A New Direction for M.P.S.

Susan Bietila, a parent, and Cynthia Ellwood, a high school teacher, interviewed Milwaukee’s new Superintendent of Schools Robert Peterkin for Rethinking Schools.

Rethinking Schools: Perhaps you could start by reviewing your priorities for the next few years.

Peterkin: Let me talk a little bit about the process of developing them because, frankly, listing my priorities doesn’t help very much unless they’re attuned and adjusted to the needs of the district. When the school board approached me about this job, I wanted to test their priorities for young people. We talked about the educability of children, all children…of being very, very concerned about the gap between minority children and white chil­dren, which I translate as also being a gap between poor or working class children and middle class children. We have to say that without any sort of a perjorative meaning towards middle class children; it’s not their fault they have the advantages we wish everyone had.

That gap seemed to be the overarching concern of the district. Some other pieces that underpinned it, as you know, were the issues around responsiveness of the sys­tem, empowering the teachers, trying to make greater connections with the parents in the system. And then one concern which does not necessarily preclude all of the above is to be fiscally responsible or financially effective.

Since then the board and I have tried to reaffirm that and to be a little bit more specific. We want to create more options for children and their parents. One of those ways, for instance, was trying to clear up the bureaucratic red tape that seemed to be impeding Fratney’s opening. I guess that’s almost a perfect example of a priority for me. It’s finding a group of teachers and parents who were willing-to go to the extremes in trying to negotiate with the system to open an option for children. They were getting stopped by the system’s inability to change, adapt, and accommodate new options. So my concern would be that we begin to find models that could be supported by our partners in what I call our family. And then try to find ways· of letting them take the initiative.

You know, I can’t open schools. I can’t attract staff or get greater parent involvement or even teach children or excite the neighborhood. But if I can provide the support and the structures and kind of clear out the red tape, then maybe we can open Brown Street and reclaim Tippicanoe and do all kinds of renovations that hold promise.

My second priority is tied to that one. We have had some success with our schools, both specialty and non-specialty it seems to me, when we have been most successful in pretty clearly establishing what kind of academic program a school has so that it stares you in the face. You recognize, “Ah, that school’s about whole language. That school’s about immersion. That school’s about basic skills. That school’s about computer education.That school’s about the integration of computers with the regular academic program.” So having those kinds of foci for schools is absolutely essential.

We’ve got a whole bunch of schools that weren’t given that attention during desegregation for the last ten or twelve years. Principals and parents, desperately desire to take control of the situation to examine education, education research, the needs of their ·children and to propose something different to us. And I’d like to support that within existing schools, not just in schools that we open. I’d like to do it through staff developmental programs, through parent effectiveness programs, through the use of new instructional strategies or at least different instructional strategies with children, through different selection of materials and resources for those programs rather than our usual reliance on one system, one resource, one teaching style.

RS: Does that mean that you’re thinking of expanding the system of specialty schools?

Peterkin: Not just specialty schools, no. What I’m looking for is to make 146 sch90ls instructionally effective on their own terms for their children. So I’m not sure if specialty’s the answer. It seems to me in public education we find one answer and we tend to spin it off a thousand times and it dilutes itself until it’s not applicable. What works oil the East Side doesn’t work on the West Side, and what works with children that have certain learning styles doesn’t work with students who have other learning styles. But I would like to help schools adapt to the needs of their children and make all of them exciting places.

RS: One of my fears is that talking about giving people lots of options and meeting different needs may turn out to mean creating or reinforcing inequities among schools. Right now we have one or two high schools that are designated as being schools for the college bound. I wonder what it would take to simultaneously meet a variety of needs and yet have some sort of equality of opportunity, so that kids from any high school would really have the option of going to college.

Peterkin: I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive. See, I don’t think that that’s an option. The conversation I had with the ten seniors on television recently was around two issues: motivated vs. unmotivated teachers-and the inaccessibility of solid college preparation across all high schools in the city. The latter doesn’t seem to me to be negotiable. I meant that not what we mean by specialties. The fact of the matter is that there has to be some sort of career preparation and solid college preparation in every high school in the city. And you’ve got to have some assurance that students in middle schools are taking the kinds of prerequisites that are going to get them down that path. You don’t start with AP, you start in ninth grade. So for me, that’s just a non-negotiable.

RS: There has been this tremendous trend since the 60’s toward vocationalism in education, the turn away from academic education to the whole concern about, “What job am I going to get when I get out of school?” Doesn’t this increase the danger of tracking students along class lines?

