Can all these wonderful ideas be applied in the "real world" of urban public schools? The following interview provides a glimpse of what is possible, and what it will take to make it happen. It is a story of empowerment we all can share.
LaVaun Dennett is Principal of Montlake Elementary School and Director of the Excellence & Equity Committee of Puget Sound Education Consortium, 2409 22nd E., Seattle, WA 98112 or 206/281-6860.
– Robert Gilman
Robert: Let’s start with some background on the school; for instance, what is the mix of kids here?
LaVaun: It’s very diversified: 70% of our kids bus in from all over the district, 49% of our kids are black, another 5 or 6% are other ethnic groups and the rest are white. It’s a nice mix of kids socioeconomically as well. We have some parents with kids who will be going to kindergarten in a couple of years and they are already looking at the school to try to figure out if this is the right place for them, and then we have kids who’ve had problems in other schools who have been referred to us and some whose parents have moved three or four different times in the past year.
Robert: How about the building itself?
LaVaun: The building has been here since 1914 I think and it’s very small. I can’t think of whom they built it for. There are two classes on this floor and seven upstairs. In addition we have six portable buildings. One of those is a daycare and another is a portable lunch room.
Robert: How many students all together?
LaVaun: 243 this year. Initially when I came there were a few more students, about 250, but because of the way we have the kids spread out we really don’t have space for any more. Last year we had reading and math classes in the teachers’ room and the gym and had science classes in the lunch room. There’s no extra space to do anything. We have kids in every little nook and cranny working on learning. That’s part of what I like about what’s happening now.
Robert: How did The Montlake Project start?
LaVaun: Actually it has only been two years since we started formally calling what we are doing the Montlake Project, although in reality it started four years ago when I first came here as principal. It takes a while to build that kind of foundation.
When I first came the classes were really self-contained. People just sort of came in in the morning, said hello to each other, went to their room and stayed there until spring, you know. I found the same kinds of things that the researchers were saying: that people felt isolated, they didn’t feel support, they felt like the district, the system was unresponsive to their needs.
Nevertheless, they had had this wonderful principal, who’s now an area director. She’s tall and picturesque. There’s a certain sense of power in her just when you watch her walk into a room. You never can imagine her ever having to tell a group of kids twice to be quiet. There was just that whole aura of who she was as "the principal". Then here I came. I have trouble deciding whether I want to wear jeans or a skirt today, and even had some alternative school background. It was very, very different.
The first year we didn’t do much. We just got to know each other and they figured out that even though I hugged kids in the hallway, I could still discipline them. If that meant getting in the car and driving them home and sitting across from their parent and talking about the problem, I could do that too. So we gradually developed some trust with each other.
There were some people who, by the end of the first year, knew they probably weren’t going to be as satisfied with my particular style as they would like. I try to get in and out of classrooms a lot and I’m not really good about telling you in September what we would be doing in June. I was always saying things like, "But this will be a wonderful assembly. Change what you are doing with your lesson plans today and let’s all have this wonderful assembly." A couple of teachers that wanted something a little more planned, more predictable, actually transferred to another building at the end of the first year. New people filled their positions, people who were more open to my style, and who wanted to help me create this program.
The next year, we started what we called the "all building reading program" in which we grouped the kids according to their reading skills and what concepts they were working on in reading. We mixed the kids by grade level in the classroom, and broke the teachers’ pattern of being in that isolated, self-contained classroom. Now they had to talk to other teachers because they were sharing kids.
At first there was a lot of doubt that it would work. They were saying things like, "How would the little kids be able to move from classroom to classroom if you didn’t put them in nice straight lines and walk them down the hallway? How would they handle the difference in style from their homeroom teacher to their reading teacher ?" and so on. Yet what we found was that the kids didn’t have any trouble with it at all. Some teachers had more trouble, however. You would go to their classroom and they would have all of their fourth graders sitting on one side of the room and all of their fifth graders sitting on the other side. It was hard for them to let go of that.
By the end of the year most of the staff had decided that they liked this new reading system and that it was actually their favorite hour during the day (although a couple more decide to move). So we decided to do the same thing next year for math, as well.
