• by Abelardo Villarreal , Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2006 • Dr. Abelardo Villarreal

In the November-December 2005 issue of the IDRA Newsletter, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA executive director, presented a model for assessing school conditions and outcomes, identifying leverage points for improvement, and informing action (2005). This Quality Schools Action Framework is based on experience and empirical evidence that emerges from existing theories of change. The framework and related definitions are available on the IDRA web site (http://www.idra.org/resource-center/a-quality-schools-action-framework/). This article examines ways to strengthen school capacity.

The human body is equipped with an immune system that protects it from outside biological influences. A school is like a human body. It has an “immune system” that equips it with the capacity to fend off internal and external influences that hinder its ability to successfully educate all children. For purposes of this article, capacity refers to a school’s immune system that, when activated, has an extraordinary ability to fight hurtful influences. Just like the biological immune system, schools have a first line of defense to continuously ward off damaging influences and a capacity to strengthen this line of defense through external intervention and assistance.

Understanding and banking on this capacity for self-renewal is basic to finding effective remedies to many education problems. This article demonstrates how this immune system can ensure that all of a school’s interacting parts can be aligned to create a healthy school by: (1) describing what constitutes a healthy school, (2) briefly discussing two major woes that threaten a healthy school’s existence and functionality, and (3) outlining ways to build up a school’s immune system.

What is a Healthy School?

A healthy school may be described in two interdependent ways: (1) consistency and quality of outcomes as defined through success of all students regardless of ethnicity, race or socioeconomic status, and (2) access to strong and decisive governance and leadership, teaching quality, and a world class curriculum.

A healthy school has great accomplishments in student academic performance, a strong student holding power ability, no achievement gaps among student subgroups, high graduation rates, high college preparation rates as demonstrated through high college entrance examination scores, high college enrollment and graduation rates, and strong community and parent support for the school.

Also, a healthy school is filled with student excitement, engagement and inquiring minds that thirst for knowledge by questioning, hypothesizing and discovering. A healthy school draws strength from its leaders, teachers, community and parents. Its leaders are committed to excellence and equity for all students, its teachers are qualified and ensure that all students have access to knowledge, its community fully supports the school’s efforts, and its parents are the unquestionable and best partners in education. With today’s demands for excellence, healthy schools must be in a constant state of improvement.

Threats to School Health

Unfortunately, a healthy school is a much-sought after luxury in many communities. Mediocrity and a dismal failure to teach students from diverse backgrounds and of low socioeconomic status are the two major illnesses that threaten the viability of our schools.

Mediocrity is defined as a paralysis of an educational institution that maintains the status quo regardless of its effectiveness, is content with its limited capacity to produce excellence, believes that improvement is out of its reach, and masquerades mediocrity as excellence. A school should look for signs of mediocrity and take immediate action. Some signs of mediocrity in schools are the following.

Misplaced and discouraged innovation.

Mediocre schools make changes that fail to target critical areas of need. They fake change, are overly cautious, and do not promote innovativeness. Their leaders fail to share and promote leadership among staff. No risks are taken.

Blame the students and community.

It is not uncommon for a mediocre school to exonerate itself of all blame for ineffectiveness. Mediocre administrators and teachers firmly believe that student performance in their school can never reach the level of excellence that other schools reach supposedly because their students are not capable and because parents and community are uncooperative.

The “now” is the limit.

Mediocre schools grow sour in their student performance because they feel that the limit has been met given the students they have and the community that those students come from. Because of that circumstance, their school cannot expect and should not expect more than what it is accomplishing.

Systemic deception

is the rule rather than the exception. Mediocre administrators and teachers circumvent policies and best practices because they have little hope and low expectations of their students and have no faith in the community served by the school. Pretexts abound for unfinished or unacceptable teaching. Dishonesty and keeping quiet about fraudulent behavior are common systemic regularities.

Unqualified staff.

In mediocre schools, teachers are non-degreed, and many are teaching out of field. Administrators lack the leadership and management skills to guide a school through tough times. Teachers lack the desire and commitment to grow professionally and make a difference in the lives of students. For many, teaching is just a job, and these teachers have few accomplishments to show for their time. They lack self-efficacy and hold low expectations for themselves. They institutionalize low expectations across the school, having a negative impact on students, parents and community as a whole.

Under-funded schools and classrooms.

Appropriate funding to provide the necessary opportunities to learn in a safe environment usually is missing in mediocre schools. Administrators and teachers use this lack of funding as grounds for their lack of accomplishment or their inefficiency in teaching students from diverse backgrounds.

Biased governance and leadership.

The absence of leadership in the school board and the mismanagement of a school are also symptoms that contribute to mediocrity. A school board where infighting is common and micromanagement runs rampant is fertile soil to breed discontent, promote mediocrity and endorse inefficiency.

Lack of partnership with communities and parents.

Schools where teachers and administrators feel foreign and have little in common with the community in which they teach become vulnerable to heartless, insensible, indifferent and mediocre teaching.

The second problem that beleaguers a school is its inability to increase the academic performance of all of its students. Many factors contribute to this. These factors are: (1) prevalent mediocrity; (2) inability to teach students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds; (3) uncaring and mediocre staff; (4) no access to a world class curriculum; (5) low academic expectations, particularly for low-income and minority students; and (6) a community that fails to require educational excellence from its schools. These factors also have a demoralizing and weakening effect on the school’s immune system to protect its viability as a great equalizer.

Building a School’s Immune System

How does one build up a school’s immune system to deal with the two major woes that afflict schools? The first step is to assess the effectiveness of the school’s critical interacting components and determine the health of each component. The box below provides a description of those interacting components of a healthy school.

