“Trying to walk down an escalator going up.” This is how an 18-year old Washington, DC student described his high school career that culminated this past spring—despite the odds—with him receiving his diploma. His was one of 29 high school seniors who spoke to C&J’s Marian Robinson (also an assistant professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development).

These 29 graduating seniors had one thing in common—they entered ninth grade looking statistically identical to students who would ultimately drop out but ended up “recovering” and graduating from high school on time. With support from Raise DC, C&J conducted focus groups with these students to learn about their stories. The results are contained in the new report From Off Track to Diploma: Understanding the Educational Path of Washington, DC, Recovery Students (the report can be downloaded for free from Raise DC’s website here).

The stories told by these remarkable young people were funny, heartbreaking, heartfelt, and inspiring. Students told about patterns of low academic engagement—reflected in poor grades, disengagement during class, and excessive absences—tracing back to their middle school years. Many were promoted despite failing grades. Negative social activities and difficult family dynamics dominated student attention both in and out of school.

For many, the situation worsened as they entered high school: They reported that the academic expectations and increased responsibilities of high school were disorienting and acknowledged that they entered high school without understanding the gatekeeping roles of course credits, GPA, and attendance. The subject orientation, high standards, and fast pace of high schools added to their difficulties. Finally, social distractions expanded and intensified in high school, now resulting in real consequences that stood in the way of graduation.

The report presents six key reasons recovery students got back on track to graduation. Students pinpointed tipping-point events that sparked their commitment to change, including undergoing self-reflection triggered by seeing failing grades, experiencing concrete consequences of negative behavior, and becoming increasingly sensitive to family members’ concerns for their futures.

Thanks to DC’s comprehensive school choice program (which also results in student mobility and school tumult as they accommodate students in the middle of the year), students—many of whom changed schools more than once during their four years—found their “right” schools that met their needs or offered “fresh starts.” At their graduating schools, students felt anchored by the development of positive adult relationships and school cultures that offered the structures to help students imagine, plan for, and work toward a future. They thrived in schools that embraced a practice of multiple chances for success through encouragement to revise class work, to frequently monitor their grades, and to utilize credit recovery resources.

Once on the path to graduation, students felt—and were—transformed. As one student told C&J’s Dr. Robinson:

I remember the moment when I knew like I was actually going to make it. It was like when I first came here, and I got my first honor roll for my whole high school career. I was just like shocked. I was so surprised by myself that I didn’t even … I was so used to just barely making it. So when I made that I was just like, “Well, I could do anything now.” Now I just kept on getting honor roll. So, yeah … That’s when I knew I was going to make it.

How do we help more students at risk of dropping out to recover? We do know a lot about works (see here, for example, for improved transitions to ninth grade). But we wanted to maintain student voices, and they made it clear that there is no secret sauce. What is clear, however, is that some students just need time to mature with the supports of caring (and very patient) adults in the school. Ideally, these adults should have a lot of information and data about students and ways to easily access services such as health, legal, counseling, and economic services. It helps if schools empower disengaged students to track their own academic progress, revise assignments, and access needed credits. It’s also clear that middle schools are not serving these students well and need to change by becoming more engaging, rigorous, supportive, and aligned with the high school (or schools) that most of their students will attend.

None of these findings are unique. What is unique is the way in which Dr. Robinson gives voice to those who are too frequently ignored in Washington, DC’s policy circles—the students themselves.

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Author(s): Scott Joftus

This post appeared in the Huffington Post on July 28, 2015 as the second of two posts; for more on Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti) and Jean-Claude’s formative educational experiences, read the first post: Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti) Partners with Teach for All to Launch Teacher Leader Program in Haiti.

In Haiti, only 30 percent of children from low-income households will successfully complete primary school. Ten percent will complete high school and one percent will reach university. And of those who complete their university studies, approximately 80 percent will look for opportunities outside of the country. With these hard statistics in our minds, we pulled into the parking lot of the Sans-Souci Palace in Milot, Haiti. I spent the first 11 years of my life only a few miles away, but I had only been here two or three times. In fact, it had been 19 years since I last visited Haiti. This homecoming was long overdue.