We had also started, as a staff group, to ask some broader questions. I had read one of the recent books on leadership which talked about "a thousand little things." So we asked ourselves, if we were going to improve this school next year, not thinking about the magnificent things we could do, but if we were just going to do a thousand little things better, what would we do? And on the top of that list every time was class size.
After the staff left for the summer, I was looking at our Effective Schools Data. That’s this big blue book that the school district puts out. It’s just full of data on the schools, the kids, the staffs, etc.. One of the things that’s clear from this data is what’s called "disproportionality", that is, there’s a disproportionate number of black students who are in the bottom third on the CAT (California Achievement Test) test; a disproportionate number of boys who are in special ed.; a disproportionate number of black students in special ed.; and so on. It is a problem (under many different names) that has concerned educators for years, but nothing seems to change.
When I looked at the specific data for our school, we had the same patterns as everyone else. I knew I had a staff full of good teachers, people who were caring, who wanted to make a difference. Yet we didn’t see any changes in what was happening to our kids. Once kids are identified for special education they have a tendency to stay in special education for the rest of their life and it really is literally the rest of their life because even though they graduate from the 12th grade they still carry with them the label that they are handicapped and cannot learn the way other people learn.
So I thought, "What can we do to look at this differently? What would I do if I could do whatever I wanted?" As I was playing with the numbers, it became obvious that if I put our specialist "pullout" people back in the classroom it would significantly drop class size, and if the staff was right, that would make a difference.
Robert: What do you mean by specialist pullout people?
LaVaun: These are special program teachers who pull kids out of the normal classes for extra attention of one kind or another. At that point, we had one full time special ed teacher, one full time Chapter 1 teacher, one full time Chapter 1 aide and one full time special needs teacher. All of those people were identified to deal with kids who were at risk in some way. Normally we categorize between eighteen and twenty two kids every year as special ed. That generated a full time special ed person. The special needs position and the Chapter 1 positions are based on socioeconomic need, mobility, how many kids move in school in a year, bilingual kids, kids who were from single parent families, also special ed kids and kids who were in the bottom third on the CAT test. You get points for all of those things, then if you get enough points you generate a staff position. Based on those kinds of things we had three people, three certificated teachers above classroom assignments that were doing pullout, enrichment, remedial kinds of things with kids.
If I put those teachers, in theory, back in the classroom, I would have a class size of about twenty to twenty two as opposed to twenty eight to thirty. That was our class size problem that everyone kept talking about as being the critical thing. I thought personally that the critical thing was staff development. If we teach better then the class size issue isn’t as important as it is if you don’t teach as well. Of course that’s true, but the staff still felt that class size was even more important. They felt that they were doing a good job already but the class size would make the difference.
So I put this together as a proposal and took it to the district and to my area director and said, "I’ve got this great idea. Why don’t we put all of these people back in the classroom and cut class size down? We wouldn’t have a special ed teacher to pull out kids who need that kind of help, but they’ll get so much help in the classroom that they wouldn’t need it." And they said, "Well you can’t do that; it would never be in compliance with state and federal guidelines for how you use those people." So I said, "OK, who was it that had the most restrictive guidelines?" I assumed it would be the special ed teacher. So I went to our special ed director, Herb Barkaloo, and said I was trying to figure out how to solve this problem and I understood that we wouldn’t be in compliance if we did that. What could we do? There’s got to be a way. He said at that point the state was talking about a program that they called linking, where they wanted to look at how you use your resources in a coordinated way. He said, "We’ve been working for about nine months trying to come up with a model and haven’t been able to come up with anything we like. I think maybe this would work."
So he would send me off to talk to somebody and I’d come back and say, "Well here are three problems." We’d work those out and go back and talk to somebody else. We kept working all summer, and by the fall we had put together a basic model for what would eventually be called the Montlake Project. We went to the assistant superintendent, Alice Houston, and said, "This is something that we want to try, and we think we’ve worked it all out and so we’re going to implement it at Montlake this year. We think that we can make a difference in disproportionality." She said it sounded wonderful.
