Living Faithfully: The Transformation of Washington School

reviewed by Robert J. Starratt - December 01, 2013

coverTitle: Living Faithfully: The Transformation of Washington School
Author(s): Frances Schoonmaker
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617357073, Pages: 216, Year: 2012
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This book represents a unique work of scholarship.  It is unique because of the author’s background.  It is also unique because it documents the extraordinary power of ordinary educators whose evident human and professional fragility is overcome by co-constructing an empowering process for themselves and for the community they serve.  To borrow a phrase from Henri Neuwen, (1979) who borrowed the phrase from Carl Jung (1954), they became “wounded healers” by embracing a culture and a practice of care and compassion.  

Let me return to the author, Professor Emerita (Teachers College, Columbia University), Frances Schoonmaker.  She has written what would ordinarily be called a case study of a principal and her faculty and staff that turned around a largely dysfunctional Washington school to a transformed community of students and teachers who cared about each other and who began to succeed on standard and local assessments of learning.  

What is unique about the author is that she grew up next to Clinton, Oklahoma, where Washington school is located, and still has relatives there whom she visits.  This familiarity with the people and culture of Clinton enabled her to gain access to the school community at a level of candor and detail that a researcher from a city in the Northeast like New York would rarely achieve.  Professor Schoonmaker’s scholarly career at Teachers College, moreover, positioned her historically in close contact with the remarkably talented faculty at Teachers College, some of whom were her teachers and mentors, and others who became valued colleagues—scholars such as Philip Phenix, Dwayne Heubner, Maxine Greene, Frances Bolin, Herb Kleibard, Arno Bellack.  In their day, this group of scholars exerted considerable influence on the field of educational philosophy, curriculum theory, pedagogy, and school leadership.  Her analysis of the dynamics at Washington School reflects the heritage of that rich, scholarly background, as the many citations of their work indicate.  In other words, the book reflects a close, sympathetic engagement with the educators at Washington School on the part of an educator who knew the history of the town and their inhabitants through first-hand experience, as well as an educator whose scholarly career was honed in a prestigious university with one of the country’s top Education faculties.  

The book chronicles the history of Washington School.  In 1952, the town of Clinton dedicated its new Washington School that was proudly described, “as modern as tomorrow” (p. 4).  However, the town which had been economically prosperous, due in part to a sizeable Air Force base that formed the foundation of a significant work force, began to fall on hard times during the next ten to fifteen years, especially when that Air Force base shut down.  People moved out of Clinton; family farms lost their young to the lure of larger cities; tourists passing through Clinton on Route Sixty-six were less inclined to stop there; downtown stores began to go out of business; the neighborhood around the school began to deteriorate as long term residents of the town moved away and were replaced by various minority groups.  Washington School grew increasingly overcrowded, and began to show signs of neglect as graffiti began to cover its exterior walls.  Washington became the school that all the minority children of Clinton attended; the other elementary school serving the more affluent neighborhood across town had a predominantly white student population. Around 75% of Washington’s students, on the other hand, qualified for free or reduced lunch. The school began to be described as a troubled school. Teachers transferred from Washington to other schools; the school experienced frequent turnover of principals. For the almost exclusively white faculty, discipline was seen to be the overriding problem. Teachers tended to go it alone, surviving the day’s tumult as best they could.  The faculty was splintered into various cliques that did not speak to one another.

While Brown vs. Board of Education led to efforts to integrate the Clinton Schools, the real change took place in the mid 1980s under the leadership of the superintendent of schools.  Based on a community survey, he restructured the schools into schools serving two or three grades (K-2; 3-4; 5-6; 7-8).  That meant that students were bused to the nearest school serving their grade, thus distributing a somewhat more diverse population in each school.  Moreover, Washington adopted a curriculum nested in academic departments, requiring students to move from classroom to classroom every 45 or 50 minutes. The students were divided into classes for gifted students and classes for the rest of the students, which included special needs children.   Concern about discipline problems remained a primary focus of the majority of teachers at Washington School.  

Dawna Mosburg was promoted from being an assistant principal to the principalship of Washington School.  The meat and potatoes of the book details the tentative and then increasingly more confident leadership of Dawna as she began to name the problems that contributed to the dysfunctionality of Washington School and engaged the faculty as well as the support staff in exploratory discussions of possible responses to these problems.  The specific, nitty-gritty details of the painful struggle of Dawna, first with her own feelings of inadequacy, and then with her tentative efforts to establish relationships of trust with her faculty and then her moving the faculty and support staff into a major restructuring of the daily schedule, comprise the narrative Schoonmaker weaves together.  

That narrative flows into a more precise analysis that highlights the intelligibility of how the transformation of the school took place.  It is here that Schoonmaker calls on existing scholarship in school change and leadership to help to name the key initiatives that combined to create a structure and a culture that guided the transformation.  However, it is her use of perspectives derived from spirituality, epistemology, and the psychology of learning that illuminate a more substantial foundation that Dawna built that most caught my interest.  In other words, Schoonmaker raises the question about what we mean by transformation and pushes the reader to think beyond the simplicities of “achievement” on standardized tests, as well as the technical-rationality behind leadership skills and strategies taught in graduate courses on leadership, beyond a superficial collegiality of “learning communities” to more rock-bottom considerations of what human transformation really means—what she calls “living faithfully.”

It is at this level that the book really challenges the field of scholarship on leadership.  In this story, leadership is not about charisma, or about organizational restructuring, or about managing a change process, or raising test scores, though it does not ignore them.  Rather, Dawna’s example and her sensitivity to the unique mix of talent and defensiveness in each member of the professional staff, brought the faculty face to face with their students’ vulnerability and with their own. Those painful exchanges disclosed the low expectations they held of their students and of themselves. In the transparency of sharing that understanding the adults gradually found that their real strength came from looking together beyond inadequacies to their potential for good.  Out of the pain of facing that realization grew the resolve to do the good they were indeed capable of, despite their fears and anxieties of what that might involve. Living faithfully is the way Schoonmaker names their transformation from a failed school community to a vibrant school community. That is the remarkable conclusion that Schoonmaker has invited me to consider about really transforming leadership. That invitation carries the heritage of her mentors at Teachers College into the present public search for the human side of leadership in schools.  


Jung, C. (1954). The practice of psychotherapy. (Hull, R. F. C., Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon.

Nouwen, H. (1972). The wounded healer: Ministry in contemporary society.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 01, 2013 ID Number: 17334, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:53:38 PM

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