Lake Elsimore Revisited: Obstacles to School Reform

I’m back from a wonderful week of camping at a beach on Long Island, NY. I read three tremendous books, swam, and enjoyed being with the family.

Don Mesibov’s message in this week’s newsletter is on point and powerful.


The Institute for Learning Centered Education Newsletter
Newsletter Edition: Volume 9, Issue 30

As you read this newsletter, a coalition of parents, teachers, students and caring community members are preparing to send a team to Sacramento, California for an August 28th appeal for charter status for their elementary school in the Lake Elsinore School District.

In a newsletter dated December 9, 2006, in an article entitled “A SCHOOL THAT’S DOING IT RIGHT,” I said:

“This school is something special!!! Kudos to principal Craig Richter, pioneering teachers Thenell and Gary Hanggi, Jan Mohler and all the people working with them to improve the learning environment. There’s a long journey ahead, but you’ve already come quite a distance.”

Paul Vermette, Pat Flynn and I spent a few weeks at the school providing staff development because the staff, parents and students had something truly unique underway. Paul observed, “I’ve never been in a school where the positive learning environment was so evident in student attitudes and performance.”

Bruce Bonney and Jack Drury of “Leading Edge” an educational consultant organization that works with schools around the world, conducted several week-long training sessions for staff over a two-year period and the staff was gradually adjusting classroom practices to increase student motivation and achievement. Sixteen of twenty-five staff members came to our constructivist conference in 2007, paying their own airfare, and other cutting edge teachers and administrators at the conference were impressed with the commitment and accomplishments of the Lake Elsinore staff.

Countless others, within the district and from far away, were taking note of the meaningful restructuring that was occurring in Lake Elsinore. Skeptics were becoming supporters.

The current superintendent was not in the district in the spring of 2006 when the three veteran teachers and their principal were authorized and empowered to set up the school based on constructivist theory. However, in May, 2007, claiming he was not satisfied with test results released ten months earlier, this new superintendent transferred Principal Craig Richter out of the building and made it clear in word and deed that the school could no longer count on administration and board support for its unique restructuring initiatives. At the time of the principal’s transfer, staff training had only begun six weeks earlier and the test results the superintendent cited were based on student performance after less than nine months in the new school. Some of the students who were tested had been in the new school only eight months after spending the previous five years in more traditional classes.

It is not my intent to argue with the superintendent or board in Lake Elsinore about the merits of their decision; nor do I question their right to make it. My criticism is that if the board wasn’t prepared to allow sufficient time for the initiative to succeed it shouldn’t have authorized it at all. A new superintendent needs to be cognizant of what had been authorized before he took the helm and show deference to the people who are acting on authorization by a previous administration.

It is totally unrealistic to expect to see improved student achievement directly attributable to school reform in a short period of time. Many years ago, a representative of the New York State Education Department distributed research establishing that it takes three to six years for a major school restructuring initiative to lend itself to meaningful assessment.

Common sense indicates the same: when an initiative is new, parents, teachers, students and administrators need time to adapt to new approaches, and staff needs to be trained.

I’m not going to mince words. I think it reflects gross incompetence and insensitivity for any board or administration to authorize major change, allow people to commit their hearts, souls and an amazing amount of time, effort and money to bring about the change and then pull the rug out from under them before any reasonable person has the opportunity to assess whether the change is accomplishing its purpose.

Earlier this year I wrote about the long-lasting devastation to teacher morale when they are sold on a program by a current administrator only to have a new administrator come along and discontinue their work before they have had a chance to follow-through.

I am not suggesting there are no situations where a superintendent or board should not end an initiative before it reaches fruition. If there is ample evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) that student achievement is suffering or that stated objectives are not being met then, of course, a shift in course may be required. But that was not the case in Lake Elsinore.