I was in Haiti with the board of Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti in Haitian Creole), an organization that recruits and trains teacher leaders, equipping them to transform the lives of their students — for a five-day trip to meet with the first cohort of 30 students and visit our network of partner schools.

Among the group was an information and communication technology specialist; a leader at a charter school in Philadelphia; the CEO and Founder of an organization focused on creating a health movement for African American women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles; an independent consultant who specializes in international nonprofit finances; and a district leader from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system in North Carolina. Included in the group, of course, was Nedgine Paul, the co-founder and CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti. Some of us have deep connections to Haiti, but we were all united in our belief that through quality education we can lift a people and a country.

In Haiti, we have a saying, men anpil, chay pa lou, or many hands lighten the load. As I contemplated the challenges ahead as we set out to build a movement with APA, I thought of how the eight of us had come together for this effort and of the bonds that quickly connected us. None of us are under any illusion about the challenges that we face as the APA movement gains momentum. Through APA, we will invest in local teacher leaders as the way to transform Haiti and create a new narrative for what is possible in this proud nation. We have intentionally placed our cohort members in rural, underserved communities instead of the capital of Port-au-Prince. And we want to join forces with others who believe in education as a human right, and that all children deserve access to quality education.

Today in Haiti, approximately 80 percent of primary school teachers are not formally trained. APA’s vision for success includes recruiting a mixed cohort of current and new talent — we value current teachers as well as recent university graduates beginning their careers. We are the first in the Teach For All global network to take this approach. Word is spreading of APA’s presence and more schools across the country are asking for help. Even school principals are inquiring about participating.

Despite myriad challenges clear to us on this trip, I found myself getting more hopeful for the future as we visited APA partner schools and spoke with school principals and with members of APA’s first cohort of teacher leaders. To say that they are inspiring would frankly be an understatement. They are brilliant, poised, and very self-aware. One said, “I am not arrogant. I know my craft and I know where I need support.”

These leaders also understood their community and local and national politics. They were already thinking about how to create a movement uniting allies who believe change within the education system is possible, especially through a contextualized approach that values Haiti’s rich culture, language, and history.

APA has been deliberate in selecting a diverse corps that will touch multiple areas of the country. As the cohorts grow, I am confident that we will see a flywheel effect. But in the tradition of true collaboration, APA is not taking this road alone. We are building a sustainable model by working in close partnership with local organizations, public and private institutions, local universities, and community groups. We are also grateful for the support of the US Embassy in Haiti and Fondation Digicel.

As an Aspen Institute Pahara Fellow, I think of lessons we can draw from APA’s approach to begin to break down the polarizing rhetoric that plagues our US education system. Our cohort of Fellows come from all walks of life, and the lessons that we draw from the fellowship reinforce the need to actively engage diverse ideas and voices. The world does not need another education advocate arguing one side or the other. Our children, especially those from poorer ZIP codes or countries, need doers who are focused on collaborating to finding solutions to break down the barriers to accessing a quality education. Their future — our future — depends on it.

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Author(s): Jean-Claude Brizard

This article was distributed to the Leaders Leading Leaders Network in July 2015.

Is the current focus of many districts’ reform efforts on principals as instructional leaders detrimental to the improvement of schools? Instructional leadership is a critical component of any effective school leader, but the all-encompassing focus on the principal as the all-knowing, all-doing instructional leader will not lead schools and districts to the Promised Land. Rather, a balance is needed that recognizes principals as leaders of teams of teachers and coaches that are collectively responsible for student success and that acknowledges the many other tasks that a principal must perform for a school to be successful. This balance is a main topic of the “Leaders Leading Leaders” (or 3L) Network comprising about 45 principal supervisors from 15 districts in the Midwest. The Network—funded by the Sherwood Foundation, managed by Cross & Joftus, and developed along with leaders from Omaha Public Schools—held its very first meeting in Omaha on July 15-16.

