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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Special Topic / Building Capacity Through School Support Teams

School support teams in Texas are helping schools rewrite the way Title I programs serve students in high-poverty schools.

Too often federal legislation dictates what educators do, how they do it, and what happens if it is not done. Rarely does legislation provide structures that build our capacity to improve teaching and learning in schools.
Title I of the Improving America's Schools Act is an exception. In addition to giving schools greater flexibility in the use of federal resources, the law now requires states to establish systems of intensive and sustained support for schools that receive Title I funds. The primary component of these systems is school support teams (Public Law 103-382, Section 1117c 1994).
These teams external groups of teachers, pupil services personnel, and other people with expertise in school reform assist schools as they plan, implement, and improve their schoolwide programs (Moffett 1996). (Under federal education law, high-poverty schools may use Title I and other federal education resources to support comprehensive school reform through schoolwide programs that is, programs that integrate school planning and improvement activities in ways that increase the capacity of the entire school to ensure the academic success of all students. This is a break with traditional Title I/Chapter 1 approaches, which usually targeted auxiliary services exclusively to students who met district-defined eligibility criteria.)
School support teams provide support and assistance to the staff of high-poverty schools as they plan and develop these schoolwide programs. Because Congress clearly wanted schools to be thoughtful about their many options for improving teaching and learning, the law requires schools to spend a year planning their approach and to get outside help during the process. School support teams are designed to increase the likelihood that this new flexibility will lead to substantial increases in student achievement.
For the past two years, we have been working with educators in Texas to incorporate the school support team structure into the state's Title I approach. In the course of our work, we've learned some lessons that may prove helpful to other states and districts developing their own approaches to Title I programming, as well as to external change agents who are assisting schools with systemic change.

The Texas Initiative

The Texas School Support Team Initiative began with a pilot program during the 1994 95 school year and recently completed its first year of statewide implementation.
In the pilot, 12 high-poverty schools were invited to receive assistance from school support teams. Volunteers from education service centers, colleges and universities, and educators from high-achieving Title I schools formed a large pool of support team members from which participating schools could choose. A facilitator from the Texas Education Agency (the state's education department) chaired each support team. Every facilitator received training on a variety of topics, including school change processes, group facilitation skills, and relevant changes to Title I; members of the support team pool received a condensed version of the training.
All facilitators made a preliminary visit to their assigned school, during which they explained the purposes of the visit to the principal and other staff, planned the initial team visit, and selected the support team members from the pool they felt could lend the most targeted assistance.
A full-team visit was next. During the two-day visit, the support team met the school staff; toured the campus; interviewed teachers, support personnel, parents, and administrators individually or in small groups; and held a planning meeting at the end of the visit. The purpose of and approach to the visits varied slightly depending on the needs of the school. Usually, however, the initial full- team visit was structured to assist the school in the initial phases of its planning and to strengthen the foundation for the decisions staff would be making. After the visit, team members provided support by phone and helped school staff find materials and resources to assist them. The team also made a follow-up visit to further assist the school in its planning process.
Last year, the first year of large-scale implementation, Texas used several different models, coordinated by its 20 regional education service centers. The models respected local needs while building on the lessons learned in the pilot initiative. Thus, school support teams were organized differently, based on the resources of each education service center, the number of schools needing assistance, and the preferences of local administrators. The length of visits ranged from a half day to two days. Teams were led by service center staff, district-level personnel, or school-based educators.