Anecdotal evidence abounded that the new school was a resounding success. When the district announced its intent to transfer the principal and eliminate other important aspects of the initiative, a major parent-teacher-student protest erupted that continues to this day in the form of the charter school application. In ignoring the overwhelming outpour of sentiment from the parents of the school’s students the board and superintendent make a mockery of any claim to be representing the best interests of their constituents.

I want to be very clear on my message: when management authorizes a major restructuring in the way they do business, management needs to understand that it sets in motion a series of emotions, actions, and reactions of its employees and all its constituents and other audiences. What makes an initiative successful is when you can generate the kind of enthusiasm and commitment that the Lake Elsinore District inspired in the stakeholders of this elementary school. And when you begin a management role in a new district, you owe it to your new employees to support an initiative that was begun before you arrived – at least until there is time for a fair assessment.

When the outstanding parents and professional educators who began this new school sought district approval, they made it clear they would need several years to demonstrate success.
The unforgivable action of district management has nothing to do with whether I or anyone agrees with its assessment, reached merely eight months into the school’s first year. The unforgivable action – the one that all too often prevents meaningful school reform from succeeding – was in not trusting the people it had hired to do the job, not trusting the parents and students it was there to serve and not being sensitive to the fact that you don’t pull the rug out from under people who are doing what they were authorized to do at a time when there is no evidence they are not succeeding.

Let’s hope the powers that be in Sacramento can see through the forest of trees to the children who will benefit from the unique kind of environment that the people connected with this elementary school were in the process of creating.

To all of you taking on this appeal – please know you have support from throughout the United States from the many people who will be at our annual conference on the East Coast this week and who have met and worked with you when you traveled here for some or all of our last three conferences. Isn’t it a sad commentary that instead of being with us again this year to continue to hone your strategies for teaching children, as we know you would prefer to be doing, instead you have to be in Sacramento participating in a political process just to regain the right to continue your efforts in behalf of children.

According to a spokesperson for the group seeking charter approval from the State, “We are using the charter law to put our school on a firm foundation; we are at the end of the appeal process.”
— 30 —

Please feel free to forward this message to a friend or colleague. If you know someone who would like to be put on the list, please send a message to Don Mesibov at Requests to be dropped from this list will also be honored. Copyright (c) 2008, Institute for Learning Centered Education. All rights reserved.

The Institute is currently registering teams for the 2009 summer constructivist conference, July 20-24, at St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York. Don’t miss the opportunity for this unique conference that models the constructivist behaviors that teachers are using increasingly in the classroom. Check out the website of The Institute for Learning Centered Education:
or, e-mail a request for information.


2 thoughts on “Lake Elsimore Revisited: Obstacles to School Reform

  1. Hi Pete,
    Welcome back & glad to hear you enjoyed your vacation!

    Wow – this story gives me a sick feeling, just thinking about the emotional investment that these people put in only to get a “kick in the teeth”.

    I’m impressed that this learning community isn’t giving up – it’s a testament to how much they care!

    I think that teachers and administrators are so overwhelmed on a daily basis that we only get one “easy” chance at change – and even then it’s not really easy! But once you’ve tried a change, got people inspired and invested in that change, only to say “oops, we don’t think that’s working, let’s try something else” – then you’ve lost them!

    Next time you want to try a change, you meet cynicism and some deeply embedded limiting beliefs (this won’t work, it didn’t work last time, why even try?).

    First time – you have a pretty decent chance of reaching a tipping point and getting everyone on board. Subsequent times – it’s going to take way more effort and probably a lot longer to reach that tipping point again…

    Those of us working for educational change have to work hard at setting expectations & educating decision makers – the financial investment is hard to get, and yet it’s 100x easier to get than the emotional investment. DON’T IGNORE THE PEOPLE INVOLVED!! Without the people, there can be no change!

    You & Don have given me some heavy thinking to do…

  2. Heidi,
    As always, well said. It’s amazing how many educators have had this negative experience. It makes change even more difficult.

    I generally have to work through this with teams so that we can clear the way for trust to be re-built.


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