University at Buffalo: Reporter

New book details transformation of Ken-Ton School District

Researchers show how community efforts moved district from mediocre to excellent

News Services Editor

A new book by education researchers at UB offers a detailed account of how one community turned its middle-of-the-road school district into one of the most exemplary in the United States.

"Expecting Excellence: Creating Order Out of Chaos" (Corwin Press) traces the 13-year progress, from 1981 to 1994, of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District as it successfully applied industrial principles of shared decision-making to the development of a school-based system of management.

Authors James A. Conway, UB associate professor of education, and Judith A. Shipengrover, senior education specialist in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, offer hands-on guidance to other communities that want to improve their schools.

In the 1970s, the district in suburban Buffalo went through a period of greatly declining enrollments, teacher layoffs, school closings and low teacher and parent morale. From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, it transformed itself from a respected but complacent, bureaucratic, closed organization with less than challenging expectations of its students into what the authors call "a teaching and learning community for the 21st century."

The book offers a step-by-step examination of exactly how the district developed shared planning teams, peer clinical supervision, new monitoring processes, new incentives to improve professional training, a teachers' training center, teachers' mentoring program and other strategies.

Today, decision-making is not just a series of political compromises; instruction is diverse enough to ensure that all students are engaged in learning; teachers, parents, administrators, custodians and bus drivers together engage in research as a process to solve problems, and teachers and staff determine the content of their own professional development.

The district now is run largely by elected school planning councils with significant involvement in decision-making by teachers, board members, administrators, community members, neighbors, clerical staff, parents, students and facilities staff.

Despite their early skepticism, teachers, parents, students and other parties came together to build, from the inside out. In the Ken-Ton School District, changes for the better were reflected in student performance: higher elementary reading, math and writing scores; a steady increase in mean SAT scores; an increase in the percentage of students receiving college scholarships from 17 to 23 and the percentage going to college from 75 to 80, and a decrease in the drop-out rate from 4.6 percent to less than 1.5 percent. Enrollment in continuing education programs increased by 81 percent.

By 1988, 12 of the district's 13 schools had been cited as a "School of Excellence" by the State of New York and seven were named "National Schools of Excellence" by the U.S. Department of Education.

And community support grew. Since 1987, elections on school budgets and bond issues have passed by a considerable majority-more than 80 percent.

Conway said that none of this was accomplished without difficulty.

The plan encountered much resistance from the outset. Once it was announced, one-third of the principals took early retirement. The school board was wary. The teachers' union offered support, but even with that, it took four years to implement the first change.

"It took a long time," Conway said, "but as a result, the ability to set goals, identify problems and solve them quickly is totally embedded in the Ken-Ton system and has completely altered the way it operates."

Conway has, over the last 35 years, taught higher-education research at colleges and universities that include UB, Buffalo State College, the University of Miami and University College, Galway (Republic of Ireland). His work has been published in many professional journals and in several books.

Shipengrover is a curriculum consultant to the Robert Wood Johnson Generalist Initiative Project at the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, where she facilitates curriculum reform linked to the preparation of primary-care physicians. She received her doctorate from the UB Graduate School of Education.

[Current Issue]  [
Table of Contents ]  [
Search Reporter ]  [Talk to