What We've Learned

At this point, we've collected considerable feedback on the pilot initiative and the first year of large- scale implementation, through surveys, focus groups, and teleconferences. Based on our work in Texas and the data accumulated so far, we believe that the following considerations are critical to a support team's success:
1. Building trust. Important, lasting changes are most likely to occur in an atmosphere of openness and trust. If school personnel perceive the support team to be a group of monitors or investigators, they will maintain defensive postures. But if an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect is established, schools receiving assistance are more likely to openly share their concerns, fears, and dreams for the future.
We found that trust develops when everyone involved in the process clearly understands the purpose of a school support team, how a visit might be conducted, who might be involved, and why. Early, frequent, and clear communication is essential. A preliminary visit from a support team coordinator provides not only the opportunity to meet with school staff and negotiate a mutually acceptable agenda for the full-team visit, but allays fears that the support team process is designed to monitor the school.
The attitude of support team members is perhaps the most important factor in building trust. Support team members must convey respect for the accomplishments, challenges, and autonomy of the schools they support. They must demonstrate a commitment to listening more than talking, to observing more than reporting.
2. Starting with strengths. In school improvement, educators frequently focus on identifying needs or weaknesses. Yet, some promising school improvement models emphasize the importance of building on strengths (Levin 1991; Saxl et. al. 1989).
In Texas, school support teams encouraged school staffs to look at themselves from different perspectives. Staff members constructed portfolios or profiles to communicate their accomplishments, and some developed case studies of themselves to look for strengths they had not previously recognized. The support teams also helped schools to look anew at student achievement data and to identify accomplishments, even in areas where accomplishments were not readily apparent.
Support teams then helped school personnel conceptualize how they might build on those strengths and transfer them to other classrooms, grade levels, student groups, and curriculum areas. This positive approach provided often-needed recognition for dedicated efforts, while encouraging growth in areas of need.
One school-based team developed a unique approach to identifying strengths and growth areas. They created a colorful metaphorical illustration in which "blooms" showed programs that were in place but still needed tending, "seeds" represented ideas for substantive change, "nutrients" identified what would have to happen for teaching and learning to improve for all students, "clouds" signified challenges school staff would have to overcome as they tried to change, and the "sun" depicted how members of the school community might sustain their energy as they continued to ask difficult questions about the work ahead. The illustration provided a nice context for looking at the whole picture of what the school believed about itself and its potential, as it began its work on change.
3. Debunking myths. The Texas school support team initiative centers on the belief that just as every child can learn and achieve at high levels, every school can become a place where all children achieve at high levels. Yet we found that some educators had lost sight of their potential to make a powerful difference in the lives of children. They revealed their beliefs through statements such as "These children cannot be expected to achieve at such high levels because of their severe home situations," or "Given the language background of most of our students, we're not likely to ever reach the state's achievement goals."
Because educators from high-achieving Title I schools participated in the school support teams, they served as credible examples that it is possible to raise achievement in high-poverty urban and rural environments. In so doing, they helped school personnel rediscover their capacity for creating learning environments in which all children can succeed.
4. Exploring options. It's easy to think that the way we've always done things is the only way to get things done. Yet we know that if we continue to use the same instructional practices and the same organizational strategies, student achievement is unlikely to budge. One of the important contributions school support teams make is helping school personnel explore new options and make decisions that can lead to verifiable evidence of success.
In some cases, educators may be unaware of legitimate options for selecting innovative instructional materials, exploring instructional approaches that are engaging and challenging to diverse learners, organizing time and space for more in-depth or community-based learning, structuring the use of fiscal resources for maximum impact, or effectively responding to conflicts among various stakeholders. School support teams can offer new ideas, provide literature and materials, and create environments in which educators feel comfortable suggesting their ideas to their colleagues.
But the Texas school support team coordinators consistently agreed that support teams need to do more than give schools options to consider. One way that school support teams can build a school's capacity to explore alternatives for itself is to assist it in becoming a learning community. By modeling collaborative approaches to decision-making and helping schools create structures for individual and collective inquiry, support teams encourage schools to develop sustainable in-house approaches to professional development and to see themselves as the locus of control for initiating change.
In one school, the support team's work included helping the school develop a "plan to plan." School personnel created a structure for answering key questions they needed to address in their plan, such as: how the core planning group would find uninterrupted time to meet; how other educators and community members should be involved; what resources might facilitate their planning; and what timeline might help the school accomplish its goals.
5. Enhancing commitment. If school support teams do their jobs well, the schools receiving support will be strongly committed to a plan of action capable of increasing the academic success of all students. The Texas initiative is a reminder that school personnel must see the plan as workable, substantive, and reflective of their ideas. Each staff person must see the importance of her contribution to the successful implementation of the plan. Without such commitment, the support team's work will result in a disconnected process and one more plan to be filed away.

Substantial Potential

The Texas experience illustrates the substantial potential of school support teams to provide meaningful assistance to high-poverty schools. Site-based teams report that their confidence as change facilitators is growing, and many of them have generated numerous ideas for improving teaching and learning. Many of the schools that received assistance are actively pursuing promising schoolwide programs.
At the same time, the Texas experience also reveals that the work of providing genuine support is difficult. It would be easier to establish "support" systems that were, in essence, monitoring systems. The experience of the past 30 years, however, makes all too clear the limitations of such an approach.
Educators in high-poverty schools need and deserve real support to improve teaching and learning. School support teams help teachers and administrators in these schools build on the strengths of their students and communities; gain access to a wealth of information about instructional, curricular, and organizational options; and develop their own realistic plan for improving teaching and learning. In these ways, school support teams are fulfilling the vital mission set forth by Congress.

Levin, H. M., and W. S. Hopfenberg. (January 1991). "Don't Remediate: Accelerate!" Principal 70: 11-13.

Moffett, C. (Winter 1996). "School Support Teams: Facilitating Success in High-Poverty Schools." Professional Development Newsletter. Va.: ASCD.

Public Law 103-382, Improving America's Schools Act, Section 1117c. 1994.

Saxl, E. R., M. B. Miles, and A. Leiberman. (1989). Assisting Change in Education. New York: Center for Policy Research; Seattle: University of Washington; and Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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