Lessons From District Leaders

A Supplement to the February 6, 2013, Issue ฀Vol.฀32฀•฀No.฀20฀฀ www.edweek.org/go/leaders-report

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2013 Lessons From District Leaders
IN AN ENVIRONMENT OF TIGHT RESOURCES, tough academic challenges, and increasingly stiff competition from new education providers, smart leadership may matter more than ever for the success of America’s school districts. Against this backdrop, Education Week introduces the first of what will be an annual Leaders To Learn From report—a way to recognize forwardthinking education leaders and share their ideas. The importance of effective educational leadership goes almost without saying: Some research suggests leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all the schoolrelated factors that contribute to student learning. Leaders To Learn From aims to draw attention to the importance of good leadership and spread the word on strategies and tactics from leaders in some of the nation’s 14,000-plus districts that others may want to adopt or adapt. This 2013 report profiles 16 district-level leaders— superintendents, assistant superintendents, and others, including a union president—who seized on creative but practical approaches and put them to work in their school districts. To help find these leaders, Education Week put out a call to readers for nominees, starting last June. We also sought nominations from the leaders of administrators’ groups in most of the 50 states, as well as from members of the Education Writers Association, a Washington-based organization that includes local education reporters around the country. Education Week’s own reporters identified leaders who are making a mark within the topical areas they cover. Members of the editorial staff made the final selections. (To make a nomination for the 2014 edition, go to www.edweek.org/ leaders/nominate or send an email to leaders@epe.org.) The leaders featured here include an Ohio superintendent who drove a successful effort to move 16 low-performing schools out of “academic emergency” status; a Minnesota superintendent who spearheaded a push to more inclusively educate Englishlanguage learners; a technology specialist in Missouri who helped organize social-networking events to further teachers’ professional development; and a district chief from upstate New York who recruited tuition-paying international students to help keep his single school afloat. Urban districts, such as Boston and Baltimore, are represented. So, too, are Texas’ Rio Grande Valley; rural communities like Garrett, Ind., and Duplin County, N.C.; and Virginia’s Loudoun County, an upscale outer-ring suburb. While some of the leaders profiled are nationally known for their accomplishments within their own slices of the education world, they are not the high-profile superintendents who most typically make headlines. In fact, only nine are superintendents; the rest have worked most of their careers just below the public radar, as directors of special education or transportation, for example. One common characteristic among the group is that most of them have long-standing ties to the communities they serve. Another connection is that all had a clear vision of how they wanted to improve their districts or areas of responsibility, and they followed through on it. As Theodore Hesburgh, the president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, has said, “The very essence of leadership is you have to have a vision.” “It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion,” he added. “You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” Within their school systems, these leaders have blown some strong, clear notes. —The Editors

4 7 8 10 12 15 16 19 20 23 25 26 28 30 33

DROPOUT REDUCTION

Daniel P. King
ENGLISH-LEARNER EDUCATION

Valeria Silva
SCHOOL TURNAROUNDS

Mary Ronan
TRANSPORTATION

Steve A. Simmons III
RURAL ENROLLMENT

Clark Hults
SPECIAL EDUCATION

Judy Sorrell
DISTRICT-UNION PARTNERSHIP

Cynthia M. Stevenson & Kerrie Dallman
PARENT ENGAGEMENT

Michele Brooks
SCHOOL CLIMATE

Patricia A. Ciccone
COLLEGE READINESS

Austin Obasohan
DIGITAL ACCESS

Dennis Stockdale
SOCIAL NETWORKING

Kyle Pace
STUDENT DISCIPLINE

Jonathan Brice
SMART GROWTH

Jeffrey K. Platenberg
STEM EDUCATION

Linda S. Hicks
COVER PHOTOS BY:

Jenn Ackerman; Heather Ainsworth; Nathan W. Armes; Joshua A. Bickel; Christopher Capozziello; Sara D. Davis; Matt Eich; Ryan Henriksen; Lisa Krantz; Rick Lohore; Charlie Mahoney; Swikar Patel; Matt Roth; Stephen Voss; Brian Widdis

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Five leaders featured in this report describe in interviews their leadership models and the strategies they use to achieve school- and district-level goals. The leaders featured represent districts large and small, urban, suburban, and rural: St. Paul Minn.; Newcomb, N.Y.; Jefferson County, Colo.; Columbus, Ohio; and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, Texas. http://www.edweek.org/go/leaders-videos

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LEADERS TO LEARN FROM was produced with support from The Wallace Foundation. The New York City-based foundation helps underwrite coverage of leadership, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning in Education Week.
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Jenn Ackerman for Education Week

Valeria Silva, the superintendent of the St. Paul, Minn., public schools, visits with children at a communityoutreach event in January.

