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March 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 6

Symbols and Celebrations That Sustain Education

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Special rituals, stories, and events define a school community's core values and ensure their perpetuation.

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Whenever I enter a Jewish synagogue, I feel comforted by the familiarity of its symbols, ceremonies, and words, which exert a steadying influence on me. The comforting assurance of symbols is also strong when I visit other spiritual places, walk in the woods and see the swoop of a red-tail hawk, or glimpse the bright jacket of a kind neighbor who has lived in the area since childhood.
These figures, places, and images form a vision of home—of memories that tie me to the past but continue to live in my hopes for the future. These places are sacred to me because they signify continuity and an effort to keep a way of life alive for future generations.

Schools as Sacred Ground

Too few schools have symbols that will evoke the spirit of education in the future for students, staff, and parents. Yes, the U.S. flag waves and everyone pledges allegiance, but the symbol and pledge are of a nation—not of education in this particular school. And yes, the students at many schools wear T-shirts, jackets, and other uniforms with slogans proclaiming how great school X is. Or the school has its mascot—a bear or lion, for example—that promotes sports, band, and other extracurricular activities. But few of these slogans or mascots convey the promise of education.
Some schools, however, connect with the heart and soul of generations of students and continue to convey the promise of education for future generations. Northeastern School, for example, has been one of the most highly accomplished, progressive public schools in the United States for the past 28 years. The school draws from all categories of students through a lottery. It has a large percentage of minority students (African American, Asian, and Hispanic), recent immigrants, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds—and a higher percentage of special-needs students than most high schools have. It also enrolls students with a wide range of abilities, from those who would be categorized as failures or potential dropouts to those who would be regarded as academically able in any conventional school.
This school turns its students into purposeful graduates. When statistically grouped by ethnic and socioeconomic categories, they outperform their peers from other schools; most graduate in the normal time; nearly 80 percent go on to postsecondary education; and those who don't continue their education move directly into a vocation. Follow-up studies have shown that this school's graduates outpace their peers from other high schools in college graduation rates, jobs secured, intact families, active citizenship and leadership in their communities, and quality and length of life (Glickman, 2003).
When I visited Northeastern recently, the annual three-week integrated semester was under way. Students, teachers, and parents were working on academic projects involving activities that often took place outside of school. After I had interviewed staff, students, and parents about how the curriculum, schedules, courses, and leadership had helped the school prosper for so long, a student named Yael and her mother accompanied me to my car to talk about how much the school meant to them. With emotion, Yael's mother, who had attended the school herself, exclaimed, “This school never leaves you; it is with you forever. We are standing on sacred ground.”

In Search of Great Schools That Last

These words deepened an insight that I have come to while working with schools throughout the United States during the past 30 years (Glickman, 1998a, 1998b). I had wondered why so many schools that showed great promise in their first three to five years failed to sustain their innovative programs and lost their focus, typically when a new principal, superintendent, or school board came on the scene.
I saw that some schools, however, succeeded in sustaining their efforts through economic, demographic, and political changes and through a succession of leaders and staff. Curious about what made these schools exceptional, I went on a search to discover what I eventually called Great American Schools.
  • A history of 10–30 years of sustained reform consistent with the school's initial core values.
  • Progressive education, characterized by participatory learning, team structures, links between school and community, performance-based assessment, and inclusive, heterogeneous placement of students.
  • Operation under the governance of a school district, with the same funding and student enrollment as other schools in the district.
  • Documented student results better than those of comparable schools on a wide range of measures, including student test scores, student performances and demonstrations, success in later life, lower dropout rates, and parent and student satisfaction.
I selected 20 schools that met the criteria and represented the geographic, economic, and ethnic diversity of the United States. After interviewing various students, teachers, parents, administrators, and other education and community leaders who had been part of each school at different times in its history, I visited classrooms and collected written case studies, newspaper accounts, memos, and other communications about significant events. I was amazed at how honest and insightful people were in helping me uncover the complex relationships between leadership and sustained school improvement.
These schools are not simply composites of classrooms, kind teachers, expansive hallways, and organized schedules. Instead, each school's attitude, purpose, activities, rituals, and demonstrations of student achievement have created an intergenerational institution of sacredness founded on democratic ideals. And within each of these schools, powerful symbols of progressive education live on in those who have participated in it.

