Schools and Bureaucracy: Empower Your People; Chrysler Does — Part C

Summary: A program to provide extra help to struggling students in one school shows the potential inherent in staff/administration cooperative planning.

Among the casualties of recession driven budget cuts in our school was the after school activity bus, admittedly a hard ride from a student’s point of view, as it meant as much as a 45 minutes to an hour serpentine excursion on a single bus through the extended area of our school district. Still, it was useful for students who needed extra help after school, even though the dreaded long ride would loom in the background.

With the demise of the activity bus, underclass or low income students who didn’t have wheels were effectively blocked from seeking help from teachers after school, even if an individual were so inclined. That too few were so inclined, anyway, does not detract from the lack of opportunity for such students in a school environment where we try to pull low income students into opportunity. The lack of available transport after school for low income students is in effect discriminatory; as a result such students have limited access to help.

The issue has burbled for the last couple of years. My own partly whimsical and partly pointed suggestion that all students with an F in one class be required to stay after school for an extra hour of help would have required a fairly massive grant to pay for a renewed activity bus run, and extra teacher time, and then was impractical given the 30% or more of the student body who are failing at least one class at a given time.

Yeah, it’s that bad; most of the fails are unnecessary and a product of student inattentiveness to their studies; we don’t sell the game well enough, I guess.

Other staff members recently have engaged in discussion of a more realistic alternative to serve the same need, stimulated by programs ongoing in nearby school districts. The gist of the proposal is to add an activity period to the school day once a week, based upon our advisory system, in which each student has a faculty advisor that stays with a group of 20-25 students for their four year stay in high school, and which has met perhaps three times every two months as needed in very recent years.

The focus would be on math and science skills, our two biggest areas of need. During the study period, for the duration of a month, any student who has a D or an F in one of these areas would be assigned to a “help room” staffed by teachers in that discipline. Those teachers’ own advisories would be dispersed to other teachers’ advisories, where a quiet study time would be enforced.

After a month’s time, grades would be revisited, and those again with D’s and F’s at that juncture in math and/or science would be ticketed to spend the next month of study time each week with a math or a science teacher for help in the respective discipline.

I like several things about the proposal. First, it was a creative attempt to meet a clear need, and would engage low income students into the help loop along with others. It may prosper; it may fail. But without such experiment, good ideas never get a chance to take wing.

Secondly, the system requires students who need help to seek help. Too many such students are not yet mature enough to recognize their own best interest and to seek help on their own, so we need to encourage them and mean it. Yes, there will be some who fight these efforts, but the betting is that enough of the kids will accept this necessary structuring (note my ongoing lament about accountability for kids in our culture), and decide to make use of the help since they have to be there anyway. No doubt a certain amount of staff time, particularly administrative time, will have to be spent rounding up the wayward and herding them to their designated stations. We love them too much to let them off the hook, etc.

Third, uncharacteristically both for our school and for hierarchies as a type of organization, the program arose out of ongoing conversation in which staff, rather than admin, led the charge, in this case the math department. To my way of thinking, for an idea borne out of the staff to bear fruit as a school wide implemented program is a profound turn of events with far reaching implications, and is just short of revolutionary, in schools as I have known them. The stifling of staff initiative I think has been one of the strongest barriers to reform in American schools, and one too little discussed.

The willingness and ability of admin to grow into such partnership as a critical factor also is difficult to overstate. Note in my recent stories of Toyota and Chrysler that bottom line profit concerns on the part of management have been the instigator of  similar reforms first in Toyota in the post Second World War period, and now currently in Chrysler as the American automaker experiences a resurgence of profit. The key in all cases is to unlock the creativity, energy, and ground level knowledge of the boot workers, whether on the factory floor or in the classroom.

Fourth, and really a corollary to the preceding point, the program to be implemented germinated with an idea, but was nurtured in ongoing meetings between staff and administration to work out bugs, fine tune the mechanisms, and anticipate and answer potential problems. Though I was not directly involved, what I heard I liked. How often have we all been visited with a new program from somewhere on high that might have merit, but flounders on realities ground level staff could have anticipated and adjusted for had they been consulted in the first place?

Fifth, in companion to the roll out of the program, it was understood that required twice weekly meetings by department, designed to examine student data in order to fine tune instruction, would be cut to once a week. I made the point in our union meeting that it was an important precedent to be set — the acknowledgment that new task added should be offset by a reduction elsewhere. Heretofore, new programs or new responsibilities were simply added on without such compensation, which had bred much smoldering resentment.

Think again of muri from Toyota, the concept of overwork, in which the product becomes shoddy because workers are simply asked to crowd too much into their work day. For those workers who have their own independent standards of quality effort, the corollary in this context is just such resentment, because the individual teacher of quality is forced into circumstances in which he or she cannot meet their own high standards. Any complaints fall on deaf ears, on the benevolent end of the spectrum, or suffer retribution on the malignant end.

So it would be good to report that the program has been implemented, and despite early growing pains, the good work put in prior is bearing fruit. Unfortunately, on what seemed to be the eve of implementation……..(continued next week)

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