Wyandotte Public Schools, located in Wyandotte, Michigan, south of Detroit, recently began an alternative elementary education program at McKinley Elementary School. That program, which is discussed in this report, received a very complimentary review in A Study of the Program of Choice at McKinley Elementary in the Wyandotte School District, published by Doyle and Associates (Northville, Michigan) in May, 1992. On June 28, 1992, Adam DeVore of TEACH Michigan interviewed Dr. Robert J. Dunn, director of curriculum for Wyandotte Public Schools. Dunn, who holds a Phd. from Michigan State and has done post-graduate work at Eastern Michigan University and Harvard, has been involved in educational alternatives for over 20 years. Dunn also taught mathematics at the secondary level for five years.
DeVore: How did the Wyandotte district react to the Michigan legislature's Schools of Choice mandate?
Dunn: There were a couple of reactions. One was, "It's more legislative stuff coming down from Lansing," and the other was, "How can we use this to expand what we're trying to do'?" So there were those two types of thinking. Part of my thinking is that it's more legislative stuff that's not going to help us very much, and as a matter of fact has put some controls on us. We've tried to make our system more flexible for people, but the law is not flexible, and it created more of a bureaucracy for us.
DeVore: More specifically, what kind of controls did it impose?
Dunn: Well, we already had a committee for Choice. The legislation put some stipulations on it how many people, what kind of people, all that sort of thing. I understand why the legislators did it they wanted community involvement and were afraid of what would happen without some guidelines. But since we were already doing it, I just had to make the committee larger and do some other things. Was it major? No.
DeVore: When did the McKinley Choice program begin?
Dunn: Last year, 1991.
DeVore: That's obviously prior to the legislation. What concerns motivated it?
Dunn: We obtained a grant from the State Department for "restructuring." With part of that grant, we sent some teachers out to look at different alternative programs. They went to the Detroit Open School, they went to the Farmington program, and they went to Key Elementary School in Indianapolis. 'Mat last one lit their eyes and they came back and said, "We've got to have our own place like that." There were two of those teachers, and then we got some parents involved in developing a program that made some sense to all of them. That program was built on Howard Gardner's work and Grace Pillon's Workshop Way. Gardner says that people have seven intelligences and must have flexibility to make some choices about what they're really interested in. The Workshop Way says that kids have to be responsible. You have to give them some choices and set some timelines and let them do whatever they want to do, but they're responsible for their time and how they use it. So you give them some options. There are some other dynamics that go with McKinley's program, but that's pretty much the philosophy.
DeVore: How long did it take to plan the Program of Choice?
Dunn: A full year.
DeVore: So, in effect, you sent teachers to several locations to see a variety of schools, and even after they came back, it took quite a while to plan McKinley's program?
Dunn: Yes. We had a lot of educating to do of the board, of teachers and of parents. DeVore: How was that done, and how important was it'?
Dunn: Politically, it was very important. If the board wasn't going to be supportive, we weren't going to get any place. That education took up about two months.
DeVore: The report emphasized the importance of administrative support. I gather that after the education process took place, the support was fairly stable and widespread'?
Dunn: The support was pretty stable beforehand, otherwise the program never would have gone through in terms of the superintendent being supportive. The superintendent was critical in terms of support. If we hadn't had his support, nothing would have happened. In terms of myself, although there wasn't a problem, there was the need to work on elementary principals and other professionals who did not want to see it happen. We had a number of grievances filed by the union against us.
DeVore: Really? On what grounds?
Dunn: Any number of grounds, anything they could think of.
DeVore: Was there any educational outreach to the community in general?
Dunn: We sent out brochures, we had a number of meetings about the program, and once we were set to enact it, we found out how many people would be interested. Last March or April, we sent out a survey to see how many students/parents would be interested in such a program and with the survey we learned that about 75 people said they would be interested. That was enough for us to proceed because we needed 100 and we thought we could get another 25 without any problem and we did. We've got a waiting list now.
DeVore: Was any information in addition to the brochures supplied to parents?
Dunn: We had three general meetings where we gave an overview and parents could ask questions.
DeVore: How was the attendance? Some districts have reported that only a handful of parents attended their informational meetings.
Dunn: At one meeting, it was standing room only. We had over 100 people. We had a lot of people show up to all three meetings. There were no less than 50 people at any one meeting.
DeVore: You mentioned a waiting list for the Program of Choice. Is the capacity still 100?