Enduring Rituals and Events

In Yael's school, each student begins every day in a homeroom morning circle with 14 other students and a faculty member who serves as advisor, mentor, and friend. For 35 minutes each day, the members of this special group share their best work, conceive joint projects, assist one another in weathering a tough time at home or in school, or simply relax and enjoy one another's companionship. The circle is not threatening, nor is it a therapy group; faculty and students simply pause to care for and learn from one another.
At Jerold Middle School in the Pacific Northwest, the entire student and staff population gathers every morning in a large open space in the center of the building. They hear the day's announcements, usually watch a student/faculty or community member's short recital, and participate in singing a student-written song, an anthem about what it means to be a Jerold student. Each graduating class has added lines to the anthem, and four different versions have developed during the past 20 years.
Great schools signify the purpose and continuity of their beginnings in other ways, too. Some schools begin the day with a song or pledge created with students about what it means to be a learner. In other schools, students and community members identify a neighborhood each year to work in together, or all students stage a school musical to inform and entertain the larger neighborhood. Place-based education (Smith, 2002) and service learning (National Commission on Service Learning, 2002) also offer ways for schools and communities to connect in meaningful, sustaining ways.
Special rituals and events become the expected means to lock the arms of the school and community. Each event allows a new generation of students, teachers, and parents to remember the events of the past while appreciating the work of the current generation. Such schools have camp-like qualities, where academic, intellectual, and personal interactions between school and community are ritualized in experiences that unite everyone.

Enduring Stories

Sustained school success is never just one special event, meeting, or activity; rather, it is a journey of recursive decisions and actions (Fullan, 2001). Nonetheless, stories about particular events sometimes continue to give direction to a school, reminding everyone of the school's core values and the ongoing vigilance needed to keep the work going.
At Midwest Middle School, well known for its inquiry-centered curriculum, the words “Don't do a Peabody” capture the fight that the faculty successfully exerted several years ago against a national school reform model that the school had applied for and received for a renewable three-year period. With it had come many grant dollars for teacher and staff development, travel, and computers for students. After the first year, however, the faculty realized that they had made a huge mistake. The rigid training and application of an external curriculum, sequenced lesson plans, and teaching and assessment methods were at odds with the core commitment to critical inquiry that had defined the school. Rather than accept a loss of core values, the teachers met with their principal and parent group and with their support decided to reject the model and return the additional funds. Old-timers and new faculty all know that the words “Don't do a Peabody” are about the hard choices necessary to keep the school on course.
At Great Lakes School, new and veteran teachers all know the story of the tremendous changes that the school underwent 25 years ago. When the merger of two schools was creating discord among students, faculty, and parents, a principal came forward and suggested starting a new school that would foster harmony, diversity, democracy, high academic achievement, and active citizenry.
He set up a demanding schedule, reserving time in every faculty, parent, student council, and community meeting for the remainder of the year to imagine a better public school. Faculty met once a week before school to review samples of student work and discuss how to help students improve. On Saturday mornings, volunteer participants met at the principal's home to envision new approaches. A new plan emerged that included multiage grouping, individual education plans, descriptive report cards without grades, quarterly diagnoses of each student's progress, and new forms of assessment linked to community service. The plan also got rid of some old textbooks, removed old classroom chairs and tables, and organized students into cluster teams that would stay together for three years.
The next fall began well enough, but by Thanksgiving, the staff members were frazzled and disenchanted, working 12-hour days and feeling that they couldn't keep up. At a Saturday morning meeting in January at the principal's home, the situation exploded, with the teachers insisting that they just had to slow down. They agreed that although the reforms were exciting, life would be much easier if they could just concentrate on the new curriculum, return to the old report cards, and get back into self-contained classrooms. The principal agreed that they had to figure out how to balance their lives, but he was also sure that they could make the new approaches work.
Snow began to fall as the talk increased in intensity. Eventually, an earnest discussion led to agreements about ways to help one another, secure outside help, and stay on course. The teachers re-committed themselves to the work ahead, but now that the meeting was over, no one could leave the principal's home. During the discussion, hardly anyone had noticed the full-fledged blizzard that had snowed everyone in. They spent the afternoon in games, music, laughter, and calls to family. Twenty-five years after that transformative discussion and bonding experience, the school's buzz of activity and the esteem that the community holds for its teachers attest to the success of this school's sustained efforts. Admittedly, the teachers still work long days and the effort is demanding, but these educators would work nowhere else.

