An Interview with the founder


The following is an interview with Dr. Cinda Russell, Chief Education Officer and architect of the Russell CL Method.


Q:  Let’s start off with a positive question: What is the greatest strength in American schools today?


CR: The greatest strength is that the American public is willing to continue to pay taxes even as our population gets older and fewer and fewer people have any contact with public schools.  The second strength is the pent-up creative energy of American teachers who continue to teach even in the face of more and more social problems that spill over into the classroom and make teaching more and more difficult.  All this with salaries that barely keep up with increased cost of living.  And finally, I think it’s a positive that Americans continue to believe in their local school even at the same time that they say that American schools are failing.  That last one could be a negative if they’re really in denial.


Q: Then why do we need RCL?


CR: American schools served a wonderful purpose and continue to educate more and more people who in earlier times would not have been in school.  From that viewpoint, that’s a positive.  Unfortunately, as our neighborhoods become more and more diverse, local school cannot keep up with the needs of the community.  Too many of our students are in schools where the least-prepared and least capable teachers are assigned to the most  needy of students. 


And even the best teachers in the most productive environments are realizing that even many of the better students are simply not engaged in the content of modern American curriculum.  The shopping mall high school has outlived its usefulness.  Students are coming to high school more sophisticated in technology and less prepared in the most basic “soft skills.”  They want to learn something that they perceive is relevant to their lives and they want to feel that they are doing and will be doing something useful that makes a contribution to society. 


Parents are disenchanted with the fact that they are expected to teach their children every night.  Parents do not see their role in education in the same way that school people do.  Parents want to be engaged, but often do not have the ability, the resources, or the energy to participate to the degree they are often asked to.


American parents need choices.  We’ve designed the RCL method to give parents that choice.  Here is a method that tells parents, “we will give your student the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of concepts and we will help your student develop the ‘soft skills’ that will enable him or her to succeed whether it’s in community college, college, work, military, or in setting up a business.”


We also say, “we want your child for nine hours a day, but there’ll be no homework.  We will not interfere with your child’s need to play, practice, take lessons, work, or whatever else your family would like him to do.”  RCL schools separate school from interfering with home and family life.



Q:  What positive changes have you seen in your forty years of experience?


CR: When I first went into education, we didn’t know a lot about self esteem.  There’s a lot more individual attention to students that builds good self esteem.  It is, however, important that self-esteem be built on realistic expectations so that students do not get an inflated sense of their own importance.


We also know a lot more about the development of the brain and how it works.  I think that has helped us shape the teaching of reading, and has also given us some important insights into the importance of art, music and physical education. 


And then, there’s technology.  When we have figured out how best to use technology (and I’m not sure we’re there yet), we will have great power for teaching students to really exercise discernment and choice in how they use technology.


Q:  What is your greatest concern about the academic environment of schools today?


CR: We have built a billion dollar industry in testing.  When assessment is used to determine what a student knows as a beginning point in the instructional process, we have used assessment wisely.  NCLB and the current testing environment can only lead to a generation lost because they couldn’t pass algebra or some other test.  Too many gate keeping points in the educational process only keeps students outside the system.  I fear that a complete generation of drop-outs that we don’t even know how to count will be our only legacy to this period.


Q:  What is your greatest concern from a sociological point of view?


CR: That bumper sticker that says, “My drop-out beat up your honor roll student” may have more reality to it than we would like to admit.  When students are disengaged from school, lose interest, and then drop out, there is a certain logic that says the incidences of crime are going to go up. 


We cannot afford to lose an entire generation of students—either the gifted and talented or the disabled or those who have been disadvantaged because of their family’s economic situation.


Q:  What is the role of parents?


CR: Parents have a very important role to play in the RCL school—or in any school where their child is enrolled.  Unfortunately, most parents have not figured out how to navigate through the public school system.  Each school community has its own culture.  Some are more welcoming than others.  Parents may not be aware of the power they can have by forcing their way into what may appear to be a closed system.


They can be even more of a factor if they are the driving force behind having a RCL school or similar school in their neighborhood.  There is nothing more powerful than a group of parents who know they want and need something better for their child(ren) than what is presently available to them. 


I am always mindful that when we conceived of the concept for Odyssey Charter School, there were two of us with an idea.  We stood outside grocery stores with our pamphlets, talking to parents.  The capacity of the school was 230.  We opened with 230 and a waiting list.  Parents understand when there is something that meets the need of an individual child.  Parents believe me when I say, “Not every child is right for every school and not every school is right for every child.”  I respect the knowledge of the child that only the parent can have.  Parents are/were the first teachers of that child and it is to my benefit to listen to them as they help to shape the future for that child.  The school can only be a partner in that enterprise.