Dunn: It's 125, because we expanded the program this year to include fourth grade. We put 25 students in each grade, so we kept to the district average.
DeVore: Are there any plans for expansion in the future?
Dunn: The proposal was to increase it every year: fourth grade this year, fifth grade next year, and sixth grade the next year.
DeVore: We've talked about educating administrators and members of the community, but what about teachers? How did they get involved?
Dunn: Those teachers who initially wrote the grant proposal became involved with the project. They were automatically involved because they designed it. The parent and teachers designed the program, so they were part of it, and then it was opened up to any other teachers who wanted to get involved. They went through an interview process that included the personnel director, and then the decision was made by the committee, myself, the teachers and the parent.
DeVore: How important do you think it is to have the teachers design and plan the program they'll be working with?
Dunn: It's critical. They've got to live with it. You and I don't have to live with it. They have to live with it day in and day out. They're the ones who have to sell it to the parents, and they're the ones who have to sell it to the kids. If you live somewhere for eight or so hours a day, it must fit you. Those teachers come in during the summer, they meet after school (they never leave before S o'clock) and this is all without a contract. We haven't had a contract in the district for four years.
DeVore: How autonomous are the teachers who run the program?
Dunn: Pretty autonomous. That's mainly due to the leadership of one teacher who drives it and keeps it going and fights for every little thing. I say that we administrators are there to be supportive and facilitate it. (That's how I see our role with all the schools, by the way.) But they're much more willing to try things, innovate and experiment, so it's easy to work with them. You make a suggestion, they can say "no," but they may come back around later on and say, "Yes, but we can't do it right now, we're just too tired." So these type of things happen. But they pretty much decide. They meet every Wednesday. We have a longer school day, and they take half of Wednesday to meet and plan as a team.
DeVore: For their general approach? For particular classes'?
Dunn: Well, they're all combination grades 1, 2, 3 so they all have to share in what's going on. And they try to be as consistent as possible about what's going on. And they have some flexibility within that because they're different. If you go into any one of the three classrooms, you'll see them all teaching with somewhat different methods, but they all run in the same general trends.
DeVore: What distinguishes McKinley from other schools in terms of its curriculum and pedagogy?
Dunn: The curriculum is the same. It's the way that they teach the curriculum that's different. The question is how much control you have over the curriculum and who has control over it.
DeVore: According to the report on McKinley, students' math scores did not regress and English skills improved significantly. Are parents informed of this? Is the program outcome-based?
Dunn: Not regressing in math basically means that they kept improving at the same rate as before. It's probably more outcome-based than any other program around because the report card says exactly what's going on, what students are achieving, and what is expected of them.
DeVore: How is the portfolio grading system working?
Dunn: They're good. I don't think that we've had one complaint about grades in there: parents got the information they wanted about their children; they know what they're doing and what they're not doing.
DeVore: How is the program funded? Is it on a per-pupil basis? Does the funding come from the grant?
Dunn: The funding comes from the general fund, just like any other program. We've still got a little of the grant left, but that just keeps educating some people and supporting some different things.
DeVore: How does the per-student cost compare?
Dunn: About the district average.
DeVore: It's not especially expensive?
Dunn: Oh, no. It's the same cost. That's what our commitment was to make sure it's the same cost as any other part of the school district. People from the community have asked us about that because they think that we're showing favoritism, but as a matter of fact, the McKinley program might even be a little cheaper because the teachers who are involved are not at the high end of the pay scale; yet some are older teachers. We've got one who's been teaching for four years and another who's been teaching for over 30 years. Age is not a question if people want to do something different. Did you read in the report on McKinley's program that one comment a teacher made? [Takes a copy of report, reads] "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." That's after teaching for 30 years. See, you've got to be committed to alternatives for them to work. If you don't want it to happen, it's not going to happen. If you want something to happen, then something will happen.
DeVore: Many districts have cited transportation costs and complexities as barriers to implementing Choice.
Dunn: We haven't had a problem with transportation. When we enacted the program, we said that it was the parents' responsibility to provide the transportation. We're pretty much within the 1 1/2 mile guideline, so it has not been an issue.
DeVore: Looking at the report on McKinley, I notice that parents are required to sign a written agreement with various stipulations, including a requirement to provide two hours of service per month to the district.
Dunn: Two hours is a minimal figure. Some parents spend 20 hours a week.
DeVore: Voluntarily and spontaneously?
