Guest Column

Our Rise From Chaos to Collegiality

by MICHAEL QUATRINI


What would you do as the new superintendent in a district where two schools had been rated as "low performing" by the state agency, where state monitors had been sent in to review district operations, where communication between teachers was nonexistent and where no one was focusing on students?

Running away might come to mind first. But I chose the only other option and hit the ground running--right into a situation requiring so much change that the initial results felt suspiciously like chaos.

The San Elizario Independent School District is located in a small, rural Texas town on the banks of the Rio Grande, about 20 miles southeast of El Paso. Of the district’s 3,600 students, 99 percent are Hispanic. The district’s problems are not new and not distinct. Concerns about low academic achievement, special programs, staff development and overall student performance have been closely monitored by the Texas Education Agency on several occasions.

Then in 1990, our student enrollment increased by 33 percent in one year. It has continued to increase by a rate of 10 percent in succeeding years. Because of this growth, the district had to build two more schools, adding further confusion to an existing logistical nightmare. In 1995-96, the district had five schools: one pre-K to first grade; one second to third grade; one fourth to sixth grade; one seventh to eighth grade; and one ninth to twelfth grade.

Clearly, this campus alignment precluded an effective continuum of both current curriculum and curriculum development, a situation that played a significant role in low student achievement. Equally severe was the dire effect this layout had on communication among educators across the district and within any school.

The fragmented configuration made productive grade-level meetings impossible. There was little or no communication horizontally within grade levels or vertically between grades. Family involvement was difficult because one household could have children in different elementary schools.

Logistical Chaos
A negative accreditation report from the Texas Education Agency in 1994-95, coupled with an unfavorable review by the regional educational service center the following year and a dive in third grade standardized test scores, landed us an unacceptable rating by the state. It also brought concerns about the grade-level alignment into sharp focus.

Beginning in September 1996, we launched plans to realign the district’s campuses. We had five goals in mind: to strengthen the instructional program by providing continuity from one grade level to the next; to improve teacher communication within and across grade levels; to ensure continuity of academic programs on elementary campuses; to improve language proficiency on the statewide competency exam; and to allow families to send all of their youngsters to a single elementary campus.

The plan called for establishing two elementary schools to house grades one through five. The middle school would add sixth grade. To outsiders, that might seem simple enough, but there was no lack of thorny questions. How would we ensure equal enrollments for the two elementary schools? Would we need additional buses, and which students would be eligible for school-sponsored transportation? How would we ensure consistency of programs throughout the district? Even more basic was the question of whether the existing facilities could even hold the number of students the new alignment called for.

Of critical importance was the policy we would have to establish at the onset for how to keep our stakeholders--faculty, staff, parents, other community members and the board of trustees--apprised throughout the process. We achieved this using newsletters, board meeting presentations, faculty meetings and targeted public meetings at each school.

Campus committees were established to solicit questions and concerns from parents, and copies of the questions and answers were distributed in Spanish and English at the public meetings. Information regarding the realignment plan also was distributed to the local news media.

Revitalized Feelings
At the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, the entire realignment of campuses was completed successfully. The new configuration consists of one pre-K campus; two campuses with grades 1-5; one middle school; and one high school.

Among other benefits, the new arrangement had an almost instantaneous effect on school district communications. Formal and informal conversations among our educators, at the same grade level and up and down the class-year continuum, generated consistent information, not wild rumors, about accountability, benchmarking curriculum, district affairs, special programs and more.

As a result, scores on the state competency tests rose dramatically at each campus—by 20 to 30 points in some instances in one year. Our high school was recognized as one of the top 10 in the state for increases in math achievement on Title I campuses.

In conjunction with the test increases, our standing in the state’s eyes improved. In October 1998, the Texas Education Agency conducted a week-long District Effectiveness and Compliance visit to assess state and federally funded programs in bilingual education, gifted and talented programs, dyslexia and special education programs and career and technology resources. Previously, these programs were either nonexistent or seriously out of compliance. This time, TEA found all special programs running efficiently and effectively.

This success in itself has blossomed into a new revitalization among the students, staff, faculty and parents. Expectations and standards have increased along with pride and self-esteem. A team effort has now replaced an "I don't care" attitude.

Our district now has its feet on solid ground. We know we've just begun the first steps on a long journey. But we also know we’re headed decisively in the right direction, on the road to success.

Michael Quatrini is superintendent of the San Elizario Independent School District, P.O. Box 920, San Elizario, TX 79849. E-mail: mquatrini@san-elizario.k12.tx.us