Stretch Your Staff Development Dollars with a Local School-to-Work Retreat

by Mimi Harris Steadman

Although days are short and it's cold outside, it's time to think of summer and startplanning for intensive staff development opportunities for June, July and August. When we think of summer staff development, travel to national or regional conferences often comes to mind. But for most schools, it is prohibitively expensive to send large numbers of faculty and staff to off-site workshops. As an alternative, why not try holding a local school-to-work retreat for your district or region?

Some of NCRVE's Urban Schools Network sites are planning local summer school-to-work retreats that will involve large numbers of staff and faculty from one or more districts. There are several advantages to this local strategy. An obvious one is cost. By staying local, more people can attend because there are few travel or lodging costs (except for invited presenters). Local businesses may be willing to provide refreshments, meeting space and workplace tours. Another important advantage of local events is the potential for involving a variety of stakeholders in your school-to-work efforts, including postsecondary partners, parents, students and business and community representatives. A retreat provides time for planning, learning and team building among people who will be collaborating for the first time, as well as for colleagues who have worked together for years. And finally, unlike a national conference, a smaller school-to-work conference or retreat can be custom tailored to fit your regional context.

Based on recommendations from Urban Schools Network sites and from past NCRVE summer institutes and regional meetings, we offer several guidelines to help you get started in designing your own event. First, assemble a planning team with broad representation to encourage commitment and to bring diverse perspectives to the planning table. Begin your planning by developing a theme for the retreat, and use this theme to drive your conference program. Consider the following four key features of a school-to-work retreat program:

Plenary sessions, such as an opening or closing session, involve all retreat participants. This is the time to energize the group with a dynamic speaker who can convey the theme and purpose of your retreat, and the importance of school-to-work efforts in your region. This is also a good time for partici-pants to hear from students, whose stories about their experiences may be particularly inspiring. The sheer number and variety of people involved in these efforts becomes evident during plenary sessions, a time when all participants are assembled in one place.

Presentations, workshops and discussion groups provide participants with an opportunity for learning and applying new concepts and strategies. Ideally, a retreat design would include two or three different session formats, such as more traditional presentations, interactive, hands-on workshops, and discussion groups around a particular topic. Presenters for these sessions may include nationally recognized speakers, as well as local talent--teachers, administrators, employers and other community members. Session topics might include, but certainly are not limited to: "School-to-Work 101," integrated curriculum, assessment and evaluation, designing work-based learning experiences, developing partnerships with industry, alternative scheduling, grant writing, developing career clusters, consensus building and change strategies.

The planning team faces several challenging design issues. How much time should it devote to sessions, and how much time for team meetings? Should it offer an intensive program that covers lots of ground in a short time, or slow the pace and allow time for reflection? The planning team may face a "breadth versus depth" dilemma: Should it offer a broad sampling of topics through brief presentations, or should it focus on a few topics in depth with half- or full-day workshops?

Urban Schools Network Director Erika Nielsen Andrew explains: "One thing we wrestle with every time we plan an event is balancing a series of trade-offs: time to learn vs. time to plan, hearing it from the `experts' vs. figuring it out in discussion groups, meeting everybody's needs vs. keeping it simple. These trade-offs are not atypical of what classroom teachers grapple with every day. However, negotiating through these issues with a planning team is an important vision and consensus-building exercise for your summer event and your larger initiative. It helps you focus on what it will really take to transform schools in your community."

A local retreat provides time to learn, and time to apply new learning to planning efforts. Team meetings, the third program feature, are a structured, facilitated time for program planning and development. A team might be comprised of members of a career cluster, an academy, or collaborating faculty from a high school and community college. Facilitators, like presenters, may be local or from across the country. Oklahoma City's CREATE consortium, which sponsored a multidistrict school-to-work retreat in June 1996, hired a cadre of local, regional and national speakers who also served as facilitators during team meeting time. For some teams, a neutral outsider is the preferred facilitator, while for others a local facilitator--someone who can continue to work with the team throughout the year--is ideal. The product of team meeting time might be a school-to-work plan for a new career cluster, a draft articulation agreement, or a new integrated curriculum unit.

A final program feature, industry site visits, are particularly suited to local retreats. Industry site visits expose participants to workplace requirements in their region, and may help forge new partnerships between educators and employers, resulting in future mentoring and work placement arrangements. To help participants profit from these visits, the retreat planning team can prepare guiding questions that target key information about the industry, skill requirements, workforce needs, and the like. Another potential outcome of industry site tours are future internship placements for teachers. Lola Jackson, NCRVE field consultant, stresses the importance of teacher internships, which allow teachers to learn firsthand what skills students will need, and enables teachers to connect school and workplace learning based on their direct experience in the field.

In addition to setting a planning team, determining a retreat theme, and designing program components such as sessions and site visits, additional planning issues to consider include retreat materials and handouts, marketing and publicity, speaker selection and hiring, training and compensation for facilitators, hospitality and refreshments, transportation and parking, adequate staffing for registration, meeting room set-up and audio visual needs, and finally, a process for evaluating the event and following up with presenters and participants.

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

For more information on planning a summer school-to-work retreat, please contact Mimi Harris Steadman or Erika Nielsen Andrew at NCRVE's Urban Schools Network: (800) (old phone deleted), or Carla High, School-to-Work Project Director for CREATE in Oklahoma City, (405) 720-4380.

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