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The Fantastic Five

Get the inside story of how these five leaders overcame doubts and dissension to initiate radical change in their districts—and create success stories. 

Have you ever had a plan to improve your schools that seemed so outlandish or divisive or hard to carry out that you just gave up? This is the story for you. One of the hardest parts of your job is to take all the proposals and ideas to change your district, cull the bad ones, and marshal the forces behind the good ones. This feature presents five examples of people who pushed their districts or schools to greater successes by doing just that. They found success not by ignoring or steamrolling critics, but by finding a way to include them in the process without watering down their own plans. Just as important was their ability to take their initial successes, small in some cases, and scale them to benefit all students. Miami-Dade’s Alberto Carvalho rescued the fourth-largest district in the country from financial ruin while improving results. Tennessee principal Eric Jones put an attendance policy in place for his teachers, and in turn boosted graduation rates. Superintendent Lori Ward squeezed 5 percent out of her budget in Dayton without ever losing sight of children’s achievements. Arkansas superintendent Matt McClure overhauled everything from curricula to technology to health care while improving results. And Texas CIO John Alawneh revamped his district’s technology, classroom by classroom.

Alberto Carvalho | 48
Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami, Florida
Students: 345,000
Employees: More than 40,000
Schools: 392
Percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch: 71.9

Right now, Alberto Carvalho is pretty much sitting on top of the education world. The superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools already had a good track record coming into this year, having wiped away most of the district’s achievement gaps, raised numerous failing schools to a B grade or better, and created iPrep Academies, the tech-oriented schools that look student-designed but in some measures rank as the second-best high schools in the state. But this year’s achievements have been exceptional, even by Carvalho’s high standards: The district’s graduation rate jumped nearly five points, edging it past the state average for the first time. Miami-Dade captured the Broad Prize as the top urban district in the U.S., after being a runner-up a record four times. And voters handed the district a whopping $1.2 billion bond, ensuring that the county’s schools will be modernized and include access to technology. To cap it all off, the board of education recently gave Carvalho a five-year contract extension and raise, tying him to the 345,000-student district, the fourth largest in the country, through 2020.

Asked to recall his first bold move, the success of which propelled the district forward, he instantly returns to the fall of 2008, right after he became superintendent. “We were in the middle of the recession,” he says. “Our district was at three levels of bankruptcy: an academic bankruptcy, a financial bankruptcy, and certainly an ethical bankruptcy."

The first bold thing we did was to embrace the crisis. We leveraged the opportunity to create efficiencies, turn efficiencies into innovation, and innovation into scalable district-wide transformation."

For Carvalho, this started with demanding better teaching and school leaders. Nine principals were fired in one week, with dozens more to follow. Teachers “who were not producing results” were replaced.

Maybe the most radical thing the Portuguese-born leader did, and continues to do, is empowering administrators and parents to demand better of the school system. Carvalho started what he calls “datacom” to share data with principals. But instead of using the information to demand results, he told the principals to use the data to request additional dollars and programs that could improve the education in their schools.

Likewise, after he created two iPrep schools, where students engage in self-directed learning amid a sea of beanbags and teacher guides, he encouraged parents to ask for similar schools in their zip codes. The result? By last year, there were 10 such schools—with plans to expand to 30 iPreps this year. “That’s the very best type of intellectual viral infection that can take place,” he says.

“He is unafraid to do things differently to improve student achievement. It is [the district’s] one goal, its top goal, and its only goal,” says Gregory McGinity, the Broad Foundation’s managing director of policy.

Don’t expect Carvalho to rest on his laurels. Already on the drawing board, he says, is nothing short of “the deconstruction of American public education to build it anew in a better way."

“What’s grabbing my attention at this point is eliminating mandated seat time, eliminating 180 days of schooling, eliminating traditional periods, and embracing a different architecture, ­driven more by what the students need and want, to provide an environment where they own and control their learning.”

Eric Jones | 33
Jackson Central-Merry Academy, Jackson, Tennessee
Students: 750 (grades 9–12)
Certified staff members: 53
Percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch: 90

Four years ago, when Eric Jones stepped in as principal at Jackson Central-Merry Academy, the graduation rate was 57 percent. Today, it is 91 percent. Within two years of Jones’s arrival, JCM made annual yearly progress for the first time and has remained in good standing every year since.

