luni, 13 ianuarie 2014

Turning a traditional school into an innovative one - a case study

School X is located in a small town at about 100 km from Bucharest, the capital of Romania. The school has around 500 students and it is situated in a poor community, with 70% of its students living in disadvantaged families.

In January 1997, A.T., who had been teaching in that school for 10 years, started her work as a head teacher with the idea that they could only succeed by working together-students, teachers, head teachers, parents and administrative staff. By that time, the school was not the best place in town and it was not always a happy place to be for students and teachers.

Since then, for 8 years (until 2005 when A.T. gave up teaching and started working as an independent educational expert), efforts had  been made to turn the institution from a traditional into an innovative school where students are taught those skills and attitudes needed to cope as adults with a rapidly changing world  and where the policies are meant to encourage education for ‘the whole child’ and life long learning competencies.

Year after year, the school modified continuously (like that living organism called ”amoeba”), passing through various stages of school development and capacity building.

The first stage could be called ‘invitation to change’ as they wanted everybody in school to join the team and understand the ‘why of change’. The focus was on introducing cultural norms that supported improvement (as identified by Stoll): ‘’everyone has something to offer”, “we can discuss our differences”,” we are working on this together”. The school staff began to clarify values and beliefs and developed their mission statement according to the community needs. The basic ideas of the school mission were successful personal development  of students and education for citizenship.The mission was shared with the parents, presented to all students and staff and displayed all over the school.

They made the school building a clean, modern, functional and colourful place. Structural changes were made to enable staff collaboration and staff development became the main target. Student centered approaches were encouraged, praised by the head teacher in staff meetings and shared with other colleagues. That was the time  when the school had specific small initiatives with great impact like:

  • writing the school  Code of conduct and the rules, in collaboration with students
  • developing a new scheme of staff appraisal, based on self assessment and reflection
  • elaborating, in a collaborative way, specific job descriptions for each staff member  

The second phase of the change process ( that could be called “partners in education”) was when the school staff thought of reevaluating their relationships with parents and community  in order to gain their support necessary to succeed in making the changes. They wanted the parents to be informed and to get involved in the school life. At that stage,  a new policy on community links was developed, guiding the school action in 3 directions: performing community service with students, using  the educational resources of the community and developing the students’ skills and attitudes of good citizens of the community. The school itself was to become a small community where children could feel part of the decision making process through a Students’ Council set up for the first time ever in a Romanian school. Also, during this phase:

- emphasis was put on teachers working as a team and the number of interactions between members of the staff got higher
- all teachers participated in professional development programmes that had as objectives developing those skills they needed in order to manage change – team work, decision making, accountability etc.
- efforts were made to improve internal communication, so that everybody in school to be informed about the changes taking place and therefore various mechanisms were created like: installing class notice boards that provided school and class information, using pigeon holes and a school planner in the staff room and starting organising a morning assembly, once a week, in the gym, for primary school students
- a  monthly newsletter was then published and sent to parents and institutions in the community
- the school started writing and sending each family a term school report for their child

A.T. says she would characterise  the third phase of the change process by the words coherence and clarity,  as it was then when she wrote her first good development plan which was elaborated in order to ensure in a professional way  that they were all sharing the same purpose. A set of school policies were also written and implemented in all school departments - policies on homework, managing behaviour, students’assessment and teachers’appraisal. The change of the national curriculum within a more comprehensive school reform gave the school the opportunity to develop its own school-based curriculum and as a result children could attend courses like IT, drama, cooking, education for democratic citizenship, etc. along with a large range of extra - class activities meant to contribute to the children’s personal development.

In this phase the innovation became current practice and at school level there had been created an extraordinary professional community that was promoting the dialogue and the sharing of experiences, mutual support and collaboration. The school had turned into a learning organisation and teachers were very pleased that they had managed to create an oasis of normality within a society that was still looking for its common values. 

The last phase added in the idea of “school networking’. As innovation had become current practice, the school started disseminating experience to other schools and teachers in the country and became a National Centre for School Improvement accredited by the Ministry of Education. Between 2000 - 2005, thousands of teachers, inspectors, researchers and university professors from all over Romania visited the school, attended the school activities and talked to teachers and students. As a result,  the successful school X model, as it was talked about at that time inspired many schools around the country that imported the following ideas, mechanisms, documents and procedures: friendly school environment, ways to display student work in classrooms and on the corridors, active methods that develop critical thinking, Students Council, the design of the school uniform, communication - based management, types of optional courses, community civic action projects, school rules, internal staff appraisal procedures, ways to involve students in organising activities, assemblies, school – based teacher training, communication procedures etc.

After 2005 the school continued to function based on the mechanisms, procedures, documents and types of activities that had been created between 1997-2005. Those are still in place today, almost unchanged and that may be either a strong argument in favour of the efficacy and viability of the change model created in that school by A.T. and her team or an indication of a certain lack of courage demonstrated by the following management team to face new challenges of school development. 

The School Mission Statement

Creating a friendly environment - 1998
Drama club - 2000

Optional course- music

Winners of the big trophy of the National Drama Festival for Students - 2002
In the staff room -2001
Teachers working together - 2002
Special English Evening organised by students

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