February 6, 2013

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DROPOUT REDUCTION

Daniel P. King
SUPERINTENDENT Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, Texas
BY LESLI A. MAXWELL

W

hen Daniel P. King took the helm of the 32,000-student school district he leads in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in 2007, its three high schools had just been singled out as “dropout factories” in a seminal national report. Three school board members and the outgoing superintendent had recently been indicted in a federal bribery case for accepting cash and other gifts in exchange for awarding contracts. All four were later convicted; two board members served time in federal prison. Gang-related tensions were running high in the district’s secondary schools, causing violent incidents to flare and attendance to plummet. And 23 high school science teachers had resigned because of a mismanaged school redesign process that had bungled the master schedule. “The district was in crisis,” says King, 59, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and has spent his entire 36-year career as an educator in that region. “I told the board that if they wanted to individually influence daily operations of the school system, they should not hire me. I needed a lot of leeway.” A little more than five years later, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school system, located along the Texas border with Mexico, stands out as a promising example of how to turn around a district where low graduation rates and sluggish academic achievement were the norm for years. It’s also one whose demographics—99 percent Hispanic, 90 percent poor, and 41 percent in need of English-language-acquisition services—are more commonly linked to dropping out of high school than entering and finishing college. The starting point: The graduation rate by the end of the 2006-07 school year was 62 percent, far below Texas’ statewide average of 77 percent. Nearly 500 students (out of a total high school enrollment of 8,000) had dropped out of school that year, and nearly half of them were seniors who had fallen short by just a few credits, hadn’t passed an exit exam, or were derailed by a combination of both, King says. By last June: The dropout rate had been slashed by nearly 90 percent. More than 1,909 seniors earned di-

plomas in four years, bumping the district’s graduation rate to 88 percent, roughly 10 percentage points higher than the rate for all of Texas. And about 25 percent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo’s high school students were enrolled in at least one course that could earn them credit for college. Enrollment rates in higher education doubled for the district’s graduates between 2007 and 2010. “It has been a massive shift in many ways,” says Nora Rivas-Garza, the principal of the 2,000-student Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School, one of five in the

district. “But the biggest change is that we went from a system where only the top 10 percent were expected to go to college to one where all students are expected to do so. Everyone hears about higher education, and everyone is pushed, encouraged, and prodded to take those courses that are going to put them on the path to college.” The first step in turning the district around, King says, was a triage effort to restore order to the high schools, and a push to build relationships with staff members, school board members, parents, and a com-

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LESSON LEARNED

“You have to honestly confront the problem. When I first got to [Pharr-San JuanAlamo], no one had ever told the community just how bad the dropout problem was. I got blasted some for airing dirty laundry, but until everyone was honest about what was going on, we wouldn’t have been able to move forward.”

munity still reeling from the fallout of the federal corruption case.

‘Stopping the Bleeding’
King says that in his first several weeks as superintendent, he spent hours inside each high school, listening to the frustrations of teachers who had come to deeply distrust the central office, and coming up with concrete steps to address many of their grievances. But his most urgent effort in the early weeks of his

superintendency, he says, was “stopping the bleeding of dropouts.” That required an initiative that King and his team called Countdown to Zero, a block-by-block, door-to-door campaign in the summer of 2007 to bring every student who’d dropped out the previous school year back into the district. In his previous job as the superintendent of the nearby Hidalgo school district, that brand of on-theground, intensive effort had paid off, King says. He believed it would work in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, too,

even though it’s 10 times the size of Hidalgo. For a few weeks, the district team fanned out in search of students, and each day, met to tally up who had been located and who had agreed to come back. King says he and his team knew they had to offer dropouts something other than a return to the comprehensive high schools where they had not succeeded. Foremost in his mind were the more than 237 seniors who had come so close to graduating the previous spring. “We had to give them something that they would see