Peterkin: My premise has always been in the schools that I created within a school when I was principal that you could cross lines as you saw fit. You know, if you wanted to work in culinary arts and go to school and go to college that was your business. It wasn’t to be denied because you wanted to do it And if you wanted to pursue clerical studies and go to college, that was your right in the kinds of schools that I ran. If those options are precluded, I would be concerned.

Businessmen now tell me that they want kids to read and write and learn to learn, and it sounds exactly like what we told them about five years ago. Now they supposedly don’t care about whether or not students have a skill, a vocational skill. Yet, I know that they will hire a student that knows how to read, write, compute, think, use knowledge, create knowledge, and knows how to type before they will one who just has the former. So I think it’s a double-edged sword for the school system and I don’t think that any school system – not just Milwaukee – has dealt with that because I don’t think the business community has. And I’m sure the college community hasn’t. Secondly, it now takes an average of six years to get out, of college, not four. Which means that somebody’s going to work, and if you’re going to work you might as -well get the best job that you can get. It’s a very complex issue.

RS: So you’re saying building vocational skills is valuable, but you don’t want that to take the place of academic training…?

Peterkin: No, I don’t. I think it’s foolish. I was a Spanish major. I’ve never taught a day of Spanish in my life. People who write about investing in our children say that most children in schools today are going to change their careers three times by the time they retire. That being the case, it seems the best thing that we can do for schools is strongly academic. And that’s why I keep talking about sharp academic programs. I don’t think that that precludes some other experiences for young people.

RS: How do you think we can involve parents in a more meaningful way?

Peterkin: Why can’t we create the ve­hicle for additional parent participation? It doesn’t mean you have to be at the school to be involved with your child. One of the things is actually sitting down and training people, working with parents, to use ways to access schools and access power within schools. I think school based management councils will ultimately be a strong vehicle for parental participation. I think that we will probably – if it’s anything at all like Cambridge – begin to dialogue with parents and staff in schools about creating sets of bylaws about how you run schools, whether it’s a school based management school or not. And saying, “O.K., look. We’re trying to promote meaningful participation that will speak to curriculum and instructional issues. So we’re going to try to set up X and hire facilitators.” In Cambridge I hired facilitators to work with folks and we won grants to get people to go out and knock on doors everywhere from beautiful quasi­ mansions to projects:

The other thing that I’m seriously considering is expand the concept of a parent center and parent liaisons that I used in Cambridge as part of our system of choice. We hire some parents to coordinate an effort where we organize other parents to work with schools. The same thing has to be done with teachers. I mean, evaluation of the school based management tells me that teachers need to get involved earlier with the principal, trained to sit down and share discussions of where the future of the school is going in the future. Clearly, I think we need to get enough of a critical mass of both parents and teachers around common issues so that they share some of the same training and some of the same beliefs and some of the same foundations.

RS: What are your ideas about the way these school based management systems will work? How would teachers be chosen to serve on the management councils, for example?

Peterkin: In school based management schools, they are elected. We created some structures in Cambridge where faculty elected them. That was fine, but you need some representative body – really representative. Not so that all folks look exactly alike or that it’s all men or all women or all people from this side of the river and not that side of the river. You really have to sit down together. And that angers some people. It angers some people when we have to intervene, as we often do but in a positive way, and say, “Look, the whole neighborhood is not represented on this council. You can’t talk about representing parents.” Or, “You have three primary teachers on this; what happened to the upper grade elementary teachers on here? Those are the kinds of things you have to take into account if you really mean to have some representativeness and structure. 

RS: In Cambridge, then, what Kind of things did the school management councils do? What were they able to act on?

Peterkin: I don’t know if there was much that they didn’t act on. They im­pacted curriculum, they impacted the selection of new teachers, or how the school spent whatever extra monies that weren’t allocated by formula. They made long range plans for their schools which they submitted to me and that we negotiated. Some even made changes in grade structure.

RS: Does that mean that the roles of central office staff will change rather dramatically?

Peterkin: I think so.

RS: What will become or them?

Peterkin: This isn’t a wake. I think that numbers of people whose responsibility it is to provide the direct services for schools will find that they will be in the schools. I mean, that they will be principally located in schools. There’s no reason for them to & in here [the Central Office building]. I think that we will have a greater dialogue between groups of people and folks in the schools. So I think you will find much more activity happening out there than in here. And you will find that people will have to be oriented to schools in-order to be able to have the kinds of conversations that I envision.

