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The Inspiration of Aspiration

Photo Illustration by Toby Hollis

The Inspiration of Aspiration
Educator Russ Quaglia has students around the world believing in achieving

About the Photo: "Each of us has the ability to make a difference in the world for kids." — Russ Quaglia


Student perspectives help shape school reform at Freeport High
Long interested in the concept of aspirations and effective interventions, leaders at Freeport High School in Maine have worked with the National Center for Student Aspirations (NCSA) for five years.

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Russ Quaglia just finished a lively telephone conversation with a Maine high school student about why some teenagers reach their goals and others remain daydreamers.

Then the phone rang again.

This call was from a U.S. assistant secretary of state wondering if research by the National Center for Student Aspirations (NCSA) might be helpful in restructuring the schools of Afghanistan.

"That's what I'm most proud of," says Quaglia, NCSA director and associate professor of education at The University of Maine. "We're a Maine group filling national and international needs."

NCSA, established in 1995 in UMaine's College of Education and Human Development, is dedicated to advancing the development of aspirations in the lives of students. The center offers information for educators, parents, volunteers, coaches and students in an effort to make the world a better place for children to learn and develop into well-educated, productive citizens.

Quaglia leads a staff of 12 educational specialists in developing and providing a variety of programs — on topics from mentoring to parental involvement — in 65 Maine schools, and in schools throughout the Northeast, Colorado, Oregon and Toronto, Canada.

Among the many NCSA initiatives: increasing the number of low-income Maine high school students enrolling in advanced placement courses; and helping educators and policy leaders in countries besieged by cycles of violence, such as Northern Ireland, to strengthen students' aspirations.

In between special projects, the experts produce publications on a range of subjects, from aspirations-building classroom activities to reflective guides for parents.

"Twenty years ago, we were just a vision (of the college). Today, we are the aspirations story," Quaglia says.

Quaglia started with statewide and national awareness campaigns, spreading the simple messages he fervently believes can change schools and positively influence students' lives. NCSA's watershed year was 1998. That March, Quaglia was named to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Board of Trustees. In May, he teamed with UMaine alumnus and think-tank CEO Doug Hall to co-author a nationally syndicated newspaper column for parents. That August, he was the lead guest as "The Today Show" launched a series on American education issues.

Quaglia stresses that all children can be productive contributors and achievers in schools, if that is what is expected of them and if they are given support and opportunity.

The essential element — a positive attitude and involvement of educators and other adults — can change the teaching and learning environment to emphasize the potential of students, not students as a problem, he says. Students need to see the connection between their choices today and their future opportunities.

The message hasn't changed since UMaine began looking into the link between student aspirations and Maine economic development in the early 1980s. However, the delivery of that message has changed, and Quaglia is the reason.

Quaglia came to UMaine in 1987, fresh out of Columbia University with a doctorate in educational leadership, focusing on organizational change. He began building a multi-dimensional approach to collecting and measuring students' perspectives about their education hopes for the future, support networks and barriers.
Quaglia figured out how to present the voice of students as a valuable indicator of school reform. Today, NCSA is recognized worldwide for its "Eight Conditions" that foster aspiration. They reflect the difference between dreams and aspirations.

• Belonging – Having a sense of self and being a valuable community member.

• Heroes – Having an accessible, real-world role model to admire, respect and seek out for guidance.

• Sense of Accomplishment – Achieving on personal, social and academic levels, and being recognized for doing one's best.

• Fun and Excitement – Exhibiting genuine enjoyment in activities, and being open to learning and growth.

• Curiosity and Creativity – Wanting to explore why and why not on the journey to understanding.

• Spirit of Adventure – Being willing, and appreciating what it means, to take a risk, to be successful, to fail and to try again.

• Leadership and Responsibility – Expressing ideas and accepting the consequences of one's actions.

• Confidence to Take Action – Setting high goals and having positive attitudes about working to achieve them.

The "Eight Conditions" form the core of the center's work and the substance of its survey, "Students Speak: My Education and My Future." The survey measures student aspirations and provides information for schools based on the perspectives and needs of their students.

Quaglia has fined-tuned and examined the list of conditions in more than 80,000 surveys of students, and outlined how educators, parents and other adults can make them happen in his book, Believing in Achieving.

Quaglia travels extensively, meeting and working with educators, leaders and organizations around the world, always focusing on what makes schools better for students.

In Maine, a new 10-year Maine Aspirations Benchmarking Initiative, using the "Students Speak" survey, is expected to generate an unprecedented database of information from Maine students. It will help to establish a national model of how schools can use their students' perspectives in responsive reform efforts.

"Each of us has the ability to make a difference for kids," says Quaglia.

"The ‘Eight Conditions' are in all of us. We just bring them to the forefront and remind people that they have this incredible power."

by Kay Hyatt
April-May, 2002

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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