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LESSON LEARNED
as a step forward, not a step back,” he says. That something was community college courses at a new school called PSJA College Career Technology Academy that was separate from the district’s comprehensive high schools. Those courses, taught largely by faculty members from South Texas College in nearby McAllen, would put students on a track to earn credits toward an associate degree or career certificate, King says. The career academy also provides support to students who need to prepare for and pass the state high school exit exam and make up missing high school credits. King, who already had a strong relationship with the president of South Texas College from his time in Hidalgo, drew on that connection to open up the new school for recovered dropouts in less than two months. By September 2007, 224 seniors who had left before graduation agreed to come to the new school, King says. And three months later, in December, 49 of them had graduated. By January 2008, the district, with state funding to support its expansion, opened the program to any district dropout up to the age of 26. Since the academy opened five years ago, more than 1,000 recovered dropouts have returned and graduated, and districts across Texas have replicated the model. One school leader says the results in Pharr-San JuanAlamo have sent a powerful message to the broader community. “That recovery school has shown that everyone is going to get an opportunity to have success. It’s not just reserved for those who are going to make it whether Mr. King had ever come here or not,” says Ronnie Cantu, who was elected to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school board two years ago and is now serving as its president. “These are young people who would have fallen through the cracks in many other systems but got a second chance here.”

“I believe that superintendents have to be courageous on issues of race and equity, and the English-learner achievement gap is one of those issues. The responsibility of English-learners does not just belong to the academic department. It belongs to everyone.”

Expanding College Access
At the same time that the district was focusing on dropout recovery, it was also attending to an overhaul of the three comprehensive high schools that, like the career academy, would offer all students the opportunity to enroll in community college courses and earn at least 12 college credits by the time they graduated from high school. Parents and some members of the community were skeptical about the early-college approach at first, Cantu says. Students and their parents had to be convinced that extending education beyond high school would have longer-term payoffs than seeking work as soon as they graduated. King and his team consistently argued that giving students a head start on earning college credits not only would increase their odds of graduating and going on to higher education, but would also increase their chances of finishing with a degree. And it would save them money. “In a community with as much poverty as we have here, it can be hard to convince students and their parents to not go out and get a paying job once you graduate,” the veteran superintendent says. “But when you show them how much more they can earn with a degree, and give them a head start toward earning it in high school when they don’t have to pay for it, it’s very effective.” King had established one of the first early-college high schools in the country in Hidalgo a few years earlier during his first superintendency, using a grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that, as first proposed, would have offered the dual-enrollment opportunity to only half the 800 students in the school. King said he did not want the grant unless the program would be open to all students, because “if it’s good for kids, shouldn’t everyone get a shot?” The foundation eventually agreed. That all-or-nothing approach is something King still insists on, Principal Rivas-Garza says, which pushes her to keep increasing the numbers of students at her high school participating in dual enrollment. This school year, she expects at least half her 2,000 students to complete at least one college-credit-bearing course. Across the district this school year, about 2,000 high school students are enrolled in at least one community college course, King says. He vows to keep pushing hard until that number gets closer to 4,000 students. “We are still in the middle of this effort, but I think what we’ve shown here,” he says, “is that districts and communities in dire situations can come together and do what’s best for kids.” n