Next we contacted the state and told them what we were going to do. They said we had better come and talk about it because it does sound like there are some compliance issues but it’s really interesting. By this time the school year had started and we decided to go ahead.
An important thing the district did was give me permission to give an administrative transfer to anyone in those specialist positions who did not want to be involved in the project because they were the people who would be going through the most change. Before they were working with one or two kids at a time, or maybe as many as five kids at a time, but now they would be working with a whole classload of kids and that was not the job that they thought they were taking when they signed on for that position. So before I even talked to the rest of the staff I went to those people and said, "This is what I am going to do this year. I really want you to be a part of it but if you choose not to then you can transfer to another building." One of my teachers did transfer. The other one stayed. (The third was an open position, so I just hired a person who knew what she was getting into.)
Next I wrote a letter to the staff and we had a two-day workshop that the special ed department covered. We called the teachers in and said, "Here’s this wonderful model. This is what I think I’ve been hearing you say for the last couple years. What did I miss, how could we make it better, what do you think about this? We can throw it all out if it doesn’t sound like it would work."
They started off saying the district would never let us do that. I assured them that the district would indeed let us do it; that we already worked all that piece through and now it was a matter of how we put together the best possible model. So we fine tuned what we talked about in the spring in the sense of the structure of the day, which we had already started to move toward. Then we put together a staff development program that would provide comprehensive training over the process of the whole year. They helped identify things that they thought they needed to work on and I suggested some things which they agreed to. Then we just put the people back in the classrooms. So basically those were the three strands: reducing class size, the staff development, and then restructuring the day.
Robert: Can you describe how the day is structured?
LaVaun: If you were a third grade student, for instance, you would come into what we call core class, which is a home room group with all other third graders. You would have a half an hour in your home room to do morning kinds of things, to set the tone for the day. Then at 9:30, you would go to a language arts/reading block. That block is based on the skills and concepts you are working on and it could have third, fourth, and fifth graders in the same class. It’s an hour and a half block, and it might not be with your home room teacher. During that time the science teacher, the PE teacher, and the librarian all work on that basic skills block so those class sizes are even smaller. They might be as small as ten or twelve kids if you were working on beginning skills where the kids need a little more individual attention or are less independent, or there might be between eighteen and twenty kids if you were working with the upper ranges where they are more independent and need less individual attention. Then you go to recess and come back for an hour of math, also skill grouped, also multi-aged grouped. Then you go to lunch after which you come back to your single-age third grade core group in the afternoon.
Robert: What do they do in the afternoon core group?
LaVaun: They cover all the other subject areas: social studies, science, PE, health, art, music, all the other basic things that are covered during the day.
The morning block of time is uninterrupted time with no pull outs for anything. Before we had kids pulled out for special ed, for Chapter 1, for music lessons or PE or whatever. Now it’s basically a block of uninterrupted prime time time where they can really concentrate on those basic skills. Now that the kids don’t have those extra enrichment or remedial resources, the teachers must see that everyone’s needs are met in the basic structure. Kids with all different abilities are mixed together working on the same concept.
When they first went into the classes, the kids said, "What is this? There are third graders and fourth graders in the same class. What is this all about?" It took just about three days to get over that for the kids. What was going on in the class was just so much more interesting. Their ability to succeed in the class was so much higher that they didn’t pay any attention at all to their grade level or whether it was a high group or a low group. Even those kids who knew that they were in a group that was working on a little lower skill were so successful that it didn’t matter anymore. They just got excited by the learning that was going on. That was much better than being pulled out to go down to the room for special ed or for Chapter 1 where they knew that’s where the kids who were having problems go.
The reality is that in those classrooms there are some kids who are working above grade level, some kids who are working right at grade level and some that might be below grade level. So you are not tracking all your slow, at risk kids over here and all your gifted kids over there. They’re all mixed together so you get the advantage of those kids whose skills and confidence are high working right along with those kids whose skills and confidence are a little lower. And they support each other in a completely different way. Even though the third graders might be working a little above grade level and the fifth graders a little below grade level, the fifth graders have writing skills and experience that give them an advantage. For some of those kids it is the first time they’ve been able to be really competitive or above level or able to reach out and help somebody. Before they had always been at the bottom of the heap; now they are willing to volunteer in a different way and as they get more actively involved in the learning process, it is reinforcing itself. We’ve seen kids do complete turnarounds in just a year that you would never have believed possible.
