Five School Districts Reinvented
How they made it happen.
It seems every time education hits the national news—and that was frequently in the past year—the focus is on some type of magic solution that will improve schools nationwide. Non-traditional superintendents, charter schools, and value-added teacher assessments all got their time in the spotlight. But real reform tends to bubble up from a single school or district, driven by the passion of an educator, be it the superintendent or a history teacher. These breakthroughs can come from anywhere in the country, and can range from teachers turning around a failing high school (Brockton, Massachusetts), to a school leader with the courage to extend the school year four weeks (Phoenix, Arizona), to a superintendent who sought to rebuild his "dropout factory" high school by handing out laptops. The examples contained on the following six pages show the exceptional work being done in a dozen districts. Take ideas, take inspiration, take the initiative to create enough change to land your district in our pages next year.
1. Teachers in Charge: Large, urban high school changes defy expectations.
Four years after graduating from Brockton High School, 25 miles south of Boston, Susan Szachowicz returned in 1975 as a teacher. Three decades later, she added another title: rescuer-in-chief.
Szachowicz, now principal of the once failing high school, was part of a group of teachers shamed into action a decade ago by abysmal test scores. The turnaround has been stark: The school is now ranked one of America's best high schools by U.S. News & World Report, lauded by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and commended by a Harvard report on exemplary schools.
The largest high school in the state with 4,200 students, Brockton High's turnaround is remarkable for two reasons. First, it belies conventional wisdom that smaller is better. Second, the change was orchestrated not from the top but by Szachowicz, then a history teacher, and an ad hoc group of colleagues arm-twisted into helping based on friendship. It was done with the hands-off, tacit approval of then-principal Robert Jarvis.
"It was never a top-down thing," recalls Szachowicz, who became principal in 2004, some six years after the transformation got under way. "No one was eager to do this. We had to beg people to join."
The school's profile was bleak back in 1998. One in three students dropped out. Seventy-five percent failed the state math test and 44 percent failed English.
History teacher Michele Finnegan recalls her student teaching year in 1993 as "very black," a time when struggling students were kept busy with worksheets instead of being engaged in learning by motivated teachers.
Long story short: The ad hoc group analyzed past standardized tests and realized Brockton students fell short in writing, reading, speaking, and reasoning. Then they modified the curriculum to embed those skills in every subject and retrained the teachers. They succeeded so well that Massachusetts named Brockton the most improved high school in 2001, convincing recalcitrants that "we were on to something," Finnegan says. The reform was off and running.
The transformation has taken over a decade but has profoundly changed the culture for teachers as well as students, convincing students that "it's cool to be smart," with special events to recognize academic achievement.
Meanwhile, Szachowicz's informal group has morphed into a larger, highly popular Restructuring Committee, a change agent through which issues are passionately debated. "I wouldn't consider implementing something without listening to them," Szachowicz says.
Finnegan, whose student teaching days were so disillusioning, says she loves coming to work now. "It's not about worksheets. It's about engagement," Finnegan says. "Everyone is so friendly. It's just fun."
Veronica Ramos, a senior, says the school provides lots of opportunity to build skills and learn through extracurricular activities and helps students with college and career decisions. "It's a big school but we all know each other well," Ramos says. "It's like one big family, my second home."
Finnegan's and Ramos's comments get to the heart of why Brockton High is successful. A quality education has nothing to do with size, Szachowicz says. It's all about engagement. "If you know the kids and connect with them and make learning relevant, they'll do better," she explains. "It doesn't matter if the school has 100 students or 4,000."
2. A Longer School Year: The easiest road to turnaround might be the longest.
Shortly after becoming superintendent of Balsz Elementary School District #31 in July 2008, Jeff Smith got some jolting news: Two of the district's five downtown Phoenix schools were underperforming and a third was headed down the same path. State takeover loomed.
Smith knew he had to do something bold to achieve a quick turnaround and retain local control. The task was daunting. Of the 2,755 students, almost half were English-language learners. A significant number were homeless.
