I documented this tour on video because visual and auditory documentation continues to reveal important data. Particular attention should be paid to some facts documented:
Billy Snow is the unashamed “Chief Shepherd” of the Transformation Zone program, supporting students and system needs. He freely admits his role as chief committed advocate for students at these schools and political correctness is not necessarily a requirement for his job.
The foundation of the Transformation Zone requires the Climate & Culture of the schools to become realigned to preclude distractions to the educational environment, and the first thing observers witnessed was that many former behaviors we may have been plagued with were no longer tolerated. “Referrals” or major behavioral infractions have been cut this year from last to less than half of what they had been. Statistically this is significant. Snow calls this “teaching and modeling social skills,” and, at a minimum, this change will affect the learning environment. When children have not learned these social skills prior to arriving in the classroom, the school becomes the real parental controlling agent. Accepting the reality of this role is but a first step, and yet, it cannot be ignored.
Teacher Effectiveness is a foundation in any educational system, and in the Transformation Zone schools the teachers’ effectiveness can only be positive after the environment is made safe for all parties and academic change may then proceed. The physical environment at these schools was transformed over the summer and pride of ownership was obvious in all parties. It was amazing what paint, signage, uniforms and higher expectations could do to previously dilapidated collections of buildings.
Lesson design, assessments and goals within these schools does not appear to be what some parents would want to accept, yet when you consider that the road to Rome begins with but a single step, you understand the needs and starting point from which many of these children begin their true education. My observation of some of the lessons was that teachers engage the students where they are and demand progress. The enthusiasm for learning was evident, and regardless of all distractions, students were engaged in the constructive challenge to learn. Assessments are required to be aligned to lessons taught on a daily basis. If we succeed, the many, many small steps may eventually result in a livable community.
Intervention for individual student services is built into the schedules for all participants at these schools. Children are not pulled out of regular classes for services, which tends to single out needs and focus on not fitting into the system. The environment seems tight as some peer pressure to succeed, with positive reinforcements, was evident!
Data drives the Transformation Zone schools, and constantly monitoring changes and effectiveness of programs allows all parties (students, teachers, administrators, parents and anyone who gets a pass to visit the school) to understand what succeeds and what doesn’t. One complaint most teachers have to the constant demands for data is that too much time is taken from real instruction to generate data that is repetitive. However, data is the engine that drives proof of performance.
My first question of the educational plan is, who generated these new goals and are the measurements for the goals taking away from education? If teachers are teaching to tests, and the test seems to change so often, are students being educated as parrots of answers for specific tests? Or, are life lessons being taught? Forgotten in much of the data for most observers is that prior to this Transformation Zone model, most of these children did not feel safe in their schools and learning was often secondary to surviving the environment.
Regardless of end-of-year test results signals of change are apparent in much of these school environments. Attendance and morale, we were told, made a complete reversal from prior years at these formerly failing schools. Discipline also has reversed course, and schools that previously experienced large numbers of arrests and police monitoring of volatile situations that boiled at times to the level of requiring SWAT team-type intervention, is no longer the primary concern for all.
Community partnerships and support for the changes by non-profit and businesses demonstrates the commitment to change from failures of the past. It was obvious that the Goree team understands that this may be a last opportunity a Midway team has to reverse course, and we pray that this is the new normal.
But, change is now expected at every level of education and in every aspect of governmental systems. This is one positive take-away from the last election cycle. The theory of “Scrubbing the Budget” has legs and new leadership on the Caddo Parish School Board will be expected to work with the Goree team to transparently prove the data of central office accountability for demanded improvement. Unless the revised budget demonstrates the will to cut dead wood from the budget throughout the system, it will be impossible to obtain majority support for any new bond issue.
Yet the school board is only one stone in the larger construction for change that voters believe is necessary if the region is to overcome the failures we have survived. Shreveport and Caddo government leaders must prove change at all levels.
The Caddo educational climate affects city and parish growth and our ability to entertain outside capital to partner in our community. Mayor Tyler uniquely can appreciate Superintendent Goree’s dilemmas. And Tyler’s attendance and participation in the December tour appears to represent the potential for better constructive partnerships.
Success in transforming the parish educational system and the relationships between all parties in the educational framework must be nurtured and accompanied with transparent reporting. The war-room mentality of the past is part of the reason voters railed against incumbents. The sympathetic needs of students, educators, administrators, elected officials and citizens appear to be appreciated and nurtured by the new leadership at Midway.
My thought is that the new leaders still must prove themselves regularly by freely providing to the public evidence that change is being made throughout the system. Diminishing resources for public needs faces all government entities, and education here has demanded the largest tax bite. If the school board expects the public to support any new bond proposal, they have a tough selling job on their hands, even with evidence of change.
Who knows what the next year may bring? The digital education and online schools may be the next wave affecting even Louisiana. Virtual schools offer online supplementary coursework today, often totally FREE of charge! The virtual school approach allows self-motivated students an opportunity unheard of at brick-and-mortar facilities. Advanced Placement, specialized coursework and electives are but a beginning. However, any thought of such for Caddo first requires “self-motivation” of students, and this is the citizenship outline for Transformation Zone schools. So, before you take off finding fault with everything suggested by our new educational leaders, make sure you aren’t applying a scorched earth model from your fit of anger. If the model of Transformation Schools results in former non-productive students becoming good citizens who, in turn, create a productive tax base, we all win. So, the road for 2015 starts with these first small steps.