Robert: How about the third strand of your program, the staff development? What were some of the skills and techniques that you worked on with the teachers?
LaVaun: This has been a two-year process now. In the first year we did more of what I think of as philosophical umbrella kinds of things. We did learning styles, how to work with a wide array of differences, and used the Bernice McCarthy material as a foundation for that. We did cooperative learning, how you group kids together so that they work cooperatively to support each other.
Robert: Is that like the work that David and Roger Johnson have done?
LaVaun: Yes, that’s the foundation we used. Then we did what I call proactive classroom management, which is basically how you set up your classroom so that you avoid the problems in the first place. You deliberately think about how you’re going to hand in papers, teaching a signal to call kids to attention, how you are going to pass in and out of the room, etc.. You don’t assume that kids come into the classroom always knowing how you want them to behave. Instead, you are deliberate about it. You plan for it, you teach it, you reinforce it, just as if you were teaching ABC’s.
The other thing we did was the TESA training, which is the "Teacher’s Expectation and Student Achievement" material which says that you get what you expect to get. And not only that, but you also set kids (and people) up by the way you interact with them. The research has been able to identify specific teacher behavior and its effects on students. For instance when you have a student whom you know has learning problems, you might ask him a question but you don’t want to embarrass him so you wait maybe three seconds for him to answer the question because you know that he is a little slower. With a child that’s "gifted", you expect him to have the right answer so you wait nine seconds for him. Not only that, but you might also ask probing questions so when that student gives you the answer and it’s not right on target you say, "Are you sure you understood the question? Remember this is what we are looking for. That’s good; elaborate on that a little." But with the "slow" student we might say, "Good try," and then go on.
One of the components that I love about that program is the peer coaching that the teachers do. They go into each other’s classrooms and look for specific behavior like questioning techniques, wait time, etc. Then they give each other feedback so that teachers can target specific behaviors to improve. That is really important.
The second year we targeted things that were more for specific skills and techniques. We reinforced the TESA material, did a little more with learning styles and more specific skills with the cooperative learning, so we kept building on the things that we had done before. But we also began to look more specifically at participation, for instance. How do you get all of the kids actively involved in the lesson all the time and how do you prepare the mind set so that the kids will be ready to learn when they come in? Again being more deliberate about teaching those skills and improving our own. We also did a wellness strand for teachers and tried to get them to move that a bit more into the classrooms – we were looking for stress release techniques that they could use for kids and things like that. More experiential learning as well.
This year we’re beginning to look more at program kinds of things. For instance, we are using the reading series that the district adopted but now we are also going to do some training on whole book reading, so that the kids can learn those same skills by actually reading novels together. We’re identifying specific pieces of curriculum that we want to get more experience in and go to the next level of thinking skills and creativity.
The other thing that’s interesting about the staff development part is that initially I did a lot of the training or I brought in consultants. Now, the staff is doing a lot of their own training. For example, one of my teachers went to the study skills workshop and when she came back, she taught us. A couple of teachers have been into cooperative learning a little longer, so they’ll take us the next step in those skills this year. We are beginning to use them as the trainers and leaders themselves.
In the same way, when I first came to the staff and said, "Let’s do a school improvement plan," they said, "Oh, just tell us what you want us to do; we’ll do whatever you want. We haven’t time to do that; we’re too busy teaching now to sit on committees." Now, they come to me and say, "You know, I think we ought to get involved in this program," or "There’s got to be some way we can get more supplies and materials here. Bring a budget to the next staff meeting and let’s take a look at it." It’s wonderful because before it was my responsibility. Now they are saying, "Let’s do this together and see if we can’t think of a better way to do it," and of course we can.
Robert: What’s happened with the kids in the past two years, in the process of doing this?