The singular focus on the principal as instructional expert is expressed in many districts through new teacher evaluation systems. These time-intensive systems expect the principal to possess technical instructional expertise and apply it to individual teacher/principal interactions through the evaluation process. Initially, proponents of new evaluation systems promised that this technical focus on instruction would lead to improved practice and increased student learning. This promise was built on the assumption that the principal is “the” instructional expert in the school and that instructional changes emanate from the principal’s expertise, one teacher at time. This assumption ignores the instructional capacity of the teaching staff, which, as instructional practitioners, have a wealth of instructional knowledge, expertise, and ideas. A number of districts have recognized this, including Cross & Joftus clients Hillsborough County and Denver, and have begun working intentionally to build distributed instructional leadership models that leverage the instructional capacity of teachers.

Michael Fullan, in his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, makes the case to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader … directing their energies to developing the group … while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t.”

Fullan’s ideas remind me of my first year as principal. I quickly realized that my staff had considerably more instructional knowledge than I, and the key to my success as a building leader was going to be in figuring out how to capitalize on that knowledge and expertise. Our school saw great gains in teacher practice and student achievement, certainly not due to me being the instructional expert. Instead, I positioned myself as a learner along with the staff and poured my energy into creating teacher teams responsible for student learning. I often wonder if I were a newly minted principal today, would I focus my time and energy on building effective teacher learning teams or would I succumb to the expectations of being “the” instructional expert.

It’s not that instructional leadership is unimportant, but defining instructional leadership beyond the technical expertise residing in, and wielded by, the principal is critical to school improvement. We need to broaden the definition to embrace the collective instructional expertise of the teaching staff and then charge the principal, as the instructional leader, with setting up the structures and expectations to unleash this expertise, leading to improved practice and improved student learning.

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Author(s): Steve Gering

Provide great tools, partnership and training, and then get out of their way.

When the Madison Metropolitan School District began an effort to overhaul teacher recruitment, screening and hiring, they had their work cut out for them. An internal assessment of the district’s human capital management practices by an advisory group determined that significant changes were needed to support the district’s goal of building a thriving workforce. When Cross & Joftus partnered with the district in 2013, our initial assessment confirmed and identified a number of issues that were working against the district’s goals:

  • In a survey of principals, 96% overwhelmingly stated that they were not able to select from a diverse pool of teachers to meet the needs of their students.
  • Two-thirds of principals felt that they did not have sufficient time to hire new staff before the start of the school year.
  • Two-thirds of principals felt that central office pre-screening did not help select teachers with the skills needed to drive student achievement.
  • Most external offers were made in August and September, costing the district great candidates who were hired by neighboring districts earlier in the year.

Over the last school year, C&J had the honor of supporting Madison as the district worked to rethink teacher recruiting, screening and selection. Now in its first hiring cycle under a newly created process, the district is already a full month ahead of schedule in hiring for the 2015-2016 school year. Principals report that they have the tools and support they need and that they are getting candidates that are better suited to meet the needs of their students. As one principal shared, “We’re now spending our time… finding and hiring the best candidate[s] instead of defending our decision not to hire less qualified candidates.” Teachers report that they are participating in a process that allows them to represent their best skills.

So how did Madison do it?

The district began by listening to principals and teachers. Principals and teachers raised critical issues with internal transfer and surplus processes that slowed down hiring. Madison gathered principals’ input on the surplus process and streamlined the internal transfer process, shifting from a seniority-based system to a more performance-based system. Principals and teachers now have the opportunity to interview before a final surplus decision is made.

Stakeholders then identified what skills mattered most for Madison teachers. For Madison principals and teachers, eight competencies were found to be critical for new hires, including the need for high expectations for every student, quality instructional practice and cultural competence. District leaders realized that it was important for teachers to be willing to address matters of race, language acquisition and unique student learning needs, and to value and welcome student home culture and language as assets for teaching and learning.

TEACH Madison was launched to attract a diverse pool of teachers to the district. The HR team also engaged diverse leaders and staff in schools to support recruitment and serve as points of contact for high-potential candidates.

HR completed Customer Needs Assessments with every school principal early in the hiring season. Principals were able to sit down with their HR Analysts to share their anticipated openings and staffing needs well before the hiring season began. This allowed HR to forecast trends in openings and adjust recruitment plans based on the needs of schools.

HR provided an initial screen and built a customized slate of candidates specifically tailored to the needs of each school. Initial feedback from principals has been overwhelmingly positive that candidates are a much better fit for their individual school needs.