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ENGLISH-LEARNER EDUCATION

Valeria Silva
SUPERINTENDENT St. Paul Public Schools, Minn.
BY LESLI A. MAXWELL

F

ew top-tier school administrators can claim as high a level of intimacy with the education of English-language learners as Valeria Silva, the superintendent of the school system in St. Paul, Minn. A native of Chile, Silva, 51, spoke no English when she first came to Minnesota in the late 1980s to help take care of her sister’s children for a few months. More than 25 years later, the woman who still calls herself a second-language learner and at times consults the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words has risen to lead the state’s second-largest district, where 45 percent of the 39,000 students are English-learners. “Her personal background, as a woman, a Latina, and a secondlanguage learner, makes her quite unique in the field,” says Verónica Rivera, the executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Supervisors, or ALAS, based in Washington. “Those are incredible assets for leading a district like St. Paul.” As the director of the district’s ELL programs from 1998 to 2006, Silva oversaw one of the most dramatic shake-ups of instruction for English-language learners in any major school system at the time. She dismantled the district’s use of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) centers, where beginning English-learners were taught separately from their native English-speaking peers for up to two years, and put ELLs directly into mainstream classrooms. She got rid of weak teachers, many of whom were clustered in the TESOL centers. And she scrapped the “pullout” method of instruction for English-learners; she replaced it with an approach that kept ELLs in their mainstream classrooms with content teachers who closely partnered with English-as-a-second-language teachers to provide support to those students still learning the language. By the end of Silva’s eight-year run as the district’s ELL director, 45 percent of the district’s 3rd grade English-learners were proficient in reading on the state exam, up from 30 percent three years before, and higher than the statewide average for 3rd grade ELLs that year, which was 42 percent. Those results got the attention of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which featured St. Paul’s efforts in a 2009 report, “Succeeding With English-Language Learners: Lessons Learned From the Great City Schools.” The work by Silva on ELL issues catapulted her to the job of chief academic officer for the district, and then, in 2010, to the superintendency. “We were one of the first districts in the nation to put brand-new English-learners in the mainstream classes,” Silva says. “We knew we had to put a stop to this whole deficit model of teaching these students English first and content later. Too many of them were never getting to the content.” Rivera credits Silva with helping to change the national conversation about second-language learners. “Because of what she has demonstrated in her work in St. Paul and in her own personal story, many more educators are recognizing that being bilingual is an asset and a skill set to build from, not to tear down,” Rivera says.

refugee camp arrived in St. Paul. Several months before they came, Silva and other district representatives visited the camp to meet with families and help prepare them for the transition to formal schooling in the United States. A few months later, two of Silva’s staff members went back to the camp for a couple of weeks just before the refugees’ immediate arrival in St. Paul to do outreach, learn more about their culture, and start teaching some English-language basics. “It was important to establish some kind of connection between these families and the schools their children would attend,” says Silva. “For me, I needed to have perspective on how these families and their children would think about their experience in our schools, and how we would serve them.”

Making Waves
Silva, a former teacher and elementary principal who also founded Minnesota’s first Spanish-immersion program, says her years as ELL director inform her superintendency every day. She’s taken other steps, as well, to hone her leadership ability, including participating in the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s urban-superintendents academy. But it was as ELL director, she says, that she learned to account aggressively for funding intended to support instruction and services for ELLs and discovered it was often being diverted at the school level to other priorities. Tackling that challenge set the stage for Silva’s next phase of change: establishing an instructional strategy for Englishlearners that would keep them in mainstream classrooms, where they would learn academic content at the same time they were learning the language, rather than letting them continue to fall behind in their subject-matter learning. At the heart of the effort was something the district dubbed the Language Academy, a model that focused on a strong partnership between the academic-content teachers and the teachers who specialized in working with English-learners. The ELL specialist usually works across two general education classrooms. To build a true partnership between content teachers and ELL teachers, Silva and her team developed joint professionaldevelopment sessions to help both types of teachers learn new instructional techniques, as well as specific strategies on how to work together in the classroom. Specialists were also assigned to each school to closely monitor, coach, and advise teachers as they moved to the collaborative model. Another hallmark of Silva’s overhaul was her insistence on removing weak teachers, especially those who worked with ELL students. Over three or four years, says Silva, she removed close to 80 low-performing teachers and replaced them with more than 100 new ELL teachers. She did so without much pushback from the teachers’ union, thanks largely to the clearly explained criteria for what ELL teachers would have to do to keep their jobs under the new approach. New teachers were screened before hiring to ensure they would be on board with the model. “One of the key things I did to make sure this was successful was to find those strong teachers who also believed in this approach,” Silva says. Silva says she plans to spend her career in St. Paul, a city that 27 years ago she found difficult to embrace with her lack of English skills and the region’s harsh winter climate. She’s reminded of that experience often, she says, as the district continues to enroll waves of new immigrant students, most recently from Burma. “I don’t make any decision without thinking about being the parent of one of these newcomers,” she says. “The responsibility for these students belongs to all of us.” n

