Spotlight Administrator: A No Excuses Leader
Joyce Bales is leading a blue-collar district from dismal reading scores to academic success
When the results of the first Colorado State Assessment Test were released six years ago, educators in Pueblo reeled in shock. Pueblo School District No. 60 was failing its children. At Bessemer Elementary, only two percent of fourth graders were at or above proficiency in writing. Only 12 percent of the students skimmed above failure in reading.
With 60 percent of the district's 17,500 students eligible for subsidized lunches, and about 13 percent speaking English as a second language, some leaders might have thrown up their hands and blamed the demographics. Joyce Bales took action.She hired additional teachers who were certified to teach ESL students, and increased professional development for Title 1 teachers. She reduced class sizes for the kindergarten and first grades to 20-to-1 and 22-to-1, respectively. She implemented a new reading and testing model for elementary schools. And, most important, she stressed reading for all students, in some cases as much as three hours a day.
Making a Difference
Bales, superintendent of the Pueblo School District No. 60, had a strategy that worked. Test scores increased. Mobility within the district dropped. And student attendance skyrocketed and remains at an average of 95 percent. In addition, the district's curriculum is now aligned with state standards and the staff incorporates
The school district has remained on an academic high. Today, this small district with students from predominantly blue-collar Latino families boasts some of the highest aggregate test score gains in the state. For example, in 2000, fourth-graders at Bessemer Elementary—the same school that ranked at the bottom of the state's performance chart in 1997—had their reading scores rise 80 percent. And at Beulah Heights Elementary, 100 percent of Hispanic students in the third grade were reading at or above proficiency level.
"We need to teach every child," says Bales. "We are a no excuses [school district]."
Bales attributes much of the district's success to a commitment to literacy. Others in the district credit Pueblo's turnaround and continued success to Bales herself.
"She has made such great strides and the community just has such high regard for her," says Pueblo school board member Mary Lou Jackson. "She has taken this school district beyond anything I could have imagined."
Top of Her Class
These days when many national leaders talk about education reform, they talk about Bales and the turnaround of the Pueblo school district. Some go beyond calling it reform; instead, they call it a "revolution."
"She has, first off, transformed the Pueblo 60 School District," says Colorado Commissioner of Education William Maloney. "What she did is extraordinary."
Bales has received standing ovations at the state capitol in Denver, 110 miles north of this struggling steel mill town, for her work in the district. And she's received accolades from U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
Beyond the rave reviews, the national and state accolades, and the awards—which include the 2002 Pueblo Woman of the Year—perhaps the greatest show of faith in Bales's leadership came this past fall when voters in this county of 141,000 people approved a $98.5 million bond issue for school capital projects. It was the first time that's happened in 30 years.
"We have worked really hard at building relationships within the community," says Bales. "I brag about the district wherever I go."
Tech for the Future
While much of the focus in the district has been on reading in recent years, Bales believes that technology also plays a key role in educating students for the future. Indeed, technology has been a crucial component in the assessment of students' progress and attendance through the use of a student-information system that encourages data-driven decision-making. The databases also track teacher performance and attendance.
Students work on computers every day, often for math and reading lessons. Each of the district's 31 schools has a minimum of two computer labs, each with at least 50 computers. There are also computers in classrooms.
Bales hopes to increase the number of computers and labs in the schools and improve the district's school-to-home communication.
The Pueblo school district has come a long way, and Bales sees much promise ahead for it—in continued increasing test scores, an expansion of technology, and a student population that is smashing the misconception that low income means low expectations.
"I love learning," says Bales, "and I want everyone to love it."
Eileen Kelley is a freelance journalist living in Colorado Springs, Colorado.