The Road to Reform

Written by Nancy Merrill and Nancy Lundsgaard
Published by the American School Board Journal, The Next Years, February 2005

Enumclaw Reform

Our reform efforts led us to divide Enumclaw High School into a collection of seven small schools today. Two partner schools-Enumclaw Adventure School and Enumclaw Cooperative Hands-On Experiential School (ECHOES)-each have student populations of more than 100 and operate on the existing high school campus as self-contained independent schools. Recent student and parent surveys show a high degree of satisfaction with these schools, as well as some indications of improving academic achievement.

The other five schools, called interest-based schools, are Culture and Performing Arts, Design and Production, Discovery and Human Services, Global Studies and Business, and Innovation and Technology. Each of these schools enrolls from 200 to 300 students.

Enumclaw High School is one of about 2,000 large comprehensive high schools nationwide that are dividing into smaller schools or learning communities. The research driving these efforts includes the findings that small schools have lower dropout rates and incidents of violence, as well as higher graduation rates, increased teacher, parent, and student satisfaction, and higher academic achievement, especially for students from lower-income families.

The Small Schools Project in Seattle provides technical assistance to more than 50 high schools in Washington State, including 17 large comprehensive schools engaged in converting their schools into 74 smaller ones. For more information, visit the project's web site: Another useful web site is Stanford University College of Education's School Redesign Network:

You can find more information about the Enumclaw School District's high school reinvention process on its web site,
- N.L. and N.M.

When the school board in Enumclaw, Washington started down the road of reinventing our large comprehensive high school four years ago, we couldn't see the future. We didn't know that when school opened in the fall of 2003, Enumclaw High School's 1600 students would be attending one of seven smaller schools. We didn't know that passionate teachers would lobby us to move ahead more quickly, nor did we realize that equally passionate parents would ask us to slow down or stop altogether. And we had absolutely no idea how much we had to learn as a board.

The gateway to Mount Rainier, Enumclaw is on a rich farming plateau 35 miles southeast of Seattle. Our school district serves about 5,000 students, and while we've grown steadily over the past two decades, many of our children come from families with deep roots in the community. A considerable number of their parents and grandparents attended Enumclaw schools.

While your district might not look like ours in demographics or in geography, like us you probably are engaged in some major change process. The growth of standards, the public's demand for accountability and equity, the changing needs of our society-these factors are causing educators everywhere to look beyond the status quo. Most of us recognize that if we keep doing the same, we'll keep getting the same. And getting the same is not good enough anymore for any of us.

Changing the structure and focus of our high school was an enormous undertaking, involving nearly everyone in the district-administrators, staff, students, parents, and community members. A school board's role in supporting major change in a district is crucial. But what might that support look like? It's hard to know exactly the best and most effective way for the board to act during times of change. As we've reflected on our high school reinvention journey so far, however, we've identified 10 board leadership practices that have made our reform a success story.

   1. Identify the problem. Before applying for the grant, all of our schools had begun to develop aggressive data-driven school improvement plans. Some of the high school data troubled the board. While few would see Enumclaw High School as a "failing" school, our test scores were flat. Of the more than 400 freshman entering each year, typically only about 300 were graduating. And too many of those graduating were sliding through school without being academically engaged or connecting with a single adult. We knew we could do better for our high school kids, and so we decided to use much of the grant money at Enumclaw High.

   2. Begin with a clear vision. As early as 1996, we had set a clear vision for all our schools: all students achieving at high levels, all staff performing at high levels. We made all decisions through the lens of that vision, and our strategic plan supported it.

In the spring of 2000, we heard of an opportunity to apply for a large school improvement grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As a board, we were clear that we didn't want money for money's sake. However, the Gates grant would support our vision and the direction in which we were moving, so we applied and won it.

   3. Trust your staff. The next steps would depend on others. As a board, we've always been clear that after we've set the vision and identified a problem, we point to the staff and say, "You figured out how to fix it." It's not our job to manage the outcome or the process. Fortunately, we have great confidence in our superintendent, Art Jarvis, and in the team he's put together, including Jill Burnes, our high school principal.

Over the next year, we formed a variety of committees that included 50 teachers (more than half the high school faculty), as well as classified staff, parents, students, and community members. They spent hours looking at different aspects of effective high schools. In the spring of 2001, a design team representing all the committees came to us with a proposal to divide our large school into smaller ones.

   4.Stay informed. The design team's recommendation wasn't a surprise. Although board members didn't sit officially on any of the committees, we decided early on that each of us would drop in to meetings whenever our schedules allowed. We wanted to make sure that people wouldn't do a lot of work, only to hear us say, "I'm sorry, that's really not where we want to go."

Also, the superintendent and his staff provided plenty of formal updates, including special meetings, workshops, and reams of paper. For a year, it seemed as if our lives were all about reinvention.

Because of our involvement, we were familiar with the research showing that small high schools tend to have lower dropout rates and fewer discipline issues, as well as higher student achievement and greater student, teacher and parent satisfaction. We'd listened to hours of debate about how to make such a major change-going from large to small-work. We knew (or thought we knew) what we were getting into.

   5. Be flexible.We approved the design team's formal request with the expectation that various committees would spend a year in planning, and then Enumclaw High would break into a number of small schools in the fall of 2002. The staff began the process of dividing up and, with the help of parents and students, making the scores of big and little decisions required for a change of this size. But by the spring of 2002, when it became obvious that the whole school wasn't ready to make the big change, we decided to spend another year in planning.

