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William Smith High School
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 emerge.

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



Student Stability



Average Daily Attendance



Discipline referrals



Average ACT Composite



% Course Failures



% College Applications



Scholarship $$



9th grade applications



Parent attendance at school events



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

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Updated: 10/24/10