The second step is to base the priority to act on each component in relationship to academic success and intensity of need as demonstrated through the assessment phase. Address each component starting with the ones that most directly affect student outcomes. Research has yet to establish the degree of interrelationship of the components and student outcomes.

The third step is to recognize that renewal is internal and solutions and remedies to mediocrity and school failure must emerge from the school’s immune system with strong support from external resources. Autoimmune forces (internal forces such as sabotage, disruption and incapacitation) must not stall the school’s immune system. It must create an environment of support and determination to guarantee the success of its remedies.

Excellence is prized; mediocrity and student failure must be out of favor. Schools must recognize that they have an immune system that must be activated and exploited. Solutions to education problems must emerge from within and have support from external agencies to be successful.

All students need to have access to a high-quality education that prepares them not only to go on to college but also lays the groundwork for a life that includes the potential for economic success, full participation as a citizen of a vibrant democracy, and the ability to enrich themselves with ongoing learning experiences.

School’s Interactive Components and Description

Fair Funding is the availability of funds in a school district to support a quality educational program for all students. • Provides enough to fund a quality school program.
• Provides enough additional funds for a quality school program for students with special needs.
• Provides enough to fund educational programs to help students who are not having success in school.
• Is fairly distributed among the various schools in the school district.
• Is fairly distributed among the schools in the state.
Governance is the policy making and pro-active support of a school board to support a quality educational program for all students in a school district. • School board actively supports a quality educational program for all students.
• School board sets policies that support programs for students who are successful academically.
• School board sets policies that do not affect negatively the quality of education that some students receive.
• School board provides for funding and other resources to implement policies that support programs for students who are not successful academically.
• School board supports efforts by school administration to ensure high achievement and no achievement gaps among different student groups.
• School board tracks and acts on inequalities within the various schools’ academic achievement performance.
• School board tracks and acts on inequalities within the various schools’ access to resources and quality curriculum.
Leadership is the ability and inclination of administrative and supervisory personnel to deliver quality educational services to all students and prides itself for its ability to hold on to students in a school setting. • School leaders know the needs and educational programs for the various student populations.
• School leaders know the needs of a diverse student population.
• School leaders actively promote and ensure that the needs of a diverse student population are met.
• School leaders represent the ethnicity of the student population in the school.
• School leaders involve parents in the decisions affecting the quality of education that their children receive.
School culture is an educational environment that promotes safety and high expectations for all students, reflects high energy and commitment across the board to do what is needed to ensure that students stay in school, and guarantees academic success for all students. • School personnel at all levels reflect attitudes and beliefs that all students can and will learn in that school.
• School personnel at all levels respect and value all students regardless of ethnicity, religion and lifestyle.
• All students feel safe and are able to express themselves without fear of ridicule or embarrassment.
• Students from various ethnic groups respect each other and learn in a cooperative setting.
Community involvement is the creation of a partnership based on respect and the shared goals of academic success and integration of the community into the decision-making processes of the school. • The community has an interest in becoming an integral part of the education community of the school.
• The community takes a pro-active role in ensuring that all students receive a quality education.
• The school actively promotes the involvement of the community in school activities and decisions.
• The school perceives community involvement as an essential partner in its campaign to teach all students.
Teaching quality is the preparation of teachers, the placement of teachers in their fields of study, and the opportunities provided teachers to grow professionally. • Teachers have the highest preparation available to teach students from different cultures and languages.
• Qualified teachers (bilingual or English as a second language teachers for English language learners) are placed in appropriate classrooms.
• Teachers teach in their discipline.
• Teachers have ample opportunities for professional growth.
Assessment and accountability are the school practices related to fair and unbiased assessment of students and the degree to which schools take responsibility for the academic success of all students. • School uses fair and unbiased tests that are reliable for students from diverse cultures and languages.
• School uses assessment data in planning and delivering instruction.
• School communicates assessment data in a comprehensible way to parents and the community.
• School feels responsible for serving a diverse student population.
Curriculum is the educational programs of study, materials and other learning resources, such as technology, and their accessibility to all students. • Academic goals for the school are congruent with district and state goals.
• Curriculum meets federal, state and local requirements.
• School offers quality bilingual or ESL programs of study for English language learners.
• School offers quality educational programs for students with disabilities.
• School capitalizes on the power of technology to enhance the delivery of instruction.
• School offers the most challenging state graduation plans available.
• School has agreements with colleges and universities to offer courses that carry college credit.
• Students, regardless of ethnicity or home language, have access to the most challenging graduation plans and courses.
Instruction is the practices that teachers use in the classroom to deliver comprehensible instruction that prepares all students to meet academic goals and ensures that no child drops out of school. • Teachers use appropriate teaching techniques that are aligned with student characteristics and learning styles.
• Teachers feel responsible for teaching all students.
• Teachers capitalize on cultural resources in the community to enhance their teaching.
• Teachers articulate high expectations through their actions and beliefs.
• Teachers communicate with other school personnel to coordinate the best instruction for all students.
Student engagement is the school activities designed to incorporate students into the learning process and other social activities within the school that ensure academic achievement. • Teachers know and practice the value of connecting students socially and academically.
• All students believe that school personnel want them engaged in the academic and socialization processes of the school.
• There is evidence that all students have access to and are supported in the academic and socialization processes of the school.
• All students feel valued and respected and engage themselves in the academic and socialization challenges provided by the school.
Support systems are programs and activities designed to support students academically, psychologically and socially to ensure that students reach the goals set by the school. • Counseling programs are sensitive to cultural and linguistic characteristics of the student population.
• Counselors are trained and committed to work with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
• Counselors and teachers encourage and prepare all students to enroll in college.
• School provides academic programs to address students who have fallen through the cracks.
• School has been successful in addressing students who are falling through the cracks.
Source: Villarreal, A. Intercultural Development Research Association, 2006.

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Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]