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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

A Successful Model for School-Based Planning

With the “whole world in our hands” as the theme, an elementary school community is working enthusiastically to meet its goal of environmental education.

“When I look at all of the schools in Centennial, I see nine different schools. Each community is different. Each staff is different. Each principal is different. What unifies us is our mission. . . . The ways we accomplish our mission and our goals and objectives will vary because of our diversity.”
At a meeting of our Curriculum Council, Centennial Superintendent Harry Harhigh thus presented his vision of changing from a management-by-objectives system to a program of building goals determined through a needs assessment. As a new elementary principal with a background in research, I immediately sought to discover what a needs assessment model might look like. I examined a program that a committee of district administrators had designed. I also explored the literature. After a rather lengthy investigation, to my surprise, I had not located one practical plan for assessing a building's areas of strength and difficulty and then addressing the challenges.

A Needs Assessment Model

In the literature, school reform leaders emphasized the importance of a grassroots movement for successful change in education. Realizing the importance of making the needs assessment process a bottom-up effort, I sent a letter to all parents and staff members soliciting volunteers for a committee that would determine a building goal by the end of the school year. Our Needs Assessment Committee consisted of the principal, four students in grades 4 and 5 selected by their teachers, and all parents and teachers who volunteered—a total of 41 members.
We met once a month, in the afternoon and evening, so that members could choose the time more convenient for them. The average attendance was 30 members. At the evening meeting, I reported on the earlier group's session; the results of both meetings were then published as minutes.
The steps outlined here can be followed regardless of the specifics that apply to a building's staff, student population, or general community.

September: Begin Questioning Process

  1. What parts of the total school program need improvement?
  2. On what bases have people identified parts of the school program in need of improvement?
  3. Why do they think these parts need improvement?
I prepared packets of data and shared them at the first Needs Assessment Committee meeting. The data included the district mission statement and goals and the results of state assessments and the standardized test results of the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS). Another source of information was a survey of the school's instructional programs and services completed by parents, teachers, and 5th and 6th graders.
Working in small groups, committee members reviewed the data. On a large grid, we marked pluses and minuses to reflect strengths and weaknesses. The chart began to reveal areas in need of improvement and stimulated discussion on the reasons for these needs.

October/November/December: Consider Information Gathered

  1. Is there some consensus about which parts of the school program are in need of improvement?
  2. Are the areas identified as needing improvement significant? Do they affect the overall quality of the school's program?
  • self-esteem/discipline/responsibility,
  • environmental education/community involvement,
  • computer education,
  • reading/critical thinking skills/study skills.

December/January: Identify Concerns and Generate Data

  1. Of the concerns identified, which are the most important for improving the educational program of the school?
  2. Which are within the scope and ability of the school to address and correct?
  3. What information do we need to become fully informed about the nature of the concerns, and where can it be obtained?
  4. After gathering the information, how can it be organized so that it is accessible and useful to all?
In reviewing the four topics, committee members searched for the single topic that would be most manageable and make the biggest difference in our educational program. For example, although the committee felt a need to help students with self-esteem/discipline/responsibility, was this area significant enough to be a building goal? Considering all the other related variables, could the school really correct this concern? What type of environmental education program could we actually develop? Did the school have the resources to carry out computer education as a building goal in a meaningful way? Was there already sufficient emphasis on the area of reading?
Over the next two weeks, I met with a mini-team (one parent, one student, one teacher) for each area of concern to outline an action plan for each proposed topic. At the December meeting, I shared those plans with the committee, and we reviewed them in light of the above questions. The caution here is to resist identifying one topic until this reflective process is completed.