Enduring Symbols

On the walls of most schools hang plaques that praise the official planners of the building (the superintendent, school board members, city commissioners, or the mayor), framed certificates of school honors bestowed by others (State and National Blue Ribbon Awards), trophy cases for sports and academic teams, or displays of student writing and painting.
By contrast, the students at these special schools design displays that are part of a larger scheme for future students and educators to build on. In a diverse urban high school, for example, students landscaped and built outdoor walls and benches with ceramic tiles that invite students, faculty, and parents to sit and talk with one another.
At the entrance of Padre Elementary School in the southern United States, a huge, colorful quilt greets visitors. The first graduating class of a then-new education program created the quilt, each student working with teachers and parents to add a personal patch describing the connection of the school to its community. The quilt displays patches with scenes of barn raisings, rivers flowing with fish, industries proliferating, and farms flourishing. Some patches also depict the more difficult side of the community's history: the first schoolhouse for white students and a separate one for black students, scenes of turbulence during the court-ordered integration years, and scenes of conflict and reconciliation. Each patch contains the signature of its student creator. The quilted patches together make up a story of community and school and contain hopes for a better future.
The display continues down the hallway with contributions from each subsequent year of graduating students, beckoning future students to make their own contributions to the line of ongoing work. Visitors know that student work is central to the appearance of the school and that the school belongs to all of those who have walked and will walk its halls.

Special Ceremonies

Leading and sustaining excellent schools involves developing enduring symbols, traditions, words, and events.
In Amherst, New Hampshire, for example, the large, progressive, and relatively affluent Souhegan High School has created a tradition called the “Viking funeral.” For this ritual, all staff members end their last day of school by sharing that year's memories. After writing their thoughts down, they walk together to the river and quietly place their notes into a small, cardboard “Viking boat,” which they then push into the current. As one faculty member explains,The Viking funeral is the place to say goodbye. . . . Many of us let go of fear and frustration. . . . Each year someone discards feelings of insecurity, of not being good enough or smart enough. . . . We have stated publicly that we were releasing anger, pain, rage, and sadness. We have used the occasion to mask the silly and the profound. . . . It is our most sacred ritual. (cited in Silva & Mackin, 2002, p. 128)
As the boat moves away, the year is over, and everyone has released causes for both elation and despair. The struggle to reach out to the future community of students, parents, and faculty then begins again.
We find another significant ceremony at a small K–12 school in the Midwest. It is a nonprofit, independent school that serves a high percentage of students with low-income backgrounds and special needs. Its first class in the 1970s had only a handful of students. Thirty years later and with an increasing number of students at commencement, each graduate still wears the original graduation robe, now heavily stitched and repaired. A graduate puts on the robe, crosses the podium, receives the diploma, takes off the robe, and circles back to place it over the head of the next graduate as the cycle continues.
Traditions such as these signify that students and adults have used their education to make a better place for all. The traditions developed by these efforts are not ornamental, but real; they demonstrate what students and adults learn, how to recognize that knowledge, and how to pass it on to future generations.

Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of educational change (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Glickman, C.D. (1998a). Renewing America's schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Glickman, C.D. (1998b). Revolutionizing America's schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Glickman, C.D. (2003). Holding sacred ground: Courageous leadership for democratic schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Commission on Service Learning. (2002). Learning in deed. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University. (Available from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; (800) 819-9997;wkkford@iserv.net)

Silva, P., & Mackin, R. A. (2002). Standards of mind and heart: Creating the good high school. New York: Teachers College Press.

Smith, G. A. (2002, April). Placed-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 584–600.

End Notes

1 Except for Souhegan High School, all schools and programs are referred to by pseudonyms.

1 Except for Souhegan High School, all schools and programs are referred to by pseudonyms.

Carl Glickman is professor emeritus of education at the University of Georgia. He is the author of the bestselling ASCD books Leadership for Learning: How to Help Teachers Succeed and Developmental Supervision.

Overall, he has written 13 books, three of which were recognized by national education organizations as outstanding education books of the year. His supervision text, coauthored with Gordon and Ross-Gordon, is in its 10th edition and continues to be the leading text in the field. Glickman, once active in ASCD, has keynoted to audiences in the thousands at various conferences, including five major presentations, and served as a featured general assembly presenter.

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