LaVaun: We see a tremendous difference at both ends of the scale. Our at risk kids are turning around and being less at risk, and our gifted and talented kids, who normally would be siphoned off into another program in the district, are staying. They are staying because they are getting both the academic challenge and the richness of being in an environment that has a lot of variety of cultural backgrounds and interests. You know, even if we become absolutely brilliant, if we don’t learn how to relate to each other as individuals we are just as much handicapped as not being able to learn the material. What we see happening with the kids is that their relationships get stronger and stronger, the way they support each other, and the way the staff supports each other, too. The climate of the building, the feeling, is turning around and the academic scores, the CAT scores and so on, are increasing dramatically. It’s pretty exciting.
Robert: Have you affected disproportionality at all?
LaVaun: Yes, that’s one of the things I like to brag about. All of our kids’ scores are increasing so we haven’t as much narrowed the gap between, for instance, our black and our white students. But as you saw when you took a look at the building today, we have a nice mixture of kids at every skill level now and the black students are making a significant increase. In the evaluation we did last spring there was a dramatic difference in what was happening to our black students at Montlake and those at other K-5 schools that they compared us with.
The other thing that’s really exciting for me is that we used to have between 18 and 22 kids that were labeled as special ed kids here. This year we have 5! And one of those kids, I am going to drop. His test scores, when we tested him to place in the reading and the math groups, were in 7th grade level, so he doesn’t need to be a special ed student. He is still working on some behavioral problems, but he has just made a tremendous turnaround. We have stopped labeling kids because the changes you see happening in this system are so much more effective than what we were doing before when we were doing the pull out model. I think that there are some situations where a pull out model is good for some kids, but not here. I can show you kids that in our school, the way it was before we started this new program, would have been in a self-contained special ed classroom, who are now functioning in the regular classroom. They need attention and support but they’re able to get that in a way that they would never be able to do if they were labeled and categorized and placed in separate special programs.
Robert: What are you doing for the five remaining special ed students?
They were actually kids who were classified before we started the program and we just sort of carry along because it gives us a way of tracking whether or not we can see any difference in these kids because we pull some special data on the computer. Basically they are in the classroom right along with other kids. What we do is see to it, by the way we do class assignments, that sometime during the day they see the "special ed" teacher. Until this year we had a teacher with special ed training who had the authority to make decisions about special ed testing and so on. By careful conferencing with the parents, we were able to be in compliance as far as special ed needs. So that worked really well.
The Chapter 1 was not as simple. That’s the big problem with the program, the way we have done it. I mentioned that we contacted the state in the first year about compliance problems and we were able to get the special education pretty much in compliance, but the Chapter 1 regulations basically say that the Chapter 1 teacher cannot work in any way with any kids who are not labeled Chapter 1. We tried a couple of things. We pulled the Chapter 1 teacher out and had her work as a team in individual classes but instead of being an equal team member she was more like an aide. That wasn’t appropriate. The other thing that happened was that the kids in the classrooms began to turn around so quickly that we didn’t need an aide in there. It just seemed like a waste of personnel. So every time we pulled something out like that that would actually be in compliance it wasn’t as effective as what we were doing before so we went back to our basic model.
Robert: What problems did that generate for you?
LaVaun: At the end of the year the district and the state finally asked me to go back to a model that would be in compliance. When I went home from the meeting, I decided that I would do as they asked. One of the things that we wanted to do here was to be sure that we could replicate what we were doing in other places, so if that was something that we just couldn’t replicate then we needed to figure out another way to do it that would work; it was a problem that we didn’t have solved yet. But that night when I was thinking about it I decided that what was happening here was too important.
Robert: So what happened?
LaVaun: I just had to say no, and the staff agreed, which took a lot of courage on their part. I have a lot of respect for their willingness to make a decision to joggle the system a little bit. If we could just show people that it was possible, without a great increase in resources or without somehow destroying the system in order to recreate it, but even within the confines of the system, to show people that there was an alternative that would work. Then maybe they could look for their own alternatives and begin to find other better ways. Also, there might be some possibility of changing some of the laws and regulations that were now so restrictive, that were created for the sake of protecting these kids but have, to some extent, gotten in the way of really meeting their needs.
