Archived Information

Tried and True: September 1997--The information in this publication was current as of September 1997, and has not been updated since. Some services described in the publication may no longer be available.
[School Improvement Strategies]

Successful Schools Process

A Rural School Improvement Process for Reaching Consensus
and Developing Plans for Student Outcomes

Developed and tested by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL)

What is the idea behind Successful Schools Process?

This is a school improvement process designed to meet the needs of small, rural school districts. It is based on the premise that a successful rural school recognizes its own strengths and needs. The process is designed to bring all members of the educational community together to reach consensus on desirable student outcomes and to cooperatively develop a plan to achieve those outcomes. Community and school board members, school administration, staff, and parents all have essential roles in the process.

This program provides consideration of all the purposes of schooling--social, emotional, intellectual, and economic values, as well as academic achievement--in the improvement process. The purposes of schooling define the skills, attitude, and knowledge that the educational community wants for its students. Because each community is unique, the needs of the school are defined in terms of community values and philosophies. The process begins with the examination of the school's mission and culminates with a board-adopted action plan for development and celebration of specific student outcomes.

The Successful Schools Process consists of an orientation session followed by four on-site workshops. Total time spent in workshops is approximately 12 hours, and total "homework" time between workshops is also about 12 hours. Workshops are scheduled about 3 to 6 weeks apart allowing for a school district to complete the training within one semester.

What does research say about how this idea can help teaching and learning?

Drawing on school effects research, the need to collaborate for the purpose of school improvement has been well documented. Research on school change has found that successful school improvement efforts are linked to shared control through collaborative efforts of education stakeholders, technical assistance, and instructional practices that adhere to high expectations for all students. When rural schools are provided with opportunities aimed at improvement, goals are accomplished quickly, openly, and efficiently. Because bureaucratic obstacles are rare in the informal organization of rural schools, effective consensus decision making is augmented.

Communication and cooperation among school staff, administrators, school board members, and community members is essential to systemic, well-managed change that engages all responsible parties in the improvement process. In successful rural school improvement efforts, there are high levels of staff and community involvement in decision making, resulting in strong goal consensus regarding student outcomes.

How was program tested?

The Successful Schools Process was pilot tested in 1988-89 at 10 sites. Since then, a total of 36 school districts have participated in the process with NWREL field staff, and 4 districts with members of the Successful Schools Cadre. Only those districts trained by NWREL field staff contributed to evaluation data compiled in the successive years of 1991 through 1994. Evaluation data came from four sources:

  1. Individual participant feedback collected during the last Successful Schools workshop.

  2. Follow-up evaluation visits conducted at each site in the fall succeeding the last workshop for each respective site. The purpose of the visits was to interview participants about implementing action plans, monitoring activities, and continuing steps of the process.

  3. Pre- and post-data from the Successful Schools inventory used to determine the effect of districts' participation in the process. The inventory is a measure of perceptions held by the educational community on school district effectiveness. Pre-data inventory results reflected respondents perceptions of district needs and strengths at the time of the follow-up evaluation visit, usually about 1 year later. Respondents rate their district on each of 57 characteristic attributes of high-performing schools using two dimensions¨"current status" of implementation of the attribute and "level of importance" each attribute has in the district.

  4. Mailed surveys used to develop professional activity reports completed each year by district superintendents in the year after completion of the workshops. Also, in 1993, surveys relative to ongoing effects of their school improvement efforts were mailed to all sites that had completed the process. At that time, a total of 29 districts had participated in the process. Twenty-six districts responded.

Professional activity reports included superintendents' assessment of district readiness for goal setting, prospects for implementation and attainment of district goals, and benefits of participating in the process.

Surveys on the impact of school improvement efforts asked districts to rate the degree to which items in each of four categories were utilized as a result of being involved in the Successful Schools Process: outcomes for school improvement; equity issues for rural, poor, minority, and at-risk students; use of student outcome information for decision making; and strengthening ties between school and community.

No additional follow-up studies are scheduled at this time.

The Successful Schools Process was evaluated in 35 single-campus districts and one multi-campus district. The focus of the process is "districtwide" rather than "schoolwide." The process is not favorably suited for multi-campus districts or districts with student enrollment in excess of 300.

What communities and states are using this program?

A total of 40 school districts in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington were trained in the Successful Schools Process between 1988 and 1994.

What's involved in using this program in my school and community?

Training in the process is available for school districts on a contractual basis with the NWREL. Any small, rural school district can contract to receive training if they meet the following criteria:

The school district must be rural and

It is critical that the school board and community members (including parents) are active participants in this program in order for it to succeed. Shared commitment by the school and community to improve student outcomes is greater when there is consensus decision making done through broad-based representation.

Each of the four required workshops takes about 3 hours. Completion of "homework" required by development efforts will vary, but an estimated additional 12 hours of time is common. Districts that provide release time for staff for meetings and development work between sessions tend to experience greater success in achieving their goals.

The program also requires a facilitator who can serve as an outside change agent sensitive to the special needs of a small, isolated, rural community. Fourteen field-based facilitators from the region have been trained in the process. Plans are in place to train additional field facilitators during upcoming years.

Districts exercise flexibility in scheduling the Successful Schools Process orientation and workshop sessions. Some opt to complete all sessions within one semester, while others prefer scheduling the sessions throughout the school year. About half of participating districts schedule the orientation in late spring and begin the workshop series with the next school year. Based on school readiness assessment results 1991, however, the orientation session is not an option¨it is a prerequisite for participating districts. A small number of districts have added a fifth workshop that is tailored to strategies identified in the action plan.

Local considerations are integral to assisting a school district with its improvement efforts. Although several districts may select the same general improvement focus area, their specific needs will be defined in terms of community values and philosophies. The approaches taken with their action plans will be widely varied, reflecting the unique nature of their communities. These aspects were evident with 1990-91 participating districts.

Costs associated with implementing this program vary, depending on the components of the program being used.


Joyce Ley, Director
Rural Education Program
101 S.W. Main Street, Suite 500
Portland, OR 97204
Phone: (800) 547-6339, ext. 553
Fax: (503) 275-9553
[Onward to Excellence] [Table of Contents] [References and Contacts]