We created a hiring toolkit and screening tools for principals to use to screen candidates using the specific Madison context, needs and competencies as the foundation for performance-based screening. These tools included:

  • Interview question banks
  • An observed lesson plan activity
  • A data review and analysis activity
  • A school walkthrough activity

Principals have the flexibility to use the tools in the way that works best for their unique context, engaging other teachers, community members and even students as part of the interview process. Tools have been designed to enable schools to apply their unique context within each activity, so the same interview will feel different in each school but maintains the integrity of a rigorous and competency-driven interview.

Technology has been updated to allow principals to access rich candidate information, including structured competency-based references and interview summaries from other principals so that principals don’t have to recreate interviews if another school has already interviewed and recommended a candidate.

By shifting the role of HR to be true thought partners, and by providing principals with best-practice screening tools, Madison was able to substantially improve principals’ abilities to fill teaching positions with the most qualified candidates that fit their students’ needs. In the process, the district eliminated time-intensive processes that did not support these goals and greatly reduced the time it takes to fill an open position.

Madison has made significant strides in this work, and we believe the district is well on its way to serving as a national model for school-based screening and selection. We look forward to following their continued progress in this great work and to watching Madison’s students flourish as they benefit from a strong cohort of incoming teachers next school year.

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Author(s): Monica S. Rosen

If we could redraw governance and management in service of children at the local level, what might it look like?

We know that a majority of school children today come from low-income families, and we know that many of these children, along with their families, require additional supports if they are to have the opportunity to reach the middle class. Yet, over time, we have continued to maintain governance and service-delivery systems that look like they did decades, if not a century, ago. In each community there is a school board and a superintendent tasked with governing the local education system. Local school governance has neither a connection with—nor the authority to deliver—the needed social services, nor should they. The job of the schools is big enough. In those same communities are agencies and programs whose mission is to work with young people and their families to provide these much-needed supports. Rarely, though, have these organizations had the opportunity to collaborate with the education system.

Fortunately, the tide may be turning. We are working with a growing number of organizations that are creating school district and non-profit partnerships to provide students with a broader array of services. Among these are Tulsa City Schools, which is adopting a district-wide community schools model; Communities in Schools, which brings community support into schools in many cities; and a growing number of cities that have created afterschool networks to improve access to services.

However, the most ambitious effort to date has been developed by Say Yes to Education, a NY-based non-profit, and piloted in Buffalo and Syracuse. Those communities now provide a shining example of the active collaboration and mutual accountability for delivering what is needed to give children the opportunity they require to be successful in school and in life via the creation of shared a governance system. Say Yes combines the promise of a scholarship incentive with structures and processes that ensure sustainability and offers expert facilitation to redefine ownership and local governance.

The leaders in both of these communities, including non-profit providers and philanthropic organizations, meet regularly to iron out problems and to share accountability. In Syracuse, the county worked with the schools to co-locate mental health clinics and to provide family support specialists to work in schools. In Buffalo, family support specialists, mobile health clinics, and mental health clinics are in place throughout the system.

While this approach takes hard work and a great deal of trust among community leaders, many more communities would benefit greatly by adopting this approach.

Note that this does not relieve schools of their accountability to educate all children to their highest potential. It does mean that partnerships are driven by a shared commitment to ensure that the academic, social emotional, and health needs of students are met so that all students are post-secondary ready. It also becomes essential that actions like the election of school board members, mayors, and other local officials, as well as the selection of school superintendents, take on new meaning and that communities need to consider the election of all public officials in a new light.

In this day and age in which fiscal austerity is ever more important, a community that mobilizes in this fashion should see economies emerge as public investments are coordinated and focused and as children become the beneficiaries of this focus.

In the coming years, Say Yes to Education will be selecting new communities in which this shared governance model will be initiated. Tracking and documenting this expansion will give us many insights into the efficacy of this approach so that other communities will learn from what Say Yes pioneers.

There is a terrific case study on the Say Yes to Education strategy commissioned by Grantmakers for Education. It can be accessed here.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross

A growing number of districts across the country are starting to take a more systemic look at their use of time; the arbitrary constraint of the traditional 6-hour school day is being revisited to explore whether a longer school day could benefit some or all students. One of the greatest hurdles school districts face as they think about lengthening the day is whether and how to compensate teachers and other staff for the additional time.