He decided to try lengthening the school year from 180 to 200 days, adding 10 days to both the start and the end of the calendar. The idea was simple: More is better.
Actually, this concept wasn't new. A decade earlier, the state had tried to promote a 200-day school year with a 5 percent budget increase as incentive. There were no takers. No one wanted to be the first. But when Smith took over in 2008, he knew he had to do something. And the new Obama administration was touting longer school years as a solution. Planning got under way that year, and the academic calendar was extended for the first time in the 2009-2010 school year.
Results were quickly apparent after state tests the following April: Third- and fourth-grade reading results rose by 19 percent, fifth- and sixth-grade reading by 43 percent, as well as fifth- and sixth-grade writing by 10 percent. In addition, the percentage of Hispanic students who were reclassified to a higher level of English competency rose sharply in second grade to 63 percent and in sixth and seventh grade to 59 percent. The typical reclassification rate is 20 percent.
"There's no doubt about it," Smith says. "If quality instruction is our goal, giving teachers more time to do their job will result in greater achievement."
Smith says he believes a longer school year is far more beneficial than summer school because it enables teachers to modify the curriculum for maximum learning benefit in a continuous flow with the same class. "We don't lose time reteaching in the fall," Smith adds. "Kids and teachers hit the ground running."
More time on task was the most dramatic change, but it wasn't the only one. The district also boosted state test results by scheduling spring break after the tests, giving students an additional two weeks of preparation, Smith says. In addition, curriculum now is taught in the same sequence district-wide and is closely aligned with district-mandated Galileo assessment tests so problems can be identified and addressed quickly. Teacher planning also is greatly improved, he adds.
Joy Weiss, a first-grade teacher at Balsz Elementary and Arizona's 2010 Teacher of the Year, says kids are now starting out much more prepared than in previous years. The extra time isn't wasted; it simply gives teachers more opportunity to help students be successful, she says.
Former state senator John Huppenthal, who proposed the longer-day legislation, says Balsz's results are "fantastic" so far but declined to predict if adoption will spread across the state. Huppenthal suspects that no one else has tried the 200-day calendar because a long summer is ingrained in the culture.
"We need a test district led by someone with good leadership skills to blaze the trail," Huppenthal says. "And Jeff's a good person to do that."
3. Saving a Dropout Factory: 1-to-1 program spurs student attendance and achievement.
Shortly before Manuel Isquierdo became superintendent of Sunnyside Unified School District #12 in July 2007, a Johns Hopkins report labeled the downtown Tucson, Arizona, district a dropout factory. So his top priority was not in doubt.
"Our big goals were to cut the dropout rate and boost the student graduation rate and achievement," Isquierdo says. His main focus: freshmen and seniors.
The solution came while brainstorming over lunch with Wal-Mart regional manager Ricky Velasco: free netbooks, a great incentive in a district where 86 percent of the students get free or reduced-price meals.
When Project Graduation launched that November, the requirements challenged freshmen to earn good grades (a 2.5 minimum), stay in school (no more than four absences and NO unexcused absences), be a good citizen (no suspensions), and become active in school affairs (participate in one extracurricular activity). In return, they would get a free netbook, funded by local businesses.
"This [laptop program] is a big deal to them," says Pauline Van Os, an honors math teacher at Sunnyside High School. "Many of them don't have computers at home. The laptops have given them a freedom and a tool to explore that everyone else has already had. Now they're part of the 21st century."
The first netbooks were presented to 505 freshmen in a special, onstage ceremony in the spring semester of 2009. Shortly thereafter, 400 additional laptops were presented to upperclassmen in newly created "digital honors" classes. And this fall, "loaners" were distributed to students in the digital honors classes in English, math, and biology who hadn't yet earned them. The reason: It was cumbersome to incorporate online materials if some of the students didn't have computers, Van Os explains.
The netbook program has rapidly expanded, with more than 4,000 distributed to date, including 1,000 to teachers and librarians and 1,434 to incoming fifth graders this fall. The $1.5 million tab has been picked up entirely by the business community, which is reveling in Sunnyside's new image as a "tech-savvy district," Isquierdo says. Only a handful of students who have won laptops have slipped back and had to return them, he adds.