Welcoming Newcomers
St. Paul not only has a large ELL population, it also has one of the more distinctive English-learner communities in any American school system. Students who speak Hmong as their first language are the largest group of English-learners; Spanish-speakers rank second. During the 1980s and ’90s, St. Paul became one of the largest resettlement communities for Hmong immigrants, many of whom had been driven from their homes in the highlands of Laos in Southeast Asia to refugee camps in Thailand after the Vietnam War. Then, during Silva’s years as ELL director, a more recent wave of 3,000 Hmong children who had been born and raised in a makeshift Thai
Jenn Ackerman for Education Week

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February 6, 2013

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LESSON LEARNED

When it comes to turning around lowperforming schools, “outreach to the community is vital. [Community members] give you that extra push you need when you’re ready to give up.”

SCHOOL TURNAROUNDS

T

Mary Ronan
SUPERINTENDENT Cincinnati Public Schools
BY ALYSON KLEIN

he first order of business for Mary Ronan as the acting superintendent of the Cincinnati school system four years ago was making big changes at more than a dozen of the city’s lowest-performing elementary schools. Many of them had been plagued by stagnant student achievement for more than a quarter-century. Four years later, none of the 16 schools that Ronan and her team targeted for special interventions is stuck in “academic emergency”—the lowest rung of the Ohio accountability system, and the label most of them shared before the turnaround. A dozen of those schools have reached the level of “continuous improvement”— the midlevel rating—and others have gone on to be rated “effective” or even “excellent.” “The first year [of the effort] was really hard,” Ronan recalls. “We were asking our teachers to do a lot of extra work; … we got a lot of pushback. There were folks who said we should call it off.” But at the end of that year, some half-dozen of the 16 targeted schools made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, something they had never achieved before. “That was really the turning point,” Ronan says now. That was when the other schools—and the rest of the

community in this midsize city along the banks of the Ohio River—realized what was possible, she says. The schools in what became known as the “elementary initiative” in Cincinnati first had to embrace some major instructional shifts. Each was required to offer 90-minute blocks each of reading and mathematics—as opposed to the scattershot scheduling that some had been using. Instead of whole-class instruction, teachers were shown how to divide their students up into smaller groups based on their abilities and needs. And school officials created “data folders” to keep track of the academic progress of each student. Teachers were tasked with reviewing the data with their students every couple of weeks. “That gave principals a tool to see how every child was doing,” Ronan explains. “You’re not just teaching to the middle anymore.” The schools’ leaders, likewise, were given an extra boost of intensive training. Using money provided under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Ronan sent the principals of the elementary-initiative schools—along with teacher leaders—to the University of Virginia’s educational leadership training program.

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“The culture was a culture of failure,” she says. “We just didn’t think we could transform a school without radically changing the culture.” The U.S. Department of Education made similar staffing shake-ups a key component of the School Improvement Grant program, the Obama administration’s prescription for turnarounds. Ronan also used economic-stimulus dollars to extend the school year, adding what she calls a “fifth quarter” in some of the district’s most academically challenged schools. The program eventually added a month to the school year for schools taking part in the elementary initiative, and used the added time to pair academics with enrichment programs, such as art and music classes and field trips offered by community organizations in partnership with the district. Ronan is hoping that community partners will help the district continue to offer the services now that the extra federal funding has dried up. Ronan has also put substantial energy behind an initiative already under way in the district: community schooling. Nearly all the schools in the elementary initiative—and many others—now house a range of outside players, from tutoring providers to dentists to social service organizations for children and families. Mitchell and Ronan helped incorporate those groups into the schools’ overall goals and worked to ensure that the services went to the students who needed them most. The district’s population includes a number of groups that have traditionally struggled to close the achievement gap. Seventy-three percent of the Cincinnati school system’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and nearly 70 percent are African-American. Ronan also increased the number of “resource coordinators,” whose job it is to make sure the community groups complement the schools’ efforts, from just nine to 34 across the district. A resource coordinator might ensure that volunteer tutors focus on a particular student’s areas of academic weakness, for example.

