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Excerpts from Livelyhood's Interview with John Stanford, Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools

Filmmakers' note: This interview was conducted in October, 1998, about one month before John Stanford died after a difficult battle with leukemia. We are grateful we had the chance to talk with Stanford before his death, and happy to be able to share his insights with Livelyhood supporters.

John Stanford with Livelyhood.

"You've got to love children."
--John Stanford

What are the essentials of your plan for saving our public schools?

Whenever you have an undertaking like the the rescuing of a public school system, planning is absolutely necessary. And so we started with a plan, and that plan was to build a world class, student-focused learning system. And the center of that was the student focus . . . We got out of adult arguments and out of adult issues and got into loving children, that children were absolutely everything, that's everything we thought about, everything we did was focused on children. Children have to know that we love them. Children do not learn from people who do not love them -- not from parents, not from people on the street, not from teachers, not from principals or superintendents . . .

The second thing we had to do was to work on their academics . . . We started with reading and then moved on . . . to our system . . . A learning system asks the question, did the student get it? The other part of the learning system is, that it is [involves] not just the school, but wherever the child is -- downtown in a business, in a movie, or meeting an adult on the street or the bus. Wherever you find a child, there is a learning opportunity. And this whole community has the opportunity, as a part of this learning system, to come together to help us educate these children here in Seattle. That's what we've asked for. And that's what we're getting . . .

World class schools have to do not only with the students performing, but the quality of teachers in the schools, the quality of administrators and principals and those who are doing the work in the schools . . . The first requirement to work here, though, is do you love children?

We've had to get people to change their attitudes and believe that this school system can do it, and believe in children and believe that we can succeed. And they do. And we have. And over the three years, so far, we have shown steady improvement over . . . We speak 80 languages in our school -- [our students] come from all over the world . . . so we must educate our children so that they can go any place in the world and succeed. And to also have a rich experience, based on all the cultures that we have here.

What are some of the major elements of implementing this plan?

First of all, it's all about leadership, and so we've had the teachers and the principals in leadership training for the last three years; this is the start of the fourth year. In leadership training, we teach principals how to be academic leaders. Not just to manage a building, not just to make sure that all the toilets are running and the roof isn't leaking and the windows are fixed, but someone who knows how to lead in academics. The next thing we did is that we [realized] we had to give principals authority. So we had to change the financial system. And then, then with the teachers' union contract, we got two very, very essential things: One is the schools would hire their own staffs, it wouldn't be a central staff situation in which we would send somebody to that particular school, and it may not be somebody they wanted. Now, they get an opportunity to interview people for their own team. And the second piece of that is the teachers themselves are responsible for the performance of children. And that is very, very key. The other thing we did is we changed the performance evaluation of principals, so that principals, too, are responsible for the performance of the children, not just how they operate their schools.

What about the teachers and others who had to trouble adjusting to the idea of being control of their own destiny in this way?

They definitely got to control their own destiny as they had never controlled it before. I mean, they had money, control over staff and control over local decision making. That was very powerful . . . You know, we've been doing school the same way for about 150 years. And, today things have changed so much that we must make schools relevant for our students. In order to get them ready to work, we must have internships and partnerships and shadow opportunities for our students, so that they can go downtown and they can work with businesses and work with others to see how work is done, so that in fact they understand what the world of work is like .

What are the keys to getting businesses invested in the school system?

If you really want to get business involved in the school system, the number one thing you've got to [work on] is performance. Performance, performance, performance. Businesses do not like giving money to school systems and have them put it in the general fund and not see anything for it. Businesses want performance for the dollars that they give. Two, businesses have a lot of smart people, who can teach reading and who can teach skills . . . Inviting them in and convincing them that they can play a major part in the academics of the children in this school system is very important. Remember, this--this is a cycle here that you produce children who can and do learn; they become the workers of tomorrow . . . The third thing is, how are local businesses going to know what you're doing? Just because Americans are concerned about public education does not mean that they're necessarily going to come out and support you, or that businesses are going to come out and support you. You have got to put forward your strategic plan and your accomplishments. And you've got to bring the media in and tell your story, and tell it over and over and over and over and over again, so people can get excited about what you do. Businesses and other people love a winner, and when they find one that is moving in the right direction and solving problems and is doing what they believe ought to be done--and it also espouses the values of their own companies, then they're going to be invested in you, and that is so powerful. And that's what's happening to us here in Seattle with our business community.

Can you talk about the importance of the greater community being involved, non-parents as well?

You cannot have a great public school system without having the entire community involved. Without community, any school system is lost. You show me a city where the community is not involved, and I'll show you a city whose public school system is in trouble. We need the taxpayers who do not have children in school. We need those who send their children to private school, but still pay taxes. We need all of those parents who do have their children in school. We need the entire community breathing, thinking, talking, encouraging their children to read, but thinking about education in Seattle public schools.

Anything else would you like to say to your community and to others?

You know, there's so many communities out there, and people are looking at this, and they're saying, Oh, but this is Seattle. They only have 50,000 students. We've got 700,000; we've got a million; we've got 200,000; we've got 500,000 students. Well, I must say that it does not--it does not matter that we only have 50,000 students. The point is is that what we have done has created a sense of community. All of the cities, the big cities with the large school systems, have communities. And the communities ought to rally around their school system. They need to go develop a sense of community, by whatever that community is named. And they ought to designate someone in charge of that, to go out and do it and bring that community in the schools. The school system needs to be very, very blunt about what is going on. We, in the school system, cannot do it by ourselves. We never could. We never will. We need everybody, and everybody needs to come to the table. But for so many people, they don't know what to do. And so you've got to go and tell them. There's so many people that are out there that are willing to do it. So you'll be overwhelmed with the-the kind of support you will get if you just go ask. Without a strong community, you will never have a strong public schools within your community or your city.

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