By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Attendees of the informational workshop (right to left), Inglewood Teachers Association member David Brown; Merced High School student Christian Arroyo; and Mark Munger, an independent consultant and senior associate of Valeocon Management Consulting, in a discussion about the Positive Deviance Initiative.
"According to Positive Deviance theory, students, teachers and school administrators already have the answers they need to address adverse problems like the high school dropout rate. I find that very empowering," said Palm Springs Teachers Association President Beverly Bricker, one of 45 participants at an informational workshop about the Positive Deviance Initiative conducted May 28 in Orange County by CTA's Institute for Teaching (IFT).
"Positive Deviance rests on two important assumptions," said workshop facilitator Mark Munger, an independent Positive Deviance consultant associated with Boston's Tufts University. "First, it proposes that solutions to community problems already exist within the community of interest, and second, that it is possible to find successful solutions to problems before all of the underlying causes are addressed."
"Positive Deviance presupposes that in every high school there are students, teachers, families, other school employees, and members of the larger community who are helping to make some students successful," said Munger. "The emphasis is to identify the behaviors and practices that keep students in school and then to encourage the rest of the student community to adopt them."
"We've become experts on dropouts," said retired CTA employee and former IFT manager Yale Wishnick, citing the more typical approach of trying to determine what causes students to drop out of school. "What we need to do instead is become experts on why kids stay in school. It's a very different approach."
A pilot project to reduce the dropout rate at Merced High School in California's Central Valley is the most recent of IFT's projects aimed at bringing new approaches to school change. Supported by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the pilot project is the first of its kind in California to incorporate the Positive Deviance Initiative's principles. "We believe the potential of Positive Deviance to reduce high school dropouts is vast and largely untapped," said IFT Manager/Program Director Dick Gale.
"We have so many kids with potential who aren't successful in the classroom," said Merced High School math teacher Sheila Whitley, whose grant proposal rose to the top for IFT funding — among scores submitted from schools throughout the state for the pilot project. According to 2006-07 school year figures (the most recent data available from the California Department of Education) nearly 13 percent of students at Merced High School are expected to drop out of school before graduating. "These are good kids, but they are falling through the cracks," said Whitley.
The IFT grant will provide training for Merced High School teachers to interview high-achieving students there, identify their successful traits and create a plan to replicate those traits throughout the school system. Teachers will also interview and incorporate feedback from Merced community members. Munger believes that the answers to the pertinent questions lie within the Merced community now, and that if the project is successful, Merced High School will see a measurable change in the dropout rate within the next year or two.
In addition to the recent informational workshop in Orange County for participants from Southern California, IFT presented a similar workshop at CTA's Burlingame headquarters for Northern California participants April 2.
"I was so impressed with the teenage students from Merced High School who related that one of the main reasons they have stayed in school is the interest and encouragement of a special teacher or teachers," said Burlingame workshop participant Dixie Johansen, a Ravenswood Teachers Association member and co-chair of CTA's Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee.
"The Positive Deviance workshop exceeded my expectations," said participant Bricker. "The explanations, the guest student speakers' ideas and the respect given to all participants made the day an encouraging one for me and my six colleagues from our Palm Springs TA local who accompanied me. We came away energized with the idea that Positive Deviance is an approach that we hope to replicate in our schools, too."