Over the last several years, Cross & Joftus has worked with a number of districts that are experimenting with a longer day for some or all of their schools. As this work progresses, we are starting to see some patterns emerge in the approaches to compensation that may be useful for other districts.

While there are a handful of districts that have substantially lengthened the day for all students, more often districts begin this process by lengthening the school day for a targeted school or a subset of schools or grades. For the majority of districts that have a longer day, in some but not all schools, compensation for the added time generally was negotiated apart from regular contract negotiations. As longer-day options take root and expand, districts are grappling with larger compensation issues—what would it mean if the entire district or a much larger number of schools within the district adopted a longer day? Would the current compensation approach make sense? Would it be sustainable long term? How would it be integrated with or layered on all the initiatives already happening in the district, including pay for performance, differentiated pay for hard-to-staff subjects or schools and the like? Does the district need to negotiate a specific pay increase for the extra time or could this change in schedule be viewed as part of a broader set of changes to the teacher role that has been evolving over time?

We’ve started to see several different pay models emerge, each with its own pros and cons:

Contracted hourly rate for extra time — This could take the form of either an “extra pay for extra duty” hourly rate outlined in the teachers’ contract or a computed hourly rate based on each teacher’s annual salary. When Denver Public Schools was implementing its small Expanded Learning Time Pilot in July 2012, the teachers’ contract was amended to explicitly state that teachers in ELT schools who worked over and above the contracted 40-hour workweek would be paid a specified rate ($28 per hour at that time). This allowed for flexibility from school to school in exactly how the extra time was implemented.

Additional flat amount added to base pay —In Boston, the most recent round of contract negotiations included a new program to add 40 minutes of extra time at the city’s 60 lowest-performing elementary and middle schools. The contract specifies a flat amount of $4,464 to be added to all teacher salaries (an approximate 5% increase in pay for the average teacher) at schools implementing this reform. Because it is an increase in base pay, this increase counts towards teachers’ pensions, which is a significant benefit to teachers. In addition to the increase in pay, the contract also included significant additional planning time for teachers and funding and support to ensure that the additional planning and collaboration time is well used. It is notable that all teachers receive the same amount, which means a larger percentage increase for the less experienced teachers who tend to be lower on the pay scale. It is also worth noting that, over the years, Boston has implemented a number of reforms that include a longer day, and the district currently has a number of extant pay models for schools that operate on a longer schedule. Each pay model was negotiated separately with the union and has a separate carve-out within the contract. This has created a complicated contract and has engendered some discontent among those in the district who feel they didn’t get as good a deal as those that came before or after.

A percentage increase in teacher pay — Elizabeth (New Jersey) Public Schools began implementing a longer school day starting in 2006. By 2011 they had lengthened the school day by 90 minutes in every school in the district, creating an eight-hour school day district wide. The district based the pay increase provided to teachers on a pay differential that had been negotiated back in 1998 when a new magnet included a longer school day as part of its school model. In that original school and then in all subsequent schools, the district paid all teachers an additional 8.24% for the additional 90 minutes. In 2014, when the district was faced with budget difficulties, it cut back the extra time to 45 minutes and cut teachers’ “extra” pay back to 4.2%. Elizabeth started the longer day in a single school and negotiated the pay increase years before the district ever conceived of the longer day as a district-wide strategy. The teacher contract is up for renewal in Elizabeth, and the district is likely to address this issue in the next round of contract negotiations.

While there are other ELT compensation structures emerging, many are simply variations on these themes. In addition, it is worth noting that some districts (Chicago is the most notable) have tried to lengthen the school day district wide with little to no extra pay for teachers beyond the typical yearly increases.

Each of these pay models has its benefits and its costs, and districts should consider these within the context of their needs (e.g. extended day schedules) and constraints (e.g. teacher contracts). One lesson for all districts looking to establish an extended day program is that pay structures, once established within a district on any scale, often become district-wide compensation models that are both politically and logistically challenging to alter. Districts expanding learning time at any level would be wise to develop extra-time compensation structures with an eye towards how those pay structures would scale, whether they would be sustainable over time, and how they can build in flexibility to modify compensation strategies as extended day programs evolve.

