The Committed Parent
Translating social neuroscience to help parents raise kids we can live with and are crazy about ~
by Robert Fritz
In 2004, William Smith High School in Aurora Colorado was known as "Last Chance High." In fact, it was a dumping ground
for students who had failed in the rest of the educational system. The population was a pretty tough crowd. Their stability rate
was 23%, their average attendance was 72%. They had 125 discipline referrals, a 60% course failure, only 5% applied to
college, no one got college scholarship money, and only 10% of the parents ever attended school events.
Enter Jane Shirley. As principal, she brought in a structural approach based in part on the experience she had, first with a few
of my books, and then with structural consultant Andrew Bisaha, at the Fundamentals of Structural Thinking workshop she
attended, and partly based on her experience in theater.
One of her key understandings was the insight that the underlying structure of anything will determine behavior. Without a
change of underlying structure, we can expect to see the same patterns play themselves out. Had she used the typical
problem-oriented approach that most educators fall into, we would have expected more low scores, more behavioral
problems, and more young lives stuck in hopelessness. Kids without a sense of a positive future have very little motivation to
learn. What is the point?
Yet, the dynamic urge is wired into the human psyche. Even kids who have given up on trying to build their lives and have
rejected the traditional social norms have that creative spark that says, "here's something better." In the wrong structure, that
spark is forced underground because it has no chance of expression. But with a change of structure, new possibilities
One of the first things Jane did was to ask the teachers to think about these questions: "What do you want, and what kind of a
school do you want to create?" And while this may seem to be obvious first questions in the creative process, most of them
were not used to thinking in those terms. Instead, they were trying to minimize the conflict of the situation they were in, trying
to work in as much teaching as seemed possible while avoiding high expectations which would only lead to profound
disappointment and disillusionment. It is easy to become cynical in such an environment.
Yet the teachers did think it over for a number of days. Then they gathered together to answer the questions. They wanted the
students to be engaged in their own learning process. They wanted to be involved with them. They wanted their students to
have creative outlets, and, most importantly, they wanted these kids to succeed in life. At first, it sounded a bit pie-in-the-sky.
Nonetheless, it was truly what these teachers wanted.
Next they assessed the current situation they faced: poor attendance, poor scholastic record, loose discipline leading to
behavioral problems, and on and on. One compensating strategy that had been developed was to end the school day at
noon because the teachers doubted that many of the students would come back to class after lunch. They had tried to cram
in as much as they thought the kids could handle from 8 to 12. The curriculum was set at a very low level.
The vision in relationship to the current reality created very strong structural tension. How to move from here to there? One of
the first steps was to set the bar at the level they wanted it be. It is hard to invest your life-spirit in a compromise,
professionally or personally. The school day could not end at noon if they were to achieve their goals. They changed that.
Dumbing down the curriculum would not lead to real learning. They raised the academic standards. If students failed two
courses, in the past they were kicked out of school. They decided to change that policy. Rather, they would give the student
extra help until he or she was able to improve. Other innovative changes followed, including a more experiential learning
process. Each innovation was tailored to reach the goal they had set for themselves.
At first many of the students and a few of the teachers resisted. For the kids, William Smith was thought of as an "easy credit
school." Not a lot of work, but you could sail through. That era was over, and it was a shock to the system. A handful of
teachers hated the new approach. They left as soon as they saw that the change effort was not going away. But the word was
out on the educational street, and other teachers from within the system signed on with great alignment and enthusiasm.
The new platform for learning was the creative process and structural tension was the most basic common practice. This
took time and training. Even those who loved the idea would fall into a problem orientation from time to time. "Jane, I've got
this problem..." they would begin. "Before you tell me about it, what is the outcome we want to achieve?" she would answer.
They began to create structural tension in every situation, big and small. As the teachers were learning this structural
approach, soon it began to spill over to the students.
Jane Shirley has said, "For most educators, our training has been built on a problem-solving approach to how learning
occurs and how we should organize our schools. In a creative orientation, we are able to shift from traditional planning
processes to a reliance on structural tension to provide forward momentum. Over time and with disciplined practice, people
have been able to let go of a need to figure out an exact path with the specific steps in the correct order and instead are able
to determine next actions and stay connected to a changing current reality that informs the next step. In addition, by not
needing to know every step in advance, folks have been able to imagine and implement highly innovative approaches that
would not have been possible in a reactive orientation."
