New Jersey Coalition Schools: Compelled to Collaborate

What happens when schools are compelled by external district or state mandates to adopt a democratic leadership structure–as is happening in mandated reform efforts nationwide–rather than developing a collaborative decision-making model within the school community? In the last three years, nearly five dozen New Jersey schools have chosen to adopt the Coalition common principles. All were in districts affected by the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1998 Abbott vs. Burke decision, which aimed to reallocate funding for more equity and to produce rapid school reform in the state. Schools in the thirty Abbott districts needed to choose a whole school reform model, and fifty-eight schools chose CES by faculty vote.

Among the mandates of the Abbott decision is a stipulation that schools govern themselves through School Management Teams, referred to as SMTs. SMTs must include representatives from administrators, teachers, parents, community members, and, when appropriate, students. “The purpose of the SMT,” according to The New Jersey Department of Education’s description, “is to ensure participation of staff, parents and the community in the school level decision making and to develop a culture of cooperation, accountability and commitment, all with a focus on improving student achievement.” The SMT’s responsibilities are broad, including aligning the school’s curriculum with the state standards, reviewing state assessment results, overseeing professional development, and implementing the school’s technology plan. SMTs may also make recommendations on budgetary and personnel matters.

While it appears that the SMT would be a good fit with schools working toward incorporating Coalition principles, it’s an awkward match for Vineland High School North, located in Vineland, near Philadelphia. Principal Ted Peters worries, “Forced democratic leadership is slowing down CES work. SMT issues tend to stay bogged down in the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. I find that we’re focusing on garbage pick-up and air quality, on the basic stuff we can all relate to and agree on. It’s not a place where we can really decide the big stuff. It reminds me of the ‘less is more’ CES principle. If we could take some issues off the table, we’d do a better job with what remains. Management teams tend to become a catch-all; the central office passes more and more on to the schools and we find ourselves with twenty agenda items and only two hours to do the work.”

Claudia Burzichelli, Director of the New Jersey Coalition of Essential Schools Center, empathizes with the Vineland High School North staff and community, observing that determining focus is tremendously difficult for SMTs statewide. Burzichelli says, “Finding the right composition and the right work for SMTs is a real challenge. Some of the first cohort schools are seeing that maybe they don’t want to focus on personnel issues, for example, a realization they could only make through experience. Different schools are finding different ways to deal with the decisions they make and issues they explore.”

Peters believes that the mandated overlay of the SMT fragmented the communication and decision-making structures that had previously been established to work towards creating faculty consensus. Peters recalls, “I thought we were working toward a democratic leadership style using a homegrown method that relied on the existing departmental structure. Our departments had strong leadership and an open meeting style. When the state came up with the SMT edict, they wanted us to break down the existing structures that were working well for us. Some teachers accepted this and some didn’t, and it’s led to a situation where we feel stymied more than helped.” While Peters still does his work by getting to all corners of his school and listening well, he and Vineland High School North’s CES Facilitator Mary Lundberg note that the two-hour, once-a-month SMT isn’t powerful enough to be the lever of change many in the Vineland High School North Community would like. “The SMT feels more like a rubber stamp committee rather than an action committee. So I go back and use my department chairs, the active decision-makers,” Peters says.

One of the factors that prevents the SMT from being a source of real, democratic power and substantive work is that it operates school-wide, attempting to coordinate the affairs of 1,350 ninth and tenth graders and 140 teachers and other professional staff (juniors and seniors attend Vineland High School South, a Coalition school on the same campus). Vineland North is considering the idea of creating small learning communities within its walls. Lundberg explains, “Because our students move from one building to the next halfway through high school, they experience a lack of continuity and lose bonds with staff. In an attempt to have a ninth through twelfth grade high school, we wrote a U.S. Department of Education grant to explore what small learning communities could be in our setting, how to set them up, and to visit other schools.” Lundberg and Peters know that leadership structures like SMTs are most effective within such smaller learning communities. Gordon A. Donaldson concurs in his writing, observing that in a big school “the human dynamics are simply too complex for safety, trust and affirmation to grow among most adults.”

Correspondingly, Vineland’s IMPACT Program, a CES-affiliated preschool, is having much easier time of implementing the SMT; without a previous structure with which to compete and in a much smaller setting, IMPACT’s site management team actually does succeed in eliciting effective, participatory decision-making. Marie Cancilleri, IMPACT’s Staff Development Facilitator and its SMT coordinator, feels that the SMT effectively represents the school’s families, thirteen teachers and twenty-five teaching assistants. “It feels powerful. It’s a privilege that we have an opportunity to have a voice. I think it’s how a school should be managed. Teachers never have a problem telling you what they need.”

Despite the obstacles at the high school, Peters is clear that the SMT has been useful. “Any opportunity for communication and discussion helps, and we have gotten some work done this year.” But he worries that the state’s current budget crises will reduce resources, removing professional development monies and other funds on which the SMT depends. Peters is concerned that these tenuous circumstances keep Vineland High School North’s staff and community from engaging and committing to the SMT process. “People are cynical, and their cynicism is realistic. Why invest in this if it’s going change? It feels like another this-too-will-pass that schools are constantly being handed. People who have seen so many other things come and go just want to ride this out.”

While based on the considerable research that advocates use of collaborative decision-making in schools, the mandated nature of the reform–and the demand to show immediate improvement in student achievement–creates an obstacle from the start. As Holly Perry, principal of Philadelphia’s Academy for the Middle Years Northwest argues, democratic leadership requires some wisdom that only time and practice can create. “Leadership involves all of the people who are part of the community. Let’s define leadership as the opportunity and capacity to make decisions and exert influence. In order for people to do that, they need language, experience, coaching, and the opportunity to try and fail, try and improve. It can’t be high stakes all the time.”

In Horace’s Hope, Ted Sizer writes, “The more democratically–meaning common agreement on the process for decision-making–the unit behaves, the better.” Joe FitzPatrick, the CES Coach working with the Vineland schools, agrees, noting, “The difference between New Jersey Abbott schools and schools that voluntarily have become CES schools is the difference between being a volunteer and being compelled to do something. If I am a volunteer, I will want to do it; if it is a mandate, I won’t have the momentum needed.” But FitzPatrick compliments the work in the district, commenting, “The effort in Vineland has been considerable–they’ve looked at what an SMT is and at some of the important parts of personnel, budget and process, though the pressure to do a lot fast is tremendous.” It seems as if Vineland, under Peter’s leadership and that of the others involved in the site management team, will find a way to make the SMTs work for the school. But one cannot avoid seeing the irony of a situation where democracy–or a very specific kind of democratic practice–has been mandated from above. As a profession, we may need to clarify which issues require collaborative decision making.

References Cited (see Horace’s Where to Go for More, page 19, for additional resources):

Donaldson, Gordon A. Cultivating Leadership in Schools: Connecting People, Purpose and Practice (Teacher College Press, 2001)

New Jersey Department of Education, “Urban Education Reform Regulations in the Abbott Districts,”

Sizer, Theodore R. Horace’s Hope (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)