To make a fresh start at the school, and to avoid a state takeover, Jones was brought in as principal and all staff (from teachers to custodians) had to reapply for their jobs; about 60 percent of the teachers were rehired. Jones told teachers the administrators were not their bosses but a support team to help them accomplish their work.

Initially, Jones concentrated on the freshmen, establishing a ninth-grade academy where students were closely tracked and intervention was provided if they fell behind. Sectioned off in a corner of the building, the freshman class and their teachers held team-building activities with the hope of creating a new dynamic.

“We had two different cultures going on. We inherited a culture and we were trying to change that—but at the same time, we were trying to build a new one,” says Jones. “We felt the best way to start was with underclassmen. With the older students, it’s harder to break some of those habits.”

The radical changes in structure sparked some early protests in the community, but when it was evident that Jones’s approach was working, the resistance died down. He set high expectations for the school, telling teachers: “We can’t accept mediocrity. If it’s not getting done, it’s our responsibility to get it done.” Jones explains, “We had to take ownership of the issues we were facing and not pass the buck to middle school or pass the buck to [students’] home life. All we can do is control the time we have with them in the building.”

Before Jones arrived, student behavior was “atrocious,” says Carol Williams, who has taught English at JCM for seven years and now is department chair. “There wasn’t a lot of learning taking place.” Students used to get up and leave the classroom when they felt like it. It was chaotic in the hallways between classes.

It took a year, but Jones turned the culture around. Now, disruptive behavior has consequences. And banter in the hallways is often about who has the highest GPA or got the most college acceptance letters.

“He was a firm disciplinarian,” Williams say. “He was very consistent. Fair, but firm. We needed that.”

Once the environment was orderly, fewer kids were dropping out and graduation rates began to improve. “Initially, you look for quick wins to motivate staff,” says Mel Riddile, associate director of high school services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Riddile, who consulted with Jones at JCM, describes him as “extremely focused and resolute. He has a sense of urgency about what he does and understands the importance of the mission.”

Teachers were part of crafting the school’s vision and guiding the changes. “All teachers had input. And that dictated every decision we made,” Jones says. “I let them know that their success was our success.”

A literacy council composed of teachers looked at ways to improve the students’ poor performance in reading and writing. Now, every class—in every subject, from math to P.E. to English—starts with the same lesson plan format: Students have a beginning “do now” activity and a “reflection” at the end. “It’s changing the face of our classrooms,” says Williams. “When students walk in the door, learning is the focus.”

Jones encourages other administrators in schools in need of a turnaround to understand it can be done. “You have to know where you want to go and how you want to get there and stick to it,” he says. “Hire good people—you are only as good as the people around you. Building capacity among your teachers will help guide you. You want a situation where you can step away and things still move around without you.”

After the 2012–13 school year ended, Jones took a position as principal of J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville, Alabama, another challenging turnaround venture. Williams says teachers are devastated by Jones’s departure, but she is confident that students’ progress will continue after he leaves: “That’s the sign of a great leader.”

Lori L. Ward | 55
Dayton Public Schools, Dayton, Ohio
Students: 15,000
Employees: Approx. 2,400
Schools: 6 high schools, 30 schools serving students in PreK–6, and 2 special centers
Percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch: 86.5 

Having been with Dayton Public Schools for 15 years before becoming superintendent in 2010, Lori Ward says she knew the majority of the people in the district and they knew her. “I believe you can’t improve any system until you have relationships internally and externally,” says Ward. “My reputation afforded me an opportunity to have conversations with people, and they knew I was sincere because they knew who I was.”

Those connections were important soon after taking office, when Ward had to convey her vision to the district, and reduce the budget by about 5 percent, or $9 million. Rather than focusing on cuts, Ward worked with other district leaders to understand where the money was being spent. They analyzed what was—and was not—working for students, looking closely at data on everything from testing to discipline. “We could not keep paying for certain programs. We needed to invest in what works,” says Ward.

She introduced a zero-based budget model that required administrators and principals to justify each item and build from there. The district looked at what services had to be provided by law, or because of collective bargaining and special needs mandates. Then, the cabinet members looked at how else students needed to be supported—and the cost of doing business became clearer.

Diane Mendenhall, who has also moved up through the ranks in the district over the past 20 years and now serves as budget director, says dealing with school funding is like being on a roller coaster. Ward’s approach, however, has helped district leaders work together. “When you get everybody in the same group, then you realize the decision someone else makes affects the rest of the group,” Mendenhall says.