That was when two small groups of passionate teachers came to us with a special request. They'd done enormous amounts of work and didn't want to wait another year. They were clearly ready to move forward.

As a board, we did not want to frustrate professionals so committed to improving learning for kids. So we agreed that in the fall of 2002, we would open two new small schools, called "partner schools", run by those two groups of teachers. Any high school student could apply (although selection would be by lottery because of enrollment caps), and the schools would have a lot of autonomy. The five other small schools that were planned, called interest-based schools, would open the following fall.

   6. Involve your community, being mindful of the dynamics of change. Had we been involving our community? We surely thought so. Our committees had parent representatives who invested hours of volunteer time. We sent out trees' worth of printed material. We held focus groups and community meetings. We collected surveys. Everything seemed to be running smoothly.

But when the two partner schools began taking applications in the spring of 2002, it was as if the community woke up. "What are you doing to our high school?" they asked. If it was good enough for them, why wasn't it good enough for their kids? What about the music program, football team, and special education? People packed the boardroom and larger venues; a small group even threatened a lawsuit.

In retrospect, we should have expected this very human reaction. Most of us don't pay attention to change until it affects us personally. We don't go to lots of extra meetings after a hard day's work (well, board members do), and we don't read everything in our mailboxes.

Change is scary. As board members, we knew that. At different points during the previous year, each of us had been daunted, even with the mountains of information we'd received. However, we'd been able to move slowly and steadily along a continuum of change, digesting small chunks of information at a time. For a lot of community members, unfortunately, the experience was like having to "eat the elephant" all at one sitting. So we held more meetings, and the board got more involved. We sat in rooms full of round tables and talked to people in small groups and individually. When we did, many people said, "Oh, is that what it's about? It sounds fine to me." Others had (and still have) more questions and concerns.

What might we have done differently? We could have worked out more ways to bring people along slowly. Although we'd invited people to meetings, we might have been proactive in some different ways, seeking out community groups to talk to. As one of our board members says, when reflecting on our experience, "When you think you've done enough community engagement, do more."

   7. Stay the course. If the reform you are implementing is based on your vision and you've been listening to staff members, parents, and students all along, don't turn back at the first sign of opposition.

When the challenges came, we remembered to listen also to the parents who were saying, sometimes with tears in their eyes, "I want this for my child." We reminded ourselves of the changes we had seen in the staff, a new spirit of infectious and inspiring empowerment. Yes, we would listen with an open mind and do some tweaking if necessary, but we couldn't possibly turn back.

As a board, we accept that we won't have 100 percent buy-in from everybody on everything. And we understand that sometimes we'll have to take a couple of hits if we are really committed to improving learning for all kids.

Although what we faced in the spring of 2002 was incredibly difficult, it brought education in this community to the forefront-right where it should be.

   8. Respect each other. The five of us on the Enumclaw School Board are not carbon copies of each other. We have different levels of experience; the longest serving was first elected in 1981, the newest in 1999. We work at different occupations. Two of us have grown children, two have children in the high school now, and one has young children who will likely be there some day.

Despite our differences, we trust and respect one another. That doesn't mean we always agree, and we've had many a spirited "reinvention" discussion during the past four years. But we have norms for working together-and we're always clear that what we're doing is not about us. It's about kids. Major change is hard work; we can't imagine tackling it with board colleagues you don't trust or respect.

   9. Give change time. From the beginning, we made it clear that we weren't interested in jumping on the latest education bandwagon. We understood that whatever route we chose for our high school-whether it was small schools or something else-it would mean more than a five-year investment (the life of the grant) of time, energy, and money.

American high schools have looked the same for a long time. One hundred years ago, a group of college presidents developed the course credit system. Fifty years ago, educator James Conant touted the benefits of "comprehensive" schools. (Of course, he meant schools of 400 or so students, not 1,000 plus.) High schools truly are institutions, and institutional change takes time.

Sometimes we're asked the question: How long will this high school reinvention take? Our answer: as long as it takes. What's important in the process of change is to keep your eyes on your goal and keep moving forward.

   10. Recognize and celebrate successes. In the upheaval of change, it's important to recognize successes, small or large, anecdotal or based on data. So we're pleased that recent student and parent surveys from our partner schools show a remarkable increase in satisfaction and some improvement in test scores.

We've never seen so many teachers re energized, collaborating, and on fire for their kids. A 30-year teacher who was set to retire decided to stay because she's never been so excited about teaching in her entire career. A science teacher/coach choked up repeatedly as he described what getting to really know and help kids in his new small school has meant to him. At a personal level, a board member has seen her special education high school student be held to a higher level of expectation and performance-and being given the support to achieve it.

We still have far to go, but we can say to parents right now: Your teenagers are getting at least as good an education as they were before, if not better. And we believe next year will be better yet.

Embarking on major reform-daring to change an American institution-is not for the faint of heart. Our experience, however, has shown us that it can be a most rewarding journey.

Nancy Merrill ( has served on the school board in Enumclaw , Wash., for 13 years and is currently board president.

Nancy Lundsgaard ( works for the Small Schools Project in Seattle as liason to Washington State school boards in districts with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grants. She is a former school board member from Federal Way, Wash.