The Infrastructure of Innovation: Jefferson County’s Staff Development Academy

How does a district foster change and growth across its entire public school system, not just in a few “special” schools, or with a few extraordinary individuals? Jefferson County decided a decade ago that the answer lay in linking school improvement explicitly to the professional growth of teachers, administrators, and support staff. With the help of a $600,000 grant from the local Gheens Foundation, the district established a Professional Development Academy which since 1983 has become the heart of Jefferson County’s system. The chief objective of the JCPS/Gheens Academy, as it is known, was to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that would permeate every school, and to provide an infrastructure to support such change.

Forging links with the Coalition of Essential Schools was only one step the Academy took toward that end. In addition, it encouraged schools to become “professional development schools,” early examples of school-based participatory planning. It set up a system of “learning choice schools,” which target certain curriculum areas (such as mathematics or technology) for special emphasis. And it urged middle schools to enter on the pioneering national Middle Grades Assessment Program.

As well as linking Jefferson County to these national efforts, the JCPS/Gheens Academy provided technical assistance and services to anyone in the district who could use it, including private and parochial school teachers, university faculty, and student teachers. An education library, a curriculum resource center, a special education materials center, a computer education support unit, and a grants assistance office are some of the resources available through the Academy.

A key focus of the Academy is on working with principals and other administrators. Its “leadership academy” aims both to provide development and support for current principals and to identify and educate potential principals in matters from teaching to organizational effectiveness.

Gheens has sponsored teacher study groups, travel grants, mentorships for beginning teachers, and many other short-term projects. “A school system works in three ways: maintenance, incremental improvement, and innovation,” says Terry Brooks, its director. “Our job is innovation.”

Brooks calls the $400,000 annual commitment of Gheens Foundation money “venture capital,” small in proportion to Jefferson County’s $380 million annual budget (which contributes 88 percent of the Academy’s cost). But it is money that helps leverage other direct and indirect support for the school system, through business partnerships and other foundations. In the meantime, Gheens is busy monitoring and evaluating its own work, hoping that results will show that private funds can help substantially–not to accomplish a “quick fix” of a troubled school system, but to build a stable and continuing infrastructure to support long-term change.