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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Overview / Building Community

      In many parts of the world people are suffering and dying over differing values and traditions. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, long-suppressed ethnic feuds have erupted in tragedies like the devastation of Bosnia by Serbians. Americans, accustomed to living with neighbors and fellow workers from differing religions and nationalities, are unsympathetic with the notion that every little group must have its own autonomous government.
      But the United States, too, is torn asunder by distrust and bitterness, as we were forced to recognize in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. We are deeply divided by race, by social class, and in other ways. Part of the reason for widespread political apathy is our disgust with the cynical rivalry of politicians, who often seem more interested in scoring points against the opposition than in getting something accomplished.
      Most of us are not directly involved in national and international conflicts. But in our own communities similar divisions keep us from joining with others to take constructive action. In some school systems, administrators treat teachers as reluctant employees, teachers see board members as enemies, and principals blame parents for not supporting education.
      Luckily, that is not the situation everywhere. In hundreds of urban schools that are part of Stanford University's Accelerated Schools project, parents and teachers are challenging old stereotypes by offering at-risk students a “gifted and talented” curriculum. In this issue Henry Levin (p. 19), originator of the idea and director of the project, describes the process by which dispirited faculties are urged to dwell on the strengths, rather than the shortcomings, of students and their parents. Teachers envision the kind of school program they would want for their own children—and make specific plans to create it.
      Levin tells of amazing transformations in school culture, climate, and student achievement—along with huge jumps in parent participation. Once staff members and parents adopt a whole-school change model, try a different approach, and begin to see positive results, he says, the school “takes on a life of its own.”
      Levin emphasizes that schools cannot evade responsibility for the education of their students. “They can't look to Sacramento or Albany or Washington,” he says “They are responsible.” Based on his work with a league of more than 60 schools in Georgia, Carl Glickman (p. 24) sounds a similar note but acknowledges how intimidating that can be. Schools given site-based control, he warns, are like newly freed East European countries suddenly faced with solving massive problems. He suggests a set of principles and a decision-making process that can help a staff become a “community of professionals” prepared to accept the challenge.
      “Community” is an attractive but elusive concept, applicable at many levels. Milbrey McLaughlin (p.33) reports research on school systems, citing a district where teachers feel themselves part of a strong, positive professional community and comparing it with a district where teachers perceive a “hostile and demoralizing” climate. Robert Kessler (p. 36), superintendent of the Reed Union School District in California, explains how educators in his district have found a way to replace adversarial bargaining with shared decision making.
      And of course the need for community applies to students as well as adults. Colman McCarthy (p. 6), a Washington columnist, tells about teaching courses for high school and university students on alternatives to violence. David Johnson and his co-authors (p. 10) describe the Peacemakers Program, in which children learn to mediate disputes among themselves.
      True, we humans are prone to pursue our own narrow interests and be suspicious of those different from ourselves. But we are also naturally cooperative and feel good about working with others for a higher purpose. And maybe we are gradually learning how to go about—deliberately, thoughtfully—building the kind of communities where learning flourishes.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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