Ward, who worked as a manager at IBM, says her approach is “process driven,” and that her business experience has helped her streamline operations in the district. She negotiated contracts for information technology services that will reduce costs by 40 percent over five years, and she negotiated cost savings in contracts for building leases and security services.

In her efforts to reduce the budget, Ward tried to leverage attrition and to focus on non-classroom activities. “You have to remember, this is a business for children, not for adults,” says Ward. “My obligation is to make sure the majority of resources are at the building level and that we are impacting student achievement.”

Ward also set up a partnership with the Dayton Foundation, which provides resources and support on several school programs, including College Promise, which helps young people with the transition from high school to college. Ward serves as a mentor, meeting weekly with students in the program. “She is sincere and honest, and her caring comes through loud and clear,” says Michael Parks, president of the foundation. “People know her care of kids is authentic."

David Lawrence, who began as a teacher in the district and now serves as chief of school innovation, says Ward saved the district money: on the academic side by using more technology and blended learning, and on the operations side by reviewing efficiency and instituting accountability. “We say we want to do things for children. That is the number-one thing,” says Lawrence. “But it is a multi­million-dollar enterprise. It is a business, a business of children, and we want to strike a balance. [Ward] does a good job letting the board know about that balancing act.”

Ward says her approach to the job of superintendent is to improve student outcomes with a “no excuses” attitude. “I don’t think we should be doing this hard work with the feeling we can’t do it because our children don’t have [this or that],” she says. “Therefore, we know we have a sense of urgency that says there are no excuses. Our plan is to assess the situation, to figure out what is happening that does not allow children to succeed—not adults, children—then to create a plan for that to occur, and to not deviate from the plan.”

Unlike in districts where budget cuts have led to school closures and parent outrage, the changes in Dayton have not generated drama. “We are trying to transform a district with a very methodical, fair, and consistent approach,” says Ward. “I try to keep that in perspective.”

Mendenhall describes Ward as a hands-on leader. “She likes to know what’s going on. She is not one to sign a paper just because someone puts it in front of her. To me, that’s a true leader. They want to know how things work, not just that it works. And that makes the decisions easier.”

Matt McClure | 40
Cross Country School District, Cherry Valley,
Arkansas County Population: 17,900
Students: 700
Schools: three elementary schools, one high school
Employees: 110
Percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch: 75

Matt McClure knew he was walking into a mess when he took the superintendent job at Cross County School District. That’s why he was hired.

“He had done his homework,” says Joan Ball, president of the school board in this small district in rural northeast Arkansas. “He knew what kind of shape we were in—and yet he was still interested.”

McClure says the board members convinced him that they were willing to stand behind him to make big changes. So he did just that.

Four days after he arrived in 2006, the district was placed in “fiscal distress” by the state. “There was no money,” says McClure. He immediately had to tackle the budget and fire 16 employees—particularly difficult in a small town where the locals know one another.

McClure looked at the data on student performance and worked on a strategic plan to improve achievement. The first year was dedicated to answering the question “How do we figure out the things we need to do that we know are best for kids, and how do we replicate them across all of our classrooms?” Within two years, all schools were out of the “needs improvement” category.

McClure also worked with staff to put together and implement an approach that emphasized technology, plus communication, collaboration, and analytical thinking. Whenever he had a meeting to review a new program, he brought a board member along. “That helped the board have buy-in from the beginning. He kept us involved,” says Ball.

McClure secured grants for 1:1 technology, first for the county’s students in grades 4–6, and eventually for students in grades 7–12. The schools adopted a problem- or project-based learning model that required students to work in groups, plan long term, and present their final projects to others.

This all required a new way of teaching.

Some veteran teachers decided to leave, while others “jumped in with both feet,” says McClure. Key to moving forward was soliciting teachers’ opinions on which skills were the most important to focus on. “He spent a lot of time meeting with us and asking where we wanted to go,” says master teacher Mindy Searcy.

 “I made a commitment to [the teachers] that we would provide professional development and support to help make that happen,” says McClure.

As part of his whole-child approach, McClure was committed to addressing the health needs of students. The district adopted a fresh fruits and vegetables program and got a grant to open a medical clinic on campus where students and members of the larger community could be treated regardless of their ability to pay.

Ball has been impressed with McClure’s knack for persuading others to embrace change. “He doesn’t see anything that he can’t do or that we can’t do as a district.”