Longevity Pays Off
Ronan, 59, has spent her entire career in Cincinnati. She began in 1976 as a middle school math and science teacher, and later moved to a high school. In 1996, she became the principal of the Kilgour School, an elementary school in the district, which received a National Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence in the 2001-02 school year. She then took on leadership roles with the district, serving as an assistant superintendent, and then director of schools, overseeing the districts’ principals. By the time she was named acting superintendent in 2008—she officially took over the top job the next year—she had served more than 30 years in the Queen City and knew it inside and out. “I think it has made me more effective. You understand your community, you understand the politics,” Ronan says. “I’ve developed relationships over the years. … I knew to whom to speak when I needed something. I wasn’t groping around to figure out who the power brokers were.” Ronan has been able to enlist allies among everyone from outside donors—she’s brought at least $30 million in additional grant funding to the district, according to Janet Walsh, a spokeswoman for the district—to classroom teachers. “She probably knows more teachers than any superintendent,” says Julie Sellers, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, a 2,400-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “I think it has been beneficial for her to get buy-in. Teachers feel comfortable talking to her.” Sellers acknowledges that she and Ronan have had their differences. But when it comes to parts of the elementary initiative, including what Sellers sees as the prescriptive nature of classroom instruction in the turnaround schools, they are always able to come to a resolution, she says. And she praises the superintendent for trying out a range of strategies—from instructional changes to wraparound services—to improve the city’s schools. “There’s nothing we don’t do in Cincinnati,” Sellers says. “These are the best urban, high-poverty schools in the country.” n

She chose the University of Virginia program because it promised results, telling Cincinnati that it would be able to help schools make AYP—or gain at least 10 percentage points within two years. “You don’t get too many guarantees like that out there,” Ronan says.

Training for Principals
As part of that partnership, which began in late 2009, principals learned to set goals, draw up 90-day plans for academic improvement, motivate teachers, and single out and develop leaders from within their existing staffs. Those strategies merged well with the new focus on data that was already at play in the district, Ronan says. University officials followed up several times, visiting the district throughout the school year. The 34,000-student district participated in the University of Virginia program for two years, then incorporated many aspects of its training into Cincinnati’s own professional development for leaders. The training was enormously helpful, says Ruthenia Jackson, the principal of Carson Elementary School, a K-8 school, which was part of the elementary initiative. Experts from the university encouraged her to “think outside the

box,” she says, and use the resources already under her control to greater effect. With those lessons in mind, Jackson decided to test out some new strategies at Carson, including grouping 7th and 8th graders into single-gender classes. Discipline incidents—like office referrals and suspensions—declined significantly, she says. The idea worked so well that others in the district are planning to try single-gender classes in those grades next year. And the school, which had been in academic emergency, has now been rated “effective”—the second-highest ranking. To help oversee the turnaround process, Ronan tapped Laura Mitchell, herself a former turnaround principal, to serve as the deputy superintendent in charge of the initiative. Not every aspect of the turnaround plan has been easy, Mitchell says. Ronan gave her significant political cover when the city teachers’ union pushed back on pieces of the turnaround effort, including staffing changes at four of the targeted schools that replaced nearly everyone—even, in some cases, secretarial workers and custodians. “There were grievances filed by teachers that came in with her name on them,” Mitchell says. “She took the heat.” Ronan continues to stand by those personnel decisions.

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February 6, 2013

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LESSON LEARNED

“If you need help, you need to call your peers. People try to fix problems themselves, when there’s probably a thousand people who have fixed it before.”

TRANSPORTATION

Steve A. Simmons III
DIRECTOR OF TRANSPORTATION Columbus Public Schools, Ohio
BY CHRISTINA A. SAMUELS

schools of choice. That means some of the bus routes serve schools outside the city. Transporting more than 30,000 students daily, the school district maintains 750 routes and can end up making more than 200 modifications a day, as students enter, leave, or move within the district, Simmons says.