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Author(s): Heather Clapp Padgette

At what point does an effort to scale an effective education practice turn into a mandate?

This question, I believe, strikes at the heart of education reform and suggests the cause of disappointing results for promising federal initiatives such as Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.

The driving force behind every education reform initiative, from the national level to the local level, is ultimately to improve outcomes for students. It is a goal passionately shared by educators, administrators, and policymakers alike as they seek to identify effective education practices and implement them broadly. Yet, time and again, I have seen local efforts to bring effective practice to scale falter when an initiative is mandated rather than developed with the involvement of educators. In places as diverse as rural Kansas and Washington, DC, I have witnessed waning interest in promising education reform practices once a practice became a district, state, or federal requirement.

For example, in one urban district with which I work, principals were required for the first time this year to conduct regular, non-evaluative classroom observations and either provide “coaching notes” to the teacher or meet with the teacher to discuss what they saw and how instruction could be improved.  At that time, these observations were not performed for the purpose of evaluating the teacher, and some principals in the district had already been successfully conducting observations and coaching teachers to improve instructional practice in years past.

A needs assessment of the district, conducted by my organization, determined that teachers’ use of effective instructional practices was sporadic at best and was likely contributing to unacceptably low student achievement.  In an effort to improve instruction, the district began requiring principals—with training and the support of their supervisors (a newly created position)—to use a common observation template and process, observe at least 20 classrooms per month, and participate in a quarterly meeting in which results were reviewed and discussed.

The shift from sporadically used practice to required process certainly increased implementation, but it created another problem: According to a review that I recently conducted, principals and teachers alike view the district-mandated classroom observations merely as a compliance exercise and not as an opportunity to improve instructional practice.  And while the observation and follow-up coaching processes certainly have room for improvement, I believe that the main reason for educators’ dissatisfaction is that the observations and coaching—unquestionably a great idea when done well—are now viewed as something they must do rather than as a practice that will improve teachers’ performance and ultimately increase student achievement.

Agency has been lost as boxes must be checked: Educators’ motivation has shifted from the internal (how can we improve instructional practice) to external (how do I meet the requirement that the district has imposed upon me).

None of this should come as a surprise anyone.  Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the great tide of education implementation research, Milbrey McLaughlin and others found that “policymakers can’t mandate what matters.”  Much more recently (February 2015), David Berliner and Gene Glass noted that “school reforms that work in some places don’t work in others” and concluded that it is “no wonder we can’t find a silver bullet for school programs.”

So what’s the answer? First, we cannot mandate behaviors and expect that they are going to be followed in the way we intend or with the outcomes we desire. Second, general guidelines or principles—especially when emanating from the federal and even state levels—are much preferred to specific policies or rules. For the federal and state levels, setting goals, disseminating information, providing high-quality support, and requiring protection of civil rights and improvement of student learning are helpful; requiring fidelity to a set of specific practices (even if they were found to be effective in other schools or districts) is not.

I firmly believe that the vast majority of educators and administrators are trying hard to improve outcomes for students, even when motivated by complying with policies from “above.”  But I also believe that these same educators and administrators will move mountains when they are motivated by their understanding of practices that work and have the ability to shape those practices in a way that makes sense for them.  It’s a tough balance to strike, but it’s the only one that matters.

Learn more about our School, District, and State System Improvement work.

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Author(s): Scott Joftus

In January, the Southern Education Foundation reported that a majority of the nation’s public school students come from low-income families – 51% is the national average with many states experiencing higher rates. The implications of educating a majority-poverty population are complex and are increasingly felt by teachers, principals, and district and community leaders across the country. We know that low-income children have less access to early childhood and enrichment opportunities than their middle- and upper-class peers. And for a growing pool of too many, food security, emotional and physical health, housing, and other essentials are lacking.

Districts with student poverty rates soaring above the national average are turning to a community school model to try and address these challenges. Last summer, New York City superintendent Bill de Blasio announced a grant program to launch community schools in the city’s high-need areas, falling in line behind other urban districts including Oakland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.