The teachers rethought how to teach and how to encourage the students to learn. Here’s an example that Jane cites:
One of our goals this year was to do two weeks of intensives (a week long in-depth study of some topic that students got to
choose). We offered cooking classes at a local prestigious cooking school, theater intensives, yoga retreats, a hut trip in the
back country, a week-long science study up at Keystone Science School, a photography workshop in Santa Fe, etc. At first,
there was some limited thinking – how will we afford this, parents won't let them travel, kids may not want to do this... In the
end we had full participation by students, raised over $12,000 from families and supporters and pulled off an amazing two
weeks. Students were held accountable to rigorous learning goals and public presentations of learning were required at the
end of each week so this was not just a "vacation from school". Students were surveyed and reported high value for the
experiences and the learning. One of the memorable quotes from a student survey was 'this is the way school should be.'
Here is a more overviewed look at the results Jane and the team had created:
School Size 175 275
Student Stability 23% 84%
Average Daily Attendance 72% 94%
Discipline referrals 125 35
Average ACT Composite 11 18
% Course Failures 60 5
% College Applications 5 86
Scholarship $$ 0 $100,000
9th grade applications 15 175
Parent attend school events 10% 80%
For the past two years, the students in 9th and 10th grades have exceeded district averages on both achievement and growth
as measured by the Colorado State Assessment Program (CSAP). WSHS students and staff post the highest satisfaction
levels of all secondary schools on district administered climate surveys.
On a national survey that measures satisfaction with working conditions, WSHS staff reported satisfaction levels well above
those of high-performing schools across the USA in the areas of empowerment, leadership, professional development and
use of time.
These are impressive results indeed. What is even more impressive is the difference between how many successful charter
schools evaluate their success as compared to William Smith. Typically charter schools retain only 60% of their entering
class. 40% are weeded out for low performance and so those who are left are the highest performing students. Moreover,
they do not admit new students in the upper grades. This assures the high scores. But William Smith keeps the majority of
the students that enter in grade 9. And those who leave rarely do so based on school failure. WSHS will accept new students
into any grade level without regard to previous success. Therefore, there they are demonstrating even higher levels of
learning and performing than most of the best charter schools in America.
But creating this learning organization is not a one-shot deal. It is an ongoing evolutionary process. Slowly but surely
students are learning the creative process through the structural approach they have been using. Structural consultants
Kumar Dandavati and Alex von Jungenfeld have been working with Jane and the team this past year, and the results have
been cumulative and dramatic.
One of the most important changes for many of the teachers was to leave the popular "self-esteem" curriculum well behind.
The idea that if kids felt "good about themselves" they would be motivated toward higher achievement is simply not true, no
matter how good the theory looks on paper. If anything, the reverse is true. Higher levels of achievement led these students
to feel empowered, proud of their achievements, and it gave them a sense of hope and interest in their own futures. So much
so that this year students who had been in at William Smith for a while proposed to Jane Shirley that they help guide the new
students coming in because they felt that they were part of the creation of their school. These students organized a
leadership team designed to clue the younger kids into the school’s new tradition.
As Jane Shirley has said, "Most of our students come to us with a mind-set that school is something that is done to them.
Good grades are a reward and bad grades are a result of personal defects. By helping students to envision end results and
work toward them, we are able to shift that victim mentality as they begin to experience systematic progress and results."
There is nothing more powerful than structural tension in the creative process, and that these teachers and students are
able to share in this structural principle is a brilliant match between education and expert. As Jane has said, “The ability to
harness the creative power of a group of individuals toward common goals is the most important result of all of this. Much of
the focus on educational reform goals is centered on the need to develop the creative capacities of our students. The ability
to innovate is seen as one of the strengths of our country, and yet we continue to perpetuate an educational model that does
not serve that goal. Teaching students to create should be just as important as teaching them to read and write. Schools
need to create the conditions where students can learn to have many good ideas and become proficient at the creative
process just as they become proficient readers and writers. Our experience as educators has taught us the power of the
creative process and structural approach in bringing about real transformation. We know that this is fundamental to how we
should prepare our students for the future.”
©2010 Robert Fritz