The Quilt Story

A few years ago, Quality Digest called to interview me about The School Portfolio: A Comprehensive Framework for School Improvement. They wanted their readers to know that someone was using quality business management tools to "improve" education and that a book was available on the topic. The intent was to write about one paragraph-MAX.

When the reporter arrived in my office, he saw a quilt obviously made by children, draped across my desk and me working on about 40 thank you notes. The reporter asked what I was doing. I told him the story of the quilt...

When I first met the teachers of Frank Paul Elementary School in Salinas, they were quite a frustrated bunch. They had pressure from the school board and the community to increase their student achievement scores. They tried to "restructure" to no avail. They had absolutely nothing to show for their efforts.

They also thought they were doing the best they could possibly do with the population with which they had to work. They had students coming directly from Mexico-many having never experienced school-even 12 year olds. They had families taking the students out of the classrooms to move to Arizona for part of the year just when they were making progress! These families also stayed in Mexico after Christmas, not returning until February. The teachers were angry that they had to show videos to the few students who were in classes during the month of January.

I was hoping that we could gather some data that would really give them some direction for changes that needed to be made. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to meaningfully disaggregate student achievement scores when they are already in the 2nd percentile, and when 86 percent of the population is of one ethnicity. Questionnaire results did not come up with anything significant. I asked the teachers, "Tell me again the purpose of this school." They told me the purpose of this K-6 school was to prepare students for middle school. I asked them if they knew how well they were doing with regard to their purpose. They all looked at me like I was nuts. Then they turned and looked at each other. I recommended that they send a group of teachers to the middle school and the high school to understand how well they were doing with respect to their purpose.

Six teachers visited the middle school and then the high school. They returned in tears. They found the following: many of their former students were already dropping out of school by the 7th grade; only a few ever graduated from high school; every student who was not fluent in English was tracked in a bilingual or special education track–never going to learn English, and never going to become "mainstream" the tracked students were never allowed to work on computers, or to take career opportunity or college-bound classes. Basically, every student who was not fluent in English was treated like, and considered, a "throw away kid".

The teachers took responsibility for those students' lives. They could see how they had something to do with the way classes in society get split. They could also see how they were preparing these students to be the lettuce-pickers they complained about in the students' parents. They could see how they had something to do with their students never having options or opportunities.

The discussion that followed led teachers to immediately agree that the purpose of this school was to prepare students to be anything they wanted to be in the future. Their number one goal became to make sure every student leaves Frank Paul speaking, reading, and writing English.

They looked to me for guidance. "How do we do that?" I told them we look very carefully at what we are doing right now. In other words, how are you currently teaching students to speak, read, and write English? They analyzed their processes and results. The teachers found that by following the national standard (at that time) of giving twenty minutes of English instruction to Spanish speaking students each day, 35 out of 985 students moved into English speaking classrooms each year. In fact, they found that they had been using the same processes and were netting the same results for almost 5 years. They groaned in sad embarrassment. If only we knew this little formula 5 years ago, they said. Immediately they asked, what if we begin providing forty minutes of English instruction a day? I suggested they try it and measure it as soon as they could. The results: more than twice the number of students moved into English speaking classrooms in the first semester.

We also took a hard look at all offerings of the school, and who the clients of the school were. Teachers admitted that they had been blaming the kids and their parents for the hard work and lack of progress they felt. They knew they needed to provide a more nurturing and inviting learning environment for both. With 86% of their clientele gone in January, they decided they could easily change their school calendar to gain a whole month's instruction.

This was just the beginning. In a short period of time, many wonderful things started to happen, including:
  • Student achievement increased in all areas.
  • Parent education classes were offered and very well attended.
  • Around 250 parents showed up for every School Improvement meeting.
  • Families stopped migrating. Fathers would go to Arizona, but families stayed in Salinas, because for the first time ever, they felt like they belonged to a community and to the school.
In the Spring, students in a 4th grade transitional class sent me this quilt. They call it "The Dreams of Children Quilt." Each of the students made a block that depicts what they would like to be when they grow up and wrote a note explaining why they wanted to be what they wanted to be. Then they wrote, "Thank You for helping our school give us the opportunity to dream and provide options in life..."

Two small articles ended up being published in that issue of Quality Digest, with this picture of the quilt and me.