Creating a Network of Schools as Critical Friends: The Fifty Schools Project

Since 1992 the Coalition’s Fifty Schools Project has worked to bring together small clusters of exemplary reform-focused high schools and support them in sharing resources and solving problems. The effort could easily serve as a blueprint for how any like-minded group could structure a network:

1. Four to eight schools, preferably within easy reach of each other but possibly linked only through common ideas and goals, partner together in an active network. Teams from each school meet in person twice a year in a cluster retreat (convening on a Friday afternoon and lasting through Saturday evening, then follow up with electronic mail and videoconferencing). A five- day summer institute also convenes around a common theme.

2. A “cluster coordinator” provides logistical support and facilitative leadership to each member school. She begins the year with a visit to each school of up to a week, during which she observes and debriefs its faculty, notes areas of common need with partner schools, and introduces techniques and processes (such as the “tuning protocol”) that the network can use in its critical friendships. In subsequent visits of one or two days, she provides structured checkpoints and follow-up as each school makes progress on its agenda for the year, helps start up critical friendships among the school’s faculty, and gathers helpful resources and readings. She brokers school visits between teams around areas of mutual interest or need, and plays an important part in facilitating the twice-yearly cluster meetings. (The Fifty Schools Project bears the cost of the coordinator’s salary for three years, but a group of schools could hire a comparable person by each contributing a portion of her salary from professional development funds.)

3. A “school coordinator” within each school works closely with the cluster coordinator to synthesize various initiatives within the school so that they have as much coherence as possible, and to make best use of the visiting coordinator’s time. At specified intervals between the twice-yearly cluster meetings, the school coordinators report to each other on how the work in their schools is playing out. (The cost of the school coordinator equals that of reducing a full-time teacher’s load by one quarter.) They also help reach agreement as to the agendas for the twice-yearly cluster meetings, which generally focus on specific common concerns such as heterogeneous grouping, democratic decision-making, standard-setting, or authentic instruction and assessment.

4. An evaluation program measures progress throughout the network. Schools agree to use the same measures across the network to assess and document their progress in the key areas they are tackling. If they need help in this effort from an outside partner (such as a university or foundation), they arrange for it collectively, and they disseminate results jointly when the time comes.

5. Schools in the network make and share video presentations for community and parent groups, write articles for publication about the process of school change, and present their work in public to support the network’s efforts.