And I think you will find more representative committees on issues across the system that will include teachers, parents, administrators, community people, God only knows. I would like to hear from really broad-based committees before I make major proposals to the board. That’s what I look to see. I don’t look to see that this place doesn’t exist because I think there’s a very effective role for central administration to play in working with the board to set policies and standards and then working with the schools to make sure they work, making sure the schools have the ability to do what they need to do.

RS: How do you plan to change the pattern of disempowerment that has existed? Where do you see the students as participants in this whole process of changing things around?

Peterkin: Are you talking about kindergarteners or eleventh graders?

RS: All of them. To have some kind of vehicle. where they’re expected to respond. To change the whole mood from being like a passive recipient or consumer into an empowered person. How do you see the students themselves fitting into this process?

Peterkin: Well, I think part of it really – I don’t know if I should be saying it – I think that’s really what teachers need to be doing. I really do think it requires a bit more interactive curriculum than we have now. I mean, if you’re going to be a passive recipient in the classroom, you’ll be passive outside it, but if you’re going to be asked to respond and challenge and given different types of tasks to do that are integrated across curriculum, then you might become more involved. A part of it comes in becoming an active learner rather than a passive learner.

In some grade levels – and I would hope that this would happen in schools like Fratney and some other schools that we’re going to develop- it means creating some governance structures for student voices. Part of the anti-dropout program that we used in Cambridge wasn’t so much designed to do the things that you normally do with dropouts like check their attendance, get them jobs and counsel them and all that; it was to start student governance structures earlier than they normally were, down in the fifth and sixth grades. We worked with staff and students so that they would be able to· interact in kind of town hall meetings. In Cambridge, we had students on the school committee. They weren’t voting members on the school committee, but they came, they expressed their views, they brought their concerns to the attention of the staff, they commented on the increase in graduation requirements, whether or not the controversy over what books were in the library had any validity or not, what was in the budget process, expansion of services to students… So, those vehicles have to be created.

I’ll be honest with you: other than in my small alternative school in 1970 to ’74, I haven’t had any real success with students intervening in the curriculum process. I’ve tried in other places. I tried when I was a high school principal and I never had much success in that process. I think that’s a much more difficult thing for young people to do than to talk about the structures that impede their learning or the structures that enhance their learning.

RS: You were talking earlier about the gaps that exist between minority students and white students and between poor and middle class kids. What do you think is the real cause of those gaps?

Peterkin: Opportunity. Opportunity to develop. That’s no secret. I mean, if you have access to resources, if you have opportunity to rise on a continual basis, you’re bound to have a broader background than those who can’t afford it. It’s not a condemnation; it’s a fact. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the school and very, very conscientious teachers or parents going to the nth degree to make sure their children get involved with community organizations or whatever, young people could spend an entire lifetime not having seen a museum, never having seen a play, never having the ability to have a library of you own, not having a computer. These are things that I think because those kinds of gaps. It’s opportunity to develop what you have.

I’m sorry, no matter what anybody says, it’s certainly not that parents don’t care about education. Or that parents don’t care about their kids. That’s insane. I’ve never met a parent who hasn’t wanted the best for his or her child. I mean, that is the most ridiculous assumption that I hear people give. Yes, it’s tough to get-felks (parents) to school. “You I.mow, I go to work at seven, I come home at five. I’ve got two young ones at home. You’re asking me to schlep over to read my kid’s report card? What does that all mean in the context of how my child’s going to develop? !’!ow if you want to talk to me about what can I do at home with the time that I have, and if you’d like for me to call in every once in a while, that I can do. And if I can shake loose on a Saturday to do something at the school, I will.”

I’ve never met anybody who didn’t want their child to· succeed. So I just don’t know what to attribute the gaps to but opportunity. Now, I also have the perspective of having been a kid without a great deal of resources in New York City and watching my family going to extraordinary lengths to try to get me into a library program or make sure that I had the fifty cents to go to the museum. That’s a lot harder than it is for somebody that goes to the museum regularly because their parents belong. I don’t want to make it sound simplistic because it isn’t.

RS: What do you do about the gaps, then?

