B: The Promise of Choice Fulfilled: Wyandotte's Program
In considering the viability of choice as a school improvement option, most district planning committees became so involved in minor questions about implementation that they never developed a grander vision of choice than mere transfer policy. It is a given that choice involves a significant disruption in the administrative status quo, but the benefits of implementing choice properly can be very significant, as evidenced in the Wyandotte School District.
Wyandotte began its Program of Choice at McKinley Elementary in the 1991-92 school year under a grant from the state for restructuring. With part of that grant, some teachers were sent out to look at different alternative programs. They were impressed by the Key Elementary School in Indianapolis, Indiana. After visiting the school, they got some parents involved in developing a similar program that made sense to all of them. That program was built on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and partly on Grace Pillon's Workshop Way. The program was developed over a year's time. Presently it operates not as a separate school but as part of McKinley Elementary. Its curriculum is no different from any other school in the district – it is distinct pedagogically, however. (For more detail on the program, see Appendix 3, Part 2, Inter-view with Dr. Robert J. Dunn.)
According to a recent study by Doyle and Associates entitled A Study of the Program of Choice at McKinley Elementary in the Wyandotte School District, (published May, 1992, p.68-69):
The Program of Choice was well organized, well administered, and well implemented. Sufficient time was given to staff development, teacher planning time, conferences with parents, enriching experiences for children and it had an ongoing evaluation system built into it where teachers met and critiqued their efforts when appropriate....
It is our considered judgement that the Program of Choice has been an enriching, - successful experience for children and teachers in the Wyandotte School District.
After just one year of operation, Wyandotte's Program of Choice registered reactions that speak for themselves. According to a Wyandotte teacher of 30 years who is now involved in the McKinley Program of Choice,
After having been a teacher for many years, sailing safely through charted seas, secure in the knowledge that I had traveled this way so many times, it was therefore with trepidation that I dared to venture into new uncharted waters. I had grown tired of the sameness of the scenery, day after day, year after year. This sameness had become extremely boring and no longer satisfying. The P.O.C. [Program of Choice] was in these uncharted waterways and I became excited when I Learned about this program. Here was a way to end all of this tiresome sameness and to learn all the new and exciting ways to teach. I would be part of a team and have a chance to make learning fun again! I took the challenge and what satisfaction it has brought! With a positive approach, I am once again sailing although through new waters, and I find teaching fun, exciting and new again! See the smile on my face ! Join us and be happy, too. (Doyle, et al.)
The attitudes displayed by such feedback from teachers in a thoughtfully designed choice program speak volumes about the effect that autonomy and direct involvement can have on teachers' outlooks even when, as in the McKinley program, the involved teachers are not paid more than their peers.
Wyandotte's program also fosters parental involvement in education, which has repeatedly been shown to contribute to improved student achievement. Unlike many parental involvement programs that are token in nature and make little impact on the learning process, the Wyandotte program requires a specific, active commitment by the parents (Doyle et al., p. 9). More specifically, the report explains,
Parents wishing to participate in the program filled out a form which included the child's name, age, and grade level.
Parents had to sign a written agreement that they were willing to give two hours a month to in-school support, would provide transportation to and from school, and would allow their child to be videotaped for portfolio assessment purposes.
Parents are expected to meet on a regular basis with the teacher to discuss their child's progress. If parents are unable to comply with the above agreement, the child could be placed back in the regular school program at the end of the school year....
The parent survey data is extremely positive regarding parents' perception of being actively involved in their children's education. Of the 61 parents surveyed about the McKinley program, "One hundred percent (100%) of the parents `strongly agree' or `agree' that the Program of Choice offered them a fine opportunity to become more involved in their child's education.... Ninety-three percent (93%) of the parents `strongly agree' or `agree' that their child is very pleased to be in the Program of Choice. Seven percent (7%) were not sure and checked the `neither' category. Parents say their children are enthusiastic, love their teacher, learned a lot, are not bored, etc."
McKinley student feedback was also overwhelmingly positive. Of the random sample of students surveyed for Doyle's report, all children, except one, stated that they liked the program. Other common comments included, "it is not boring," "enjoy parents in the classroom," and "I enjoy the special projects." In view of such findings, the report concludes that, "Children in the Program of Choice enjoy the experience and would recommend this educational experience to their peers."
Wyandotte District's Program of Choice at McKinley Elementary shows the power of choice. When teachers, parents and students are all committed to the educational process, the conditions for a dynamic learning environment emerge. District officials can expect and demand great effort and participation as a result. Everyone gains; no one loses. No amount of money or resources alone can transform schools in this same way.