Community schools are not new – the Coalition for Community Schools has been promoting and studying them for decades. The goal of a community school is to leverage district and partner resources to integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement, resulting in thriving students, families, and communities.

This approach may seem tangential to many of today’s reform priorities – we know that great teaching and school leadership account for a sizable share of the student success puzzle. And much of our work is understandably focused there. But as schools serve more and more students from low-income families, non-academic factors can’t be ignored – and teachers, schools, and districts need help addressing them. Integrating student and family supports in schools is becoming less of a nice-to-do and more of a prerequisite to learning.

For the past five months, Cross & Joftus has worked with Tulsa Public Schools to examine their decades-old approach to community schools and suggest ways to strengthen it. We’ve found there, as we expect we might find in other places, that the community schools strategy has been implemented as a distinct initiative, parallel to but on the periphery of the district’s core instructional improvement work aimed at creating successful teachers, leaders, and students.

The district and its community and philanthropic partners want to change that, making sure that the services and supports students receive are tightly connected to individual student needs and the core work of schools and the district. What that looks like exactly is to be determined – with support from C&J, a group of community stakeholders are developing a strategic plan for accomplishing that goal. But for NYC and others interested in a full-service school model, Tulsa will be a place to watch.

Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice.

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Author(s): Meghan Neary

Earlier this month, the Wyoming legislature convened for its semi-annual session. Of the many important issues discussed, the most controversial may well have been whether to place the question of eliminating the elected chief state school officer on the 2016 general election ballot.

The discussion was informed by a study commissioned by the Wyoming legislature and conducted by Cross & Joftus. For this study, almost 1500 Wyomingites responded to an online survey and extensive interviews were conducted with 31 stakeholders groups. The study found that most Wyomingites are weary of the periods of stagnating tension between the elected schools chief, Governor, and State Board and want to see change.  When the views of the elected Superintendent and appointed Board have aligned, the system has worked well. But when they have not, leadership has gotten bogged down and school districts have received conflicting messages about the state’s priorities.

Wyoming is a fascinating state. It boasts the smallest population in the nation but spends more (on a cost-adjusted basis) on education than any state, nearly twice the average of its immediate neighbor states. Despite this investment, Wyoming does not meet many of its student achievement goals. Low-income students perform quite well, but Wyoming has few concentrations of poverty and rural poverty can be far different than in urban areas. Non-poverty students do not do nearly as well, placing Wyoming in the mid-30s when compared to other states and about even with Slovenia if an international scale is used.

Across the study’s survey and interviews, a strong majority expressed dissatisfaction – even frustration – with the lack of a unified strategy for improving education at the state level. Time, energy, and attention seem to have been focused on the political leadership controversies in recent years, at the expense of a coherent vision and aligned services and supports to districts, schools, and children.

Our study concluded that Wyoming’s state-level education governance structure contains a structural flaw. The State Board is charged with establishing policies and standards, but when the elected State Superintendent determines that these are in conflict with his or her campaign commitments, there is no defined process for reaching a resolution. The result is often a stalemate in which the policies are either not implemented or done slowly or incompletely. Similarly, when the State Superintendent has made a campaign commitment to change certain policies or standards, that person lacks the authority to do so. The result can be four years of leadership stagnation – a serious problem when educational improvement is so vital to the future economic and social well-being of states.

Education is the largest single item in almost every state’s budget, yet elected chiefs are rarely at the table and can feel they have their own agendas to pursue. The state board and/or the governor can hold an appointed chief accountable on an on-going basis for effective collaboration, providing increased opportunity to ensure that districts are given clear guidance and support and that the state’s educational system continually improves. However, securing sufficient legislative and public support to change a state’s constitution is a difficult hurdle.

While we will not know for a few months what will emerge, it is significant that the public wants to see adjustments to the state governance structure. If the state does move away from an elected schools chief, they would be following in the footsteps of many other states. Today, 13 state chiefs are elected, down from 33 in the late 1940s and discussions around the issue of an elected versus an appointed chief are also likely to occur in Indiana and North Carolina.  Will Wyoming be next to better align state education leadership?  Stay tuned!

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross and Nancy Doorey