Taylor Johnson, an honors English teacher at Desert View High School, says the laptop initiative "was a little rocky" at first, especially monitoring online activities (like texting and Facebook) during class. But she says students will benefit from online collaboration and communication as the technology is more fully integrated into the curriculum.
The laptop program is only one facet of a six-point plan to keep kids in school and focused on college, Isquierdo says. The other initiatives are free academic credit recovery classes, extensive attendance monitoring and parent outreach, freshmen intervention for at-risk students, twice-weekly student-teacher meetings, and a graduation plan for every student.
"This has transformed our district," Isquierdo says. There are fewer transfers to charter schools and the number of graduates has risen from 500 annually to 821 in just a few years, despite flat enrollment, he says. "You can't imagine how important this has been to our community."
4. Music to Motivate: Music ed renaissance builds student character and discipline.
Just a few years ago, Indianapolis Public Schools had more musical instruments than students wanting to play them. And band classes were a dumping ground for unmotivated students.
Not anymore. Today, school officials have a waiting list for instruments and classes are packed.
"It's a nice problem to have," admits Keith White, the director of music education. "We're doing creative things, like sharing instruments. We are trying our hardest not to turn anybody away."
Seventeen years ago, Indianapolis's music program was gutted by budget cuts. But now, thanks to two music-promoting superintendents in succession, first Duncan "Pat" Pritchett and now Eugene White, music has made a huge comeback.
Under Pritchett's leadership, the district won $1.1 million in grants about a decade ago that bought some 1,650 band instruments to give to fifth and sixth graders.
In 2005, White became superintendent and further boosted the music program, extending choral and instrumental music to all schools by August 2009, two years ahead of schedule.
Having achieved greater depth and breadth, Indianapolis's music programs now focus more on performances and competitions, engaging both students and their parents. The schools run an all-city choir, music festivals, and summer music camp, and its musicians participate in state competitions and have even traveled to Disney World to perform. And Indianapolis now offers a K-12 magnet school for the performing arts that enables promising students to compete to enter the 6-12 school, Superintendent White says. The music has helped kids to become better students and to develop discipline and teambuilding skills, adds White.
Although the district has no statistics on the music program's impact on academic performance, Poulter and Keith White both cite positive anecdotal evidence. "Some students say, ‘If it weren't for band, I wouldn't be in school,'" says White. "Music builds character and discipline that transfers over to the classroom...and gives them ownership in something."
Poulter agrees. "It makes kids more confident. They feel better about themselves because they've accomplished something. They learn to stick with something when it's hard. And when they perform, they get positive feedback from applause."
As noted, the restoration of the music program didn't just happen. Behind the scenes, the superintendent beefed up management to give the programs the oversight and direction they needed, starting with Poulter's promotion to district choral coordinator and the addition of Keith White to oversee bands and instruments.
The superintendent then gave White (who is not related) the support he needed to build an effective program. Not only did Eugene White make band performance part of the principal's job evaluation, but he prioritized music in student scheduling conflicts and amended hiring rules to require that new teachers have some passion for or knowledge of music.
Finally, Superintendent White forged partnerships with music organizations like the city's Percussive Arts Society and the national Music for All championships, which, in turn, has resulted in more exposure and opportunities for Indianapolis music students.
Despite the successes, music faces challenges from its perennial foe: budget cuts. The superintendent protected the program from this year's $25 million in state reductions but there will be more shortfalls next year, he warns.
"Music is so important to kids," he says. "I won't compromise. I want to see more kids involved, raise their proficiency, and encourage them to participate in more competitions."
5. Building Community: New district changes perceptions by reaching out to families.
After finally winning a heated, six-year battle to merge four school districts in northern Sacramento County, California's newly formed Twin Rivers Unified School District knew its campaign for public support wasn't over. It was simply entering a new phase.