Dunn: Oh, yeah. We've only had one or two parents who have had a problem with it. Parents enjoy it, kids enjoy it 1 think that everybody enjoys it. I mean, everybody gets to know everybody. Parents get to see other kids and they understand why some teachers get frustrated, they understand why some kids get frustrated, and they understand a wide variance in kids-so all the more information they have-but it takes some time.
DeVore: Overall, how would you assess the McKinley experiment?
Dunn: I don't think that it's an experiment. I think it's innovation for these teachers. We know the Workshop Way works. That's 20 years old. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences makes sense. Is that experimental? We're getting to know more and more about the brain, yet there is much that we don't know. That's the experimental part how the brain functions. We have a much better idea of what's compatible with schools, so in those terms it's not experimental. It's experimental only in that it's this community that's taken on the program and the teachers who have taken on the program. So it's this community that's taken on the program and the teachers who have taken on the program. So it's been just super. It's been super for the community; it's given them a lot of things to talk about. It's given the teachers something new to think about and it's given administrators some different options if they want some options.
DeVore: How do you think other districts could learn from or emulate the McKinley model, in principle?
Dunn: You know, there are all kinds of alternative models. They've been out there for a while. It depends on whether folks are committed to them or not. If they're committed to them, then get out there and look at some. But the folks in the central office – and other folks as well – have to get out there and be supportive if it happens. Once again, you know, I've done a number of presentations now, and they're just going through the motions in terms of saying that they've done something. So the question becomes, if folks really want to do something, then find a couple of key people and see if they're willing to do something. Then see what it looks like. We started with three people. We started with two, actually, and it has grown to five. The parent group is growing. So, the key is to find some people who want to do something different.
DeVore: Do you have any ideas about how to motivate that?
Dunn: I think that if folks don't know how to find those teachers, then they aren't looking.
DeVore: So, they're out there?
Dunn: They're in every district. I mean, we're only 5,000 kids, K-12. So, if we can find them, and there are districts three to four times larger than we are.
DeVore: How similar is the McKinley program to a chartered school?
Dunn: Chartering is nice in theory, but schools are like a spider web. It works both ways. Schools and teachers need support from central office, and central office needs to support them. It's got to be a two-way street. I think chartering will create some islands out there – private islands – without much of a connection, because once you say that schools are free and can do whatever they want to do, then who has got commitments from central office to support those people? What's in it for them? They're not going to spend any time with them. If they told me that McKinley was totally autonomous and that we didn't have anything to do with it and we weren't responsible for it, that's like telling me that it has become like another district. I don't have any commitment to them, except the general sharing of practices and educational ideas, but I'm not going to spend any time for them. So why would somebody want to go and spend time at McKinley if it's completely autonomous?
DeVore: So, you believe that it is important to maintain some link with the administration in order to keep administrative support"
Dunn: Oh, I think it is. I think it's got to be a two-way street. When you look at almost everything that's happened in the past, it's been one-way. It's generally been from central office to schools and not schools to central office, throughout the district and throughout the country.
DeVore: Would you say that there's anything unique about the district that makes a program like McKinley's possible?
Dunn: I can't think of anything "unique" other than that Wyandotte is a unique community because it has kept its culture and values for so long. People don't move from here. People who grew up here stay here. You don't find that in a lot of places any more.
DeVore: Nothing in terms of the district's structure, however, makes a program like McKinley's uniquely possible here?
Dunn: No. It has always been a community school. We were somewhat concerned that people wouldn't be willing to leave their community schools. The research is pretty clear: about ten percent of any population want (and are willing) to try something different. So that's what we set it up for. We have a higher demand than that right now, but we'll work on that for next year. I'll probably meet with the parents of students who didn't get in and see what we can do to help them, because they have a need. Can you imagine 22 customers at a car lot not being able to get a car? The dealers would get cars for those people. If there were a waiting list for a certain car, they'd get it. They'd find it somewhere. I think that we ought to do the same thing for our customers.
DeVore: Is there anything you would like to add?
Dunn: We're asking professionals in education to do a lot of changing, and folks have not been expected to change very much. It's like trying to turn a great big ship when all the parts are rusted because teachers have not been expected to keep up or expected to keep up with what's going on. Administrators have not been expected to keep up with what's going on. So it's going to be challenging to get everything lubricated and turned around. And the folks who stayed in shape will be doing that by way of alternative programs. So, I guess my message there is that folks have got to do a lot more, in terms of training and working with teachers and administrators, so folks can change.