January/February: Prioritize Concerns and Choose One

  1. Of the major concerns identified, which are most important for improving the school's educational program, and what priority is given to each concern? Items to be considered include (1) the degree to which addressing the concern will affect the entire school; (2) the availability of time, personnel, and resources to address the concern; and (3) the knowledge of how the concern can be addressed.
  2. Which concern is most in need of immediate attention?
During extensive discussions, committee members argued persuasively for their favorite topic. Finally, in January, both the committee and the staff voted for a first, second, and third choice. We examined the results to find areas of agreement.
Environmental education was the first choice of the committee, the second choice of the staff. Both groups were consulted, and they then agreed on environmental education as the building goal. After hearing the mini-teams' presentations and the debates about how environmental education could be addressed as a thematic unit integrating all subject areas, I felt excited about the direction of this topic as a goal program.

March: Write Objectives Needed to Address the Concern

  1. What objectives must be set if the concern is to be addressed successfully?
  2. What actions must be taken?

April: Develop an Action Plan

  1. How can the necessary actions be organized?
  2. How will it be determined if the objectives have addressed the concern?
  3. How will the program be evaluated?
After drafting the action plan based on the recommendations of the mini-team's plan for environmental education, I shared it informally with individual parents and teachers from the Needs Assessment Committee. Later, at the April meeting, I formally shared the action plan. During this time, in order to reunite the committee, I had informally consulted with those members who felt strongly about one of the other three topics. To give them ownership in environmental education as the building goal, I had also solicited their input into the action plan.
We submitted the action plan to the administration, and it was accepted in May.

Environmental Education: First Steps

Subsequently, I wrote to various programs recognized as exemplary in the field of environmental education. After we received an enthusiastic response from Briar Bush Nature Center in Abington, Pennsylvania, we engaged the center to train teachers and make grade-level presentations. We surveyed the professional development needs of the staff and scheduled workshops for the summer and next school year. In the library, we set up shelves of resource materials for teachers.
Next, to give the building goal a unifying theme to drive the program, we held a schoolwide campaign to nominate slogans. Each homeroom of students submitted a suggestion, and the students voted from a slate of good choices. The winner was “We've got the whole world in our hands.”

First-Year Evaluation

So what happened? Was it a successful program? After the first year of a two-year action plan, I must respond with an unequivocal “yes!”
Scores on a schoolwide pre- and post-test survey indicate that the students tripled their knowledge about and their efforts to protect the environment. For example, students responded that they talked to people about pollution, conserved water, turned off unnecessary lights, and picked up trash. On the tests given every month in each classroom, pre-test scores averaged 44 percent, whereas the monthly post-test scores averaged 89 percent. Activities included three-dimensional representations/projects, performances/demonstrations, language-related activities, related assemblies, and field trips.
Students have participated in environmental education activities in their classrooms, within their grade levels, and as a student body. For example, students created a wildlife nature corner on school grounds, constructed birdhouses and feeders in industrial arts for the nature corner, and assembled original research books about endangered species in conjunction with the reading specialist's program. Students also buried trash to predict and observe decomposition, and they observed habitats and adaptations at local parks and nature centers. As a culminating activity for the year, the school held an Environmental Parade. As parents observed along the way, teachers and students—dressed as birds, trees, animals, the sun, air, water, and recycling symbols—marched behind flags, banners, and drummers on a half-mile parade route through the neighborhood.
With the “whole world in our hands,” students, teachers, and parents rose to the occasion and responded enthusiastically to meet the goal. Apparently, the needs assessment process had accurately identified an area in need of the school's and the community's attention. In fact, the Region III office of the United States Environmental Protection Agency gave the program its 1991 Award for Excellence in Environmental Education for the category of academic institutions. In its letter of congratulations, the EPA commended the program's “action plan which involved the cooperative efforts of students, teachers, parents, and administration.” This recognition is more reinforcement that involving everyone is the way to go.

A Shared Effort

By directing the change from an MBO system to a building-based goal program, the superintendent of the Centennial School District enabled each building's staff and community to focus on an individual area of need, as determined by a grassroots effort through needs assessment. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators gathered and analyzed data, ultimately identifying a specific area for implementation as a major goal. The model prompted the committee and staff members to think through the possible programs in order to select the one that best met the needs of the students. In conclusion, this was a needs assessment model that worked!

Janice I. Solkov-Brecher has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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