I also have a lot of respect for the district. Bob Nelson was the superintendent at that time. I called him and said, I just think that this is too important. We really can’t go back. We’ve got to show people that we’ll get changes in CAT scores and all those other things that people want as well as a difference in the climate of the building, and the way kids feel about themselves. Even if we didn’t change the CAT scores the climate change by itself would be too important to let go. He said OK and he wrote a letter to the state and asked for a waiver but they said that it was too late in the year. You have to get a waiver before you do it, not after. The district basically picked up the funding for that position for that year and did not get it covered by the state money. That was again a really courageous thing.
Robert: Out of that decision did you wind up losing any staff positions?
LaVaun: At the end of that year we had to make a hard decision. Because we weren’t labeling the kids in the same way, the district had to cut back on our staff. When I got my basic staff allocation, instead of having a full time special ed teacher I only had a half time teacher and instead of having a full time special needs teacher I only had a half teacher. The district also changed the way they allocated Chapter 1 positions and as a result I lost that one completely, so instead of having three people above my basic classroom assignment, I only had one.
Robert: So you were punished for success.
LaVaun: Basically, yes. The kids didn’t fit in the right boxes any more. It was very frustrating because I knew that the kids were still here and their needs hadn’t changed that much. It was just the model that had changed. I was also concerned about what happened to kids when you label them and say, "You’re broken; there’s something wrong with you; you’ll never be like real people." That’s so destructive that it had become another philosophical stand that we decided to take. But in order to generate funds from the state or the federal government for those positions we would have to label the kids.
Fortunately, I got in touch with another man in the state Department of Education, Bill Daley, who was willing to help. With his help, and it took all summer, we got a grant to replace those two positions.
That put the program back in place for last year, but it was only a one-year grant. At the end of last year I lost those positions plus the rest of my special education position. The district was tightening up on their staffing because they were having some financial problems. So I had lost four people by the end of last year.
It meant that now I didn’t have people to lower class size and I didn’t have any resources for people if we went back up to classes of twenty eight and thirty. I couldn’t help but think of my people, trusting me and working through this whole project, and now as their reward they ended up in a worse place than where they started. Of course in reality that wouldn’t be true because of what they had learned in the sense of the staff development, in their attitude toward what they were doing and the relationship that they had established with each other. All of that would never have gone back to where we started. But the class size sure would have. For them that was still a critical component.
This time, with the help of one of the parents, Susan Adler, who had been a lobbyist in Washington DC, we were able to get a grant from the federal Department of Education. It was also just a one-year grant so we will be back in the same place next spring looking for money to replace the teachers that we had lost. It’s a large grant, $125,000. But the irony is that all that does is replace the four teachers, and return my staff to the same level it was before we started; it doesn’t give us any extra benefits. It’s really frustrating to think what we could do with a grant like that if we had our basic staff in place too. So in order to pull us back up to the funding level of the other schools it’s been taking a lot of time and energy and it’s very frustrating to keep doing it over and over again.
At the same time, this year there were two pieces of state legislation that we had some influence over. That’s been one of those wonderful things that, when you’re lying awake in the middle of the night wondering if it’s all worth it, remind you that it is. One was The Schools of the 21st Century legislation, which basically says there will be twenty school districts that will be able to create a model program and the state will waive any of the categorical state requirements that get in the way. The other piece of legislation rewrote the Remedial Assistance Program Money, which was like Chapter 2 with the same kinds of rules and regulations, and now they are calling it Learning Assistance Program and it’s a lot more flexible.
Robert: What kind of response have you had from other schools, for example, the schools your kids go to when they leave Montlake?
LaVaun: That’s beginning to be a bit of a problem. The first year we started the program, we had one group of kids during the reading and the math time that was working above fifth grade level. Now we have two groups of kids that are working significantly above the fifth grade level. And I’ve got a group of third graders coming up that are already above the fifth grade level. When our kids go on to other programs that are using the next level reading book, which they have already read, people call and say, "You can’t use that book for enrichment." But we’re not using it for enrichment, we are using it for curriculum. In theory they are saying "Well if they already have those skills then of course we have got to do something else", but on the other hand it is awkward. So it’s nudging the system in ways that we really didn’t anticipate. I am not sure how we are going to solve that.
