Reflections on a Landmark Program: The Warner Center Celebrates 10th Anniversary

Judi FonziOver the last decade, Warner Center for Professional Development and Education Reform have been working in collaboration with community partners to use education as a vehicle for systemic reform. The Center, established in 2001 with a generous gift from the late William F. Scandling, has become a place where schools and organizations turn to when they want to foster and support significant change.
This year the Center is celebrating its 10th anniversary. As founding director, Fonzi was able to use her extensive experience in promoting mathematics reform as a model for challenging the status quo in other fields. Fonzi has built diverse teams of educators who work with organizations to identify and implement research-based, innovative professional practices and engage in systemic change.
We invited Fonzi to reflect on the past decade and share her vision for the future of the Center.
What led the Warner School to create the Center?
In the early 1990s, educators were beginning to realize that our most common approach to reforming education—providing professional development programs for volunteer participants from any and all schools—was not effective at reforming whole systems. Raffaella Borasi and I were experiencing this challenge firsthand in our National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded work with middle school mathematics teachers in the Rochester region. Fortunately, NSF became an early leader in the quest to challenge the status quo and support systemic initiatives at the school, district, local, and state levels. By the mid-90s, Raffaella and I had secured an NSF Local Systemic Change grant to work with four suburban districts in our region, and we were collaborating with colleagues on New York State’s NSF State Systemic Initiative. Through our own work and the work and research of many others, it became clear to us that in order to change systems one must engage the whole system.  

The Center was conceived of as a way to extend the Warner School’s mission to change lives and promote social justice to entire systems. The goal was to capitalize on the rich breadth and depth of knowledge and research of the Warner School community to collaborate with the larger community to foster and support systemic reform in line with our mission. Mr. Scandling, who was quite familiar with our work in mathematics education, believed that establishing a Center could provide the infrastructure to support systemic reform work in all fields, organizations, and locations. He didn’t make it easy though—he believed that the value the community placed on the Center would be demonstrated by the Center’s ability to be self-sufficient—so his gift came with the requirement that we raise matching funds. One month before the doors opened, we received another grant from NSF for almost $3 million—more than triple what we needed for the match.

Since the Center is still thriving, it seems the community values it. Can you talk about some ways the work of the Center has been able to impact systems?
Over the years, we have been involved in a variety of fields and attempted to develop sustainable services in a number of areas. Some have proven to be viable, others have not. We are always open to collaborating on promising initiatives to support systemic reform in new areas, and we use a division, we call Emerging Areas, to support this work. In addition, we currently have three very solid divisions—Mathematics Outreach, Program Evaluation, Leadership and Organizational Development. Each of these divisions has had impact in a wide variety of organizations and through a number of diverse approaches. For example, our Mathematics Outreach team has had a dramatic impact on mathematics education across the region. Since 2001, we’ve secured over $12 million in grants and contracts to bring together more than 20 districts to examine their mathematics programs and radically revise policies and instructional practices and materials. As a result of this, and our previous work, many districts in the region are now well prepared for the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards in mathematics. This work also fostered a regional system for continually supporting mathematics education, which was the catalyst for establishing the New York State Consortium for High Quality Mathematics Education for All which in turn inspired NYSED to establish their Mathematics Advisory Council. We held three of the seven seats on the planning committee for five years.
Our Program Evaluation team, established only five years ago, developed and now oversees the Program Evaluation Certificate and provides program evaluation services for projects across the country. Our collective expertise and experience allows us to work with a wide range of projects from examining alcohol use by college students to evaluating the efficacy of a project-based freshman course in Imaging Science. We believe that our work is impacting how and why folks at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and University of Rochester think about program evaluation as we have been involved in 13 projects and proposals already. The team, which has grown from two to seven members (including three doctoral students), has been involved in more than 20 projects and proposals to date.
The Leadership and Organizational Development division, which has two teams, works with all types of organizations. One team focuses on fostering and supporting organizational change and was deeply involved in the recent blending of the University of Rochester’s Admissions–Financial Aid–College Enrollment offices; the integration of the University IT group; and the School of Nursing’s establishment of a mentor program. In addition, more than 40 local leaders from non-profit, for-profit, and education organizations are changing the way they do business as a result of their participation in our intensive year-long Leadership Coaching Certificate Program, developed and implemented in partnership with McArdle Ramerman & Co.
The division’s other team focuses its attention on K-12 education and provides superintendent search services, district strategic planning studies, and long-term administrator coaching. Our clients are aware of our mission and understand that when they collaborate with us they are taking steps toward systemic change. The impact of this team has been felt throughout 10 districts as we have engaged all constituencies in dialog and decision making about their organization’s direction. Two years ago, at the urging of some of our clients, we began our superintendent search service. Our team has already played a key role in seating the top decision-makers in six local districts.
How can the Center help address the challenges of education in the 21st century?
There are enormous challenges for education these days. The entire system, including urban, rural, suburban, public, charter, private, and home schools, are all being challenged to meet the demands of a world that is changing faster than ever before. We are all struggling to figure out what students need to learn and how to hold our systems accountable to meeting students’ learning needs. In the past couple decades, brain and cognitive science research has provided us with a wealth of new information about how the brain works and how people learn. Technology innovation has provided us with heretofore inconceivable opportunities, information, and support. The volume and quality of education research has grown by leaps and bounds. And yet, we are still challenged to meet the learning needs of all students. We are not providing children the opportunities to learn that they deserve and should expect in a country as rich in resources as the U.S. I think we need to rethink the entire system. Like the bridge that you keep patching and patching until eventually it needs to be torn down and replaced with an entirely new structure, I think our system is in need of replacement. I don’t think we know exactly what a 21st century system should look like or include, but we do have a lot of research and wisdoms of practice we need to consider. In his book, Deep Change, Robert Quinn says that transformational change requires that you have to be willing to “walk naked into the land of uncertainty” and that you have to be confident that you can “build the bridge as you are walking over it”—I think we will all need to shed our armor and pick up our tools!
How can the Center help? By continuing to push against the status quo and challenge our own assumptions, by continuing to challenge educators to examine their assumptions, to find their voices through education and push against the status quo, and to challenge their own students to examine their assumptions, find their voices through education, and push against the status quo. We need to continue to be conscious of the research and be willing to say the hard stuff and do the hard work of being different and not succumbing to the pressures to fall in line. There are a lot of people who provide professional development, but they are providing the same old stuff, the same way, for the same old reasons, and the Center is not willing to do that. As long as we keep pushing the envelope, staying on top of things, staying current, pushing our thinking, and asking a million questions, I believe that the Center will continue to play an important role in education reform.
Where do you see the Center going?
I imagine that we will continue to grow in the areas that we are already working in—Mathematics Outreach, Program Evaluation, and Leadership and Organizational Development—and even become innovators in all of those areas. I also believe that our work in science and literacy education will continue to grow and eventually become new divisions. With the adoption of both the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts, and the science standards forthcoming, it is crucial that the Center be involved in this movement toward “national” curricula and assessment. In light of the broad and deep knowledge and research of Warner School folks, I see us playing a role in the design and implementation of the newly legislated Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) for classroom teachers and administrators. 

Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
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Tags: Center for Professional Development and Education Reform, Judith Fonzi, leadership and organizational development, mathematics outreach, program evaluation, William F. Scandling