Urban Schools Network Preconference Event

The Fifth Annual National Leadership Forum on School-to Career Transition

by Mimi Harris Steadman

The NCRVE Urban Schools Network (USN) supports teams of teachers, administrators, state representatives and business and community partners in their efforts to prepare students for careers and postsecondary education. Network teams use a range of strategies in team-based school reform, including career academies, work-based learning, tech prep, integrating academic and vocational education, and career majors. Network teams and NCRVE sign an Agreement for Program Improvement in which the participating schools or colleges agree to offer a career-related learning sequence and assess the effectiveness of these programs. In turn, NCRVE agrees to provide communication, professional development, technical assistance, feedback, and funding opportunities for the network sites.

The Urban Schools Network Preconference, which was held in late June in Long Beach, California, is an example of the professional development and technical assistance NCRVE provides. On June 28 and 29, 11 NCRVE Urban Schools Network teams from across the nation joined each other for a two-day preconference prior to the kickoff of the National Leadership Forum in School to Career Transition in Long Beach, California. This is the fourth summer that Network teams have convened, with prior summer institutes held in Berkeley, California in 1992, 1993 and 1995.

As NCRVE Director David Stern wrote in a welcome letter to team members, "Making high-quality career-related curricular options available to all students is not easy....There can be no doubt that redesigning curriculum so that all students can be prepared for both college and careers is a fundamental change." In an opening exercise led by NCRVE Field Consultants Marilyn Raby and Lola Jackson, participants had the opportunity for cross-team discussion in an exercise where teams discussed barriers to progress, and creative detours around these barriers. A value of cross-team networking, according to Jackson, is that teams may learn that the challenges they face in school reform are not unique to one region of the country, and that viable strategies may be gained from lessons learned by other Network sites.

As temperatures in Long Beach soared to above 100 degrees outside, things heated up in productive Urban Schools Network team meetings as well. Individual team meetings facilitated by NCRVE Fellows--expert practitioners from a variety of settings--offered teams intensive, focused planning time. Team members emphasized the value of off-site space for planning, uninterrupted by phone calls or the inevitable small crises of the school day. In just two short days, with productivity enhanced by the NCRVE Fellows and the comfort and quiet of a hotel conference room, every team left the preconference having developed a plan of action for the coming year or years. Action plans covered a range of short- and longer-term initiatives that corresponded to different aspects of the Agreement for Program Improvement (API).

Correlation between Agreement for Program Improvement (API) and action plans states that schools will offer at least one career-related learning sequence which enables participating students to "...achieve high academic standards and satisfy course requirements for postsecondary education...and gain strong understanding of and experience in all aspects of an industry to prepare for rewarding employment and potential career advancement." Relevant action plans included designing work-based learning and summer experiences for students, establishing mentoring programs with broad industry involvement, developing a school-based enterprise, and re-working the school schedule.

Action plans also included the development of articulation agreements between secondary and postsecondary institutions. This corresponds to the API's call for "explicit pathways that lead from high school to postsecondary education." Several action plans addressed curriculum that integrates academic and vocational-technical education, another feature of the API.

Network sites, in signing the API, agree to participate in periodic self assessment activities to document progress and to share information with NCRVE about sites' efforts. Several teams' action plans included designing or refining procedures for self-assessment. Carolyn Dornsife, the Urban Schools Network's program improvement coordinator, assists teams in their assessment of progress, data collection and documentation, and synthesizes evidence of progress across network sites.

Each team's action plan includes goals, objectives, tasks delegated to specific individuals, and benchmarks or indicators of progress. Some challenges that teams anticipate in implementation this fall include the ever-present concerns about time and funding. Additionally, many teams are facing reconfigured school systems and staff when they return in the fall, and some teams expressed concern about gaining support from district leaders who were not present at the planning meeting in Long Beach. Teams anticipate varying degrees of support for their implementation efforts, depending upon the priority given to school-to-career initiatives in each district, and the ways in which school-to-career programs are aligned with or in competition with other local initiatives.

Thinking Systems

In a challenging climate of rapid change, Urban Schools Network teams have been asking questions like the following:

To address some of these implementation challenges that confront each team, NCRVE Fellows and field consultants are working with teams to help them view their programs as part of a larger system of education delivery. Because School-to-Career tries to reach all students, it is not a program per se, but rather a new delivery system. According to Marilyn Raby, "Systems include the entire range of delivery, so that participation in each component leads to the next. Creating systems requires an unprecedented level of collaboration between schools, employers, parents, professional organizations and community groups."

Teams can start first by thinking about what is happening within their school site. USN teams are taking into account how their school-to-career efforts--a career academy, for example--fit with other programs at the school, how these programs might be jointly funded, and how these efforts together contribute to whole school change. When diverse initiatives are aligned as part of a common plan for school change, these changes are more likely to become institutionalized.

USN teams are also considering how their programs are connected to broader reform initiatives and organizations, such as the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, Governor's Initiatives, Goals 2000, Improving America's Schools Act (IASA), and other state or national reform efforts. According to Raby, teams will increase their chances for longevity when they "view themselves as components of the total delivery system in their district or institution, and not a stand-alone project with little administrative or funding support."

What's Next for Network Teams?

This fall the Urban Schools Network will continue to support team- based reform through site visits by NCRVE Fellows. On November 16 and 17 we will head east, saving most of our teams a trip cross-county, for an Urban Schools Network regional meeting in Washington D that will focus on cross-team networking, thinking systemically, and making connections to broader local and national initiatives. At this time, there is no summer institute planned for1997. Instead, NCRVE hopes to connect Network teams with other major initiatives by sponsoring NCRVE gatherings at national conferences next summer.

In addition, teams are encouraged to host their own small regional institutes, following the example of the Oklahoma City CREATE consortium that hosted a school-to-work retreat for several local districts in June 1996, using a number of regional and national experts as speakers and facilitators. The "local institute" approach enabled the consortium to provide staff development and planning time to a large number of teachers, administrators, counselors, and industry partners while keeping travel and lodging costs to a minimum.

Until teams next convene, Urban Schools Network sites, Fellows, field consultants, and staff continue to exchange ideas via correspondence and technology, and in some cases, in person. Collaboration within and across Network sites is essential, as emphasized by Urban Schools Network director, Erika Nielsen Andrew: "School reform of this scope and magnitude depends on the successful collaboration of the broader school community, including teachers, administrators, parents, students, community organizations and businesses."

Mimi Harris Steadman is a researcher and team manager with the NCRVE Urban Schools Network. Her interests focus on the designed delivery of meaningful staff development for high school and college teachers.

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