Some elementary grade-level teams and secondary academic departments grew into school-based communities —even before the phrase “professional learning communities” was invented. Exemplars come from the alternative schools of the 1970s, the Effective Schools movement in the 1980s, and the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1990s. For example, Deborah Meier founded Central Park East in New York City’s Harlem in 1974 and subsequent secondary schools, staying until 1995; Ray Anderson became principal of H-B Woodlawn in Arlington (VA) in 1978 and remained until 2004;
Ann Cook and Herb Mack established Urban Academy in 1986 and continue directing the school.
Stability in teacher and principal leadership is a necessary but hardly sufficient condition for school-based learning communities to survive and thrive.[i]
The fact is that school-based professional learning communities are fragile. A change in principals, retirement or transfer of teacher leaders, unexpected shifts in student demography, and unmindful district mandates, singly or in combination, impact the structures of school-wide collaboration and joint inquiry that have slowly matured. In some cases, after a founding leader has left the school, a visitor who had seen the school while the founder led the staff and praised it earlier would be startled by the erosion in norms and classroom practices that had occurred after the founder exited. No matter how many years the founder had been there.
Look, for example, at Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) founded by Deborah Meier in the mid-1980s. In 2009, she wrote:
“Years ago, I wrote an essay about the once-innovative and much publicized schools that no longer were on anyone’s map. While there were, in fact, a substantial (though perhaps statistically insignificant) number of progressive public schools that have weathered the top-down reforms of the past few decades, many do it by staying under the radar—going about their business without making waves. This may be a sound strategy to stay alive, but it’s a loss, because the rest of us haven’t been able to learn or benefit from their long-term success.
We hope over the next few years to hold regional events to celebrate as many of these survivors we can locate. Alas, Central Park East Secondary School (and River East) won’t be among them. Despite years of “preparing” for my departure, it didn’t work the way we hoped. The fault lies in too many places—when many possibilities for failing exist, one can depend on it to happen. The perfect storm came upon us from many directions, and we were in a weakened state due to key teachers leaving to start new schools, a second switch in leadership, a requirement to take in more students, including those who had not chosen CPESS at all, and the demand that we take the high school Regent subject exams. It hurts me when I go back to visit Central Park East I elementary school (which is in the same building), and I blame myself for (a) leaving when I did, and (b) not having had more foresight.”
The instability of “good” schools is well known among practitioners, policymakers, and researchers. Even “turnaround” schools once turned around, relapse. While there are many issues that are beyond the control of those in school-based professional learning communities–including luck–continuity in leadership and preparing for changes in leadership are within the grasp of those who make decisions about what happens next when a leader decides to move on. Yet even when succession of leadership is planned, the unexpected occurs and things fall apart. Good schools, however defined, are delicate inventions and subject to climate change.
[i] The Coalition of Essential Schools, founded by Theodore Sizer in the late-1980s continues as a network in 2013. See Donna Muncey and Patrick McQuillan, Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).
For Central Park East elementary schools, see Seymour Fliegel, “Debbie Meier and the Dawn of Central Park East,” City, winter 1994 at: http://www.city-journal.org/article01.php?aid=1414
For HB Woodlawn in Arlington (VA), see: Dusty Horwin, “Farewell to Hippie High, Washington Post, June 13, 2004 at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26457-2004Jun8.html
For the Urban Academy, see Mary Anne Raywid, “A School That Really Works,” Journal of Negro Education, 1994, 63(1), pp. 93-110. My experience at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) in the late-1950s and early 1960s included a “learning community” also. See: http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/professional-learning-communities-a-popular-reform-of-little-consequence/