Q:  Tell us about the charter school where you were a co-founder.  Why did you open that school?


CR: My business partner and I were engaged in the business of workforce development which is really about high school and post high school student needs.  The more we worked in that area, the more we realized that there was a need for elementary schools that were different—especially as we hear more and more parents saying, “my child learns differently.”


We decided that to meet that need would require an elementary (K-8) school that was organized differently to meet the needs of the student who learns “differently.”  Our design was based on teams of students by multi-age.  That is Kindergarten and first grade was a team.  Second and third grades were a team.  Fourth, fifth and sixth made up a team, and seventh and eighth grade completed the team arrangements.  We placed students not only by age, but also considered their learning styles and where they could best succeed.


Our curriculum used thematic instruction with a heavy emphasis on reading and math (Saxon math) to support the social studies and science themes.  We were both trained in the use of Effective Intelligence (a program to strengthen our ability to think out of England) and we trained the teachers to teaching thinking.  We were heavily invested in character development and also wanted the campus to be arranged around Micro Society.  In other words, we did not develop any new curriculum.  We adopted programs we were confident were successful.


The school is still in operation today.


Q:  Talk about choice.


CR: Not everyone believes that school as we traditionally envision it is the only place that students learn.  RCL responds to that vision in presenting a method that completely does away with the traditional organizational structure of the school while maintaining extremely high standards for student performance.


I go back to the basic premise that not all students are right for a given school and no school can meet the needs of all students.  Never has there been such a diversity of students entering the doors of schools today.  The public school model cannot serve all students equally well even though they make a noble effort and present a marketing message that they can.


As parents become more and more sophisticated about the ways students learn and that there are alternatives, the neighborhood school holds less and less appeal, particularly if the parent knows that there is an alternative.  That’s choice.


The unfortunate part of this discussion is that for most parents, the cost of private education is prohibitive if, in fact, there is a private school available.  Private schools in the U.S. have never served more than ten to twelve percent of the population.


 Most  parents do not realize that they have within themselves the power and the ability to have their own school.  Yes, it takes a tremendous about of effort to put together a charter application, but it can be done.  Many parents might find that it would take less effort to start their own charter school that it is currently requiring to cope with the school system when the child’s needs are not being met.  As the charter movement becomes more widely accepted, public schools will also improve even though the message is out there that charter schools cream off the best students and take money from public schools that are already struggling. 


There is truth to this statement, but there is also a reality that many education dollars are spent very unwisely in the public school system.  Many dollars that should be in the classroom and supporting teachers are used in administrative costs and a top-heavy bureaucracy.  Those are choices that parents and the community allow to happen in the election of board members.   In other words, choice affects education at many levels.


The best example of choice is when parents choose to home-school their child.  I admire and have encouraged and coached some parents for whom this is the perfect alternative at that time and place in that child’s educational experience.  Since there are no reliable counts of the number of home-schooled children, we don’t know how many families are making that choice.  But it is a choice that requires tremendous commitment.



Q:  What do you have to offer the educational community?


CR: My doctoral dissertation is on Teachers as Leaders.  I am firmly committed to the teacher in the classroom as the lynchpin and future of American education.   There is no part of the RCL method that is contradictory to best practices that are currently being used somewhere.  The difference is that the RCL method puts together all the component parts in a coherent package. 


To date, there are beacons of light as foundations, government agencies and other funding sources give money to a particular school to implement whatever program that school has selected.  Unfortunately, each group of educators (and often including parents) selects a program that they perceive will be the silver bullet to solve whatever problem they have identified.  When the silver bullet doesn’t provide instant results, the entire program is usually discarded only to be replaced by another program. 


RCL method challenges all the assumptions at the same time and brings together a total look at the way we organize for learning and present content for learning.  This program reflects over forty years of seeing the silver bullets fail.  It also responds positively to all of the recommendations presented in Breaking Ranks II, the report of the Governors’ Council and the Business Roundtable.


I am energized when I present the program to educators and they realize that I am not here to criticize what they are presently doing.  I am suggesting only that they take the boldest steps to change an entire system all at the same time.


In addition to completing the curriculum for the RCL high school, I am working on a project called “School in a Box” which will have all the tools for any group that wants to open their own school.  I envision groups of teachers or groups of parents or groups made up of various school community stakeholders sitting down and saying, “Let’s build our own school.”  Nothing would please me more than to assist in that process.


On a business level, of course we do provide other services.  Our company  makes available consulting services for groups who want to work on improving the schools they have and marketing materials for good schools to get out their message.  We also tutor and provide educational counseling in the Baltimore area.