Searcy says the staff knew change was needed or the doors would close. “We’ve gone from being a school that was looked down upon to one that’s soaring and [people] want their kids to be part of.”

When McClure arrived, about one-third of the district’s graduates were going on to a two- or four-year college. Today two-thirds enroll, helped in part by a requirement in the county that all students apply to an institution of higher education, a vocational program, or one of the armed forces. (There’s no way of requiring that they attend, of course, but there’s hope it will make a difference.) After years of having no student score a 3 or above on an AP exam, now approximately 20 percent score in the passing range. But outside of test scores, McClure is proud that students are able to clearly explain what they are learning because the new learning model emphasizes relevance and speaking skills.

The district’s transformation has not been without its challenges—and the need to adjust direction occasionally. “One of the things we have to do in education, especially if we’re stepping out of the box and trying to do things differently, is to understand that we have to communicate to all stakeholders that we are going to make mistakes,” says McClure. “We have to constantly monitor and assess what it is that’s working and what it is that we need to change. We will continue to make mistakes, but hopefully, we will learn from those.”

John Alawneh | 51
Chief Information Officer
Katy Independent School District, Katy, Texas
Students: 65,000
Employees: 7,700
Schools: 56
Percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch: 30

Before instituting major changes in technology, CIO John Alawneh says he first needs to determine if a school district wants to play offense or defense.

“Is the organization barely keeping the lights on and playing defense? If you want to win games, you need a strong defense and a strong offense,” says Alawneh. In his area of authority, technology management, a formidable offense means focusing on innovation­—and making sure that everyone is plugged in.

“Learning is not just for the students; it’s for the teacher and the community,” Alawneh says. “We want to be connected with our community anywhere, anytime, and with any device.”

Alawneh has been at his new post in Katy for just a few months, and is still sizing up the district’s technology needs. But he comes with a strong track record from the Austin Independent School District, where he served as executive director of technology for three years. 

When Alawneh stepped into the position in Austin in 2010, he was struck by the lack of technology resources—for everything from scheduling to assessment—in both the classroom and administrative offices. “Austin is tech-savvy, but the community was ahead of the district,” he says. “A major obstacle was changing the culture of the district—mainly on the administrative side. Teachers and students were more ready for it than the leadership was.”

The administration was reluctant to make more information accessible to the public. “It’s easier to hunker down and be on the defensive than to take on new things and take the risk with more exposure and transparency,” he says. “The culture was, there is no need to attract too much attention.”

But Alawneh started with a few projects at a time and built on those successes.

Amy Taylor, principal of Small Middle School in Austin, worked with Alawneh on a blended-learning model where all eighth graders were using laptops and iPads instead of textbooks. “John was instrumental in getting technology and the online program for us,” says Taylor. He found $500,000 in the district’s budget for innovation to support the new approach. “He was very open and very creative.”

Teachers received intensive training in the summer to get up to speed, and then wrote their curriculum using the new technology. “I knew the teachers would love it,” says Taylor, adding that Alawneh attended teacher meetings on the technology transition. “He was right there in the trenches with us and in constant communication.”

Alawneh also partnered with Pauline Dow, chief academic officer in Austin, to design a system to put the district’s improvement planning process online. This allowed the 27 departments under Dow’s supervision, and the various school campuses, to access colleagues’ plans and learn from one another.

Alawneh knows when to drive change and when to back off a bit, says Dow. “You have to know when to push and when to hold or even pull back. Then the next time you can push further ahead.”

Alawneh says he shed projects that didn’t align with the district’s priorities and focused resources on areas where stakeholders agreed change was needed. He presented the administration with his strategy on one page. Among Alawneh’s priorities: updating the data warehouse and developing tools for principals to use in analyzing student data and comparing information. He spearheaded a redesign of the district’s website and launched a public dashboard that helped families follow what their kids were doing in school and allowed the community to gauge the state of the district.

“In the case of Austin, they had so much to celebrate,” says Alawneh. “I encouraged them to share that with the public.” Better to have accurate information about student performance and the health of the district, even if it is not perfect, than to not provide anything and create an opportunity for misinformation to dominate, he notes.

Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, says Alawneh’s rare combination of expertise in technology and education has contributed to his effective leadership: “He is able to work with others, understand the education environment, and understand what emerging technologies and standards mean and how to apply them to education.”    


Alberto Carvalho profile by Wayne D’Orio


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