We will probably use different books but it’s not just a matter of using a different book; it’s really a matter of the concepts and not holding kids back to a conceptual level. We don’t necessarily want kids to go up through twelfth grade material when they are in fifth grade. It’s doing things vertically and horizontally. One of the things that happens when you enrich learning and they really understand it is that the kids have such a good foundation that when you give them the concept, they get it immediately, plus they are already expanding it. So, if anything, it allows them to go faster. We are going to have to do some work with the middle schools and see if we can’t work out a way that there’s some kind of an enrichment class or a less graded program there also.
Robert: What about K-5’s?
LaVaun: Well there are different things that are happening in reaction to the program. Some people say, "Well if you can do that then we can do it, too." They are beginning to try new ideas also, and that’s exciting. Some of them have asked us to come and speak, myself or my teachers, I have worked on planning with another principal, and principals and teachers have visited the school. In fact last year we probably had close to a hundred and fifty people that came, anywhere from superintendents to teachers to principals from all over. From Portland, Sedro Wooley, and places I couldn’t even figure out how they heard about what we are doing. And that was very, very rewarding for my staff because they knew that people were going away with ideas and we’d get letters back saying "You’ve changed the way we are thinking about what we are doing with our kids this year." That’s been wonderful.
There have also been some people who said, "Why are you getting so much attention? You’ve got all those resources, of course you can do it." That’s been frustrating. I have tried to make it clear to people that the resources we have really just replace what we had to begin with. They could do it too and more.
Robert: What would you suggest to people who would like to make changes like what you’ve done? What are the key insights that you’ve had along the way that you would want to pass on?
LaVaun: There are several things, although I don’t have any surprises. First, staff ownership and involvement in creating the program have been absolutely the key. Because they believe in it, they make it happen. It wouldn’t make any difference if it was this model or some other, if they believed in it the way they believe in this, you would see a difference.
The other thing (which I sometimes don’t like to say to people) is that if you are going to do something that changes a system, it takes a great deal of time and energy and you have to be willing to put in that time and energy. Right now my kids are pretty much grown and so what I do is school. But if I were somebody else who was spending the amount of time on her job that I spend on my job I would be giving her very long lectures on why she shouldn’t be doing it. It’s a deliberate commitment to say this is going to be my life for a couple of years until we get all of this worked out and then I can get a little more balance in my life.
You need to have a personal support base somehow, and my staff has been that for me. I remember one day when I was leaning against this door frame thinking, "One more thing that I have just got to do," and someone came in from the other room and said, "You look like you could use a hug." And I said, "Boy could I!" So they came over and gave me this great big hug and somebody else came in from the hall and said "Oh, wait let me give you one." And so by the time I got through I had a line of about six teachers who just literally lined up and gave me a hug just when I needed it the most. It’s wonderful. They really have been family.
The other thing that I tell people that I think is important, that I didn’t do and that I would try to do a little differently, is finding an advocate inside the system.
Robert: From my experience, you can’t go about finding a mentor first and then decide to stick your neck out.
Robert: It’s only once you’ve shown some initiative that, in fact, the mentors will be willing to listen to you.
LaVaun: I think that’s true. An exciting thing about this is that once you create a place for things like this to happen, then it almost takes on a life of its own. People keep saying, "What’s going to happen when you go away; is it just you?" And it’s not me anymore. I like to think that I had something to do with starting the spark, being the catalyst, but from that it’s been the input of the teachers, the parents, and other people who just came by and left an idea here or there, or listened when I needed to talk. Once the door is open then there are so many resources and so many people who want to help that just needed an opportunity. They need to believe that they can do it, and they can. A friend of mine has this saying that I absolutely love, that I think is just exactly what’s happened here. He talks about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I think that’s what happened; we’ve created a place where real ordinary people like you and me can do extraordinary things and everybody has just risen to the occasion and done more than they ever thought they could do.
Robert: Including the kids?
LaVaun: Especially the kids.