Peterkin: Well, we have to work with parents and with teachers to make sure not only that those opportunities are provided, but that students have a chance to accelerate so that they can really move. Now, I don’t talk much about remediation anymore: because really what we’re talking about is acceleration. If you want to remediate, you give the kids the same stuff that they weren’t able to do before. If you’re talking about acceleration, you begin to look for different instructional strategies that connect with young people. You begin to look for the opportunities that are now becoming almost trite. You’re going to look for opportunities where you can have young people working together in classrooms and helping one another. You’re talking about training teachers in instructional strategies so they can use different ones with different children. You’re talking about decent materials for children so they don’t have to struggle their way through – I call them 

– low content, low interest materials, on their.way to great literature. I mean, let’s struggle with some decent material. “If you’re going to take me through this, don’t take me through it twice. I mean, don’t take me through it in a way that’s boring the first time that I refuse to do it

·the second time.” There’s nothing innate about that difference in children, and I refuse to accept that there is.

RS: Rethinking Schools has argued that doing that…

Peterkin: Rethinking Schools has ar­gued a lot of things!

RS: …that doing that – acceleration as you call it – is going to require looking seriously at the problem or test driven curricula. Is this a concern or yours?

Peterkin: It’s a concern of mine any time when tests and texts drive curriculum rather than the other way around. And I really do think that we need to spend more time on what should be in a curriculum and then go searching for the test and/or tests and/or methods of judging whether children have acquired that information and are able to use the information. Now, on the other hand, don’t we have some state mandated tests?

RS: We need to report…

Peterkin: Well, we can’t ignore the fact that, it seems to me, that we’re legally mandated to report out on some standardized tests. The thing that I would like to take a look at is whether or not we can make some sense out of the fact that we have to test. In Cambridge I was trying to move us away from the basic skills tests towards using the reading power tests because I felt it tied into instruction better. So, I’ve been talking to DPI [Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction] about it since I came to Milwaukee.

I now have everybody around here wringing their hands over identifying other indicators of success within the district. What are the other kinds of things that we can rise to see whether or not we’re doing our job? In the classroom, are there teacher produced materials and assessments that hold up in the assessment of students’ K- 12 education? Are there other indicators, some as mundane as increases in atten­dance or school satisfaction? We can ex­amine student writing. There are some other piece that we can use to get a more global picture of where students are.

RS: You’ve said a number or times that you intend to support people, teachers and others who innovate and protect them in ways they haven’t been protected in the past. Are you going to change structures to facilitate that? Or do they have to go to the top in order to get that kind of support?

Peterkin: No, I don’t think so. You know, I think it’s a part of creating a cul­ture in a system that says that’s valued rather than devalued. It was part of my message to every administrator in the school system, that that was going to be part of the culture. It then comes from living that culture yourself, showing that as a model, but also making sure that you test it with your immediate staff and that they test it with their staff.

Then it’s a matter of in meetings, in forums and in schools when you’re visiting and in classrooms, trying to make sure that everybody lives that culture – begins to believe in that culture. It also calls for having to meet with teachers on a more regular basis than superintendents are probably used to meeting with teachers. And saying, “We’re going to support whole language this year.” Or when I go to Victory School and the teacher says, “You know, we really can’t do that with these kinds of handwriting books. We really need to change them,” it means that I’ve got to come back here and tell Dr. McGriff that she needs to find out what our policy is on ordering these books and see if we can’t modify it. I mean, it’s that level. I know we have 150 schools and I know we have 5,000 teachers and I know we have 96,000 kids, but that’s how you cut through. And you also look for individuals within the system around the issues that are on the table. There are numbers of individuals, teachers, parents and administrators who would like to try out some things.

You create a culture and then you back it up. And you try to hold yourself accountable for that creation. Now on the other hand,.people have to understand that that gives them a great deal of responsibility. And once supported in that fashion, that means that Peterkin gets to come back and ask you some questions. Those questions are: “Where are we?” “What else do you need? Is it working? You know, we all said we’d do some things; have we all done them? Where are we with them? How are the children with them? Have you talked to the parents? Are they behind the effort?” With that comes a great deal of responsibility.

I think it can be done. In Cambridge, we had a great deal of success. We had a system of mini-grants and monies from the state that we were allowed to use in support of the system’s priorities. We simply advertised those opportunities. “Look, here’s the kind of things we need to do as a system: we’d like some proposals from you, and your colleagues, from the school, the individual classroom teacher, whatever. We’d like you to respond, how you’d like to do that? And we will pay X amount of dollars for your extra time, but we’ll only pay in receipt of direction and the like.” You’d be surprised how many scores of teachers, in a small system of 800 teachers, scores of teachers would respond, and in two years of hundreds of project, maybe one did not complete the project and move on. So, you know, you have to search out those vehicles; you have to support people. Sometimes it’s dollars; sometimes it’s intervention. But, it can be done and it’s done in other districts. That’s what I intend to do.