Following its November 2007 ballot box victory, the newborn, 27,000-student, 120-square-mile district had only 10 months before the start of the next school year to build loyalty among residents alienated by the smaller, often dysfunctional districts that had preceded it.
"Students were voting with their feet by moving to other districts after elementary school," explains Superintendent Frank Porter. "We were losing about 30 percent of our sixth graders...and it was a huge drain on our neighborhoods."
Before the merger, the four high schools weren't up to par, putting college-bound students at a disadvantage, says John Berchielli, a parent who supported the merger. If the schools had been better, kids wouldn't have lost their friends, residents wouldn't have moved, and property values would have stabilized, he says.
The student attrition only worsened the districts' already bleak budgets, which suffered successive years of 20 percent state cuts, according to Trinette Marquis, Twin Rivers Unified's communications director.
Adding to the new district's challenge of winning popular support was the need to close schools due to budget constraints and declining enrollments. Twin Rivers has already closed two schools and will shutter four more in the next two years.
To create positive community affinity for Twin Rivers in the face of all these obstacles required strong action to address real or perceived problems and a robust, multifaceted outreach including community summits, a website, e-mail newsletters, and online polls, Marquis says. The district also sought local input in selecting the district's name and mascot and asked residents to serve on task forces consolidating 19 operational areas, she adds.
After the summits, school officials met again with residents, reviewing their earlier feedback and reporting what the district had done in response to local recommendations, Marquis says. "We wanted them to know that we were listening...and that what they said mattered."
Twin Rivers also created four executive directors, one for each of the former districts, to assure that locals would continue to have a voice, Porter explains.
A key initiative was to address quality concerns at the high schools, beefing up academic programs and strengthening their college focus, Porter says. The district also boosted awareness of high school programs among elementary staffs and improved alignment of their respective K-12 curricula, he adds.
The district consolidation is paying off, fiscally and educationally. The merger generated $18 million in additional state revenue and administrative savings, all of which was directed back to improving education, Porter says.
The percentage of high school graduates has risen 6 percent to 77 percent and out-of-district transfers have dropped 40 percent in the first two years, cutting losses to about 18 percent, Marquis says.
Berchielli says the new administration has a different attitude. "Twin Rivers did a great job of engaging families and gaining community support. If they hadn't, I wouldn't have voted for [the merger]."
Taking the First Steps Toward 1:1
There are a lot of decisions between agreeing to start a 1:1 program and actually handing out computers to students. Make sure you do the work necessary to get off to a good start with students, parents, and teachers.
Start small. The cliché is true: You only get one chance to make a first impression. Starting a pilot allows you to make mistakes without submarining the whole project.
Set rules. While it's impossible to consider every outcome, you should aim to cover the basic do's and don'ts while making sure all stakeholders know the rules.
Publicize your goals. Letting students, parents, and even teachers know the program's expectations, and then frequently communicating progress, can stave off frustration and whispers of disappointment.
How to Increase Your Students' Time on Task
Not every school district is bold enough to add four weeks to its schedule like Balsz Elementary, but that doesn't mean you can't boost time for teaching and learning in your schools.
Reconsider your schedule. Shortening lunch period or combining homeroom with another class can add a few minutes to every day's schedule.
Eliminate non-curricular activities during the school day. Make sure every assembly and classroom celebration relate back to what students are currently studying.
Don't forget the obvious. Increasing attendance and cutting down on tardiness will put more students in your classes for more time. Make sure to recognize students with perfect attendance as much as you do those who excel in other areas.
Laying the Groundwork for Success
Starting, or revitalizing, a program takes more than money. Completing these behind-the-scene tasks will help ensure your program is a long-term winner.
Get top-down support. One of the reasons Indianapolis has found success is because two consecutive superintendents committed to rebuilding its music program, sending the signal that this work was a top initiative.
Build on success. Be sure to publicize your program's achievements, letting parents, students, and even staff know what has been accomplished.
Find partners. Engaging the community in your mission can provide much-needed funds and show students how their talents can lead to a future career in a variety of businesses.
Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.