Keeping Track
Columbus has implemented some innovative programs under Simmons’ watch: For example, a global-positioning tracking system, installed in January 2008, allows the district to monitor every vehicle in its fleet. Zonar Systems, the Seattle-based provider of the technology, says the system offers benefits such as a wireless device that drivers can use for their pre- and post-trip inspection reports and a monitoring system school principals can use to track bus arrivals. The district was an early adopter of the technology, Simmons says. This school year, the district has expanded its technology use through a student tracking tag that goes on students’ backpacks. The credit-card-size tag, called ZPass, is read by a device inside the bus and can keep track of when students board and exit. Using the device, “we’ll be able to look up and see that little Stevie’s on

I

n 2010, the 51,000-student Columbus, Ohio, school district considered cutting busing of high school students as a money-saving measure, just as most of the other large districts in the state had done. But the state’s biggest district managed to come up with a creative solution: Instead of doing away with busing for older students altogether, Columbus eliminated most neighborhood bus stops and used neighborhood schools as centralized stops for older students. The change cut the number of high school bus stops from nearly 1,500 to 230 and pared about $2 million from the district’s $50 mil-

lion-a-year transportation budget. “Doing away with the service is doing a disservice to our students,” says Steve A. Simmons III, who came up with the idea. The director of transportation for the past six years, Simmons, 56, has spent 30 years with the district, where he started as a bus mechanic and worked his way up. His longevity gives him a certain amount of leeway with the school board, he says—though he jokes that he is a “loudmouth.” “I’m very vocal,” he says, “because I’ve come up through the system.” John Stanford, the deputy superintendent in charge of operations,

lauds Simmons’ creativity in managing district money. “He’s constantly reviewing the industry for best-practice ideas and consulting with his colleagues,” Stanford says. Getting students to school is a distinct challenge in Ohio’s capital city. The district has no set feeder patterns, because students can enroll in any school that has space for them as part of an intradistrict-choice program. State law requires the district to provide bus transportation to charter and private school students in kindergarten through 8th grade who live within district boundaries but more than two miles from their

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Write a letter to the editor!

Send to:

ewletter@epe.org
Joshua A. Bickel for Education Week

LETTERS SHOULD BE AS BRIEF AS POSSIBLE, WITH A MAXIMUM LENGTH OF 300 WORDS.

bus 255, but he hasn’t gotten off yet,” Simmons says. Faced with static or shrinking resources, Simmons sometimes has to make unpopular choices, like doing away with “courtesy stops” that picked up children who technically lived within a two-mile radius of their schools. The new routes may be more efficient, he says, “but that means the bus doesn’t go by some houses anymore. The parents don’t necessarily want to hear that.” Simmons, who is the current president of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation, suggests that transportation directors could help each other with difficult issues if they worked together. Professionally, he’s expanded his reach beyond the district, serving as a board member of the National Association of Pupil Transportation in Albany, N.Y., and the chairman of the Columbus Transportation and Pedestrian Commission, which reviews transit proposals before they go to the city council. “If you need help, you need to call your peers,” Simmons says. “People try to fix problems themselves, when there’s probably a thousand people who have fixed it before.” n

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RURAL ENROLLMENT

Clark Hults
SUPERINTENDENT Newcomb Central School District, N.Y.
BY DIETTE COURRÉGÉ CASEY

S

chool Superintendent and Principal Clark “Skip” Hults knew something had to change in 2006, when enrollment in his upstate New York school district dropped by two students. That meant only 55 students remained in Newcomb Central School, the remote district’s sole prekindergarten-through-12thgrade school, and the school’s continued existence might be in jeopardy. Another school might have considered consolidation. But that wasn’t a good option for Newcomb, nestled as it is in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, where winters are harsh and mountain roads can be dangerous for school buses. Hults, 57, came up with a different idea after talking with his brother, who lives in Australia: What if he recruited international high school students to his district? That was a major industry in Australia and other countries. Why wouldn’t it work in his rural school? Since that epiphany, Hults has transformed the school, nearly doubling its enrollment to 105 and hosting 60 students over five years from 25 countries, including Serbia, China, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. Recruiting tuition-paying international students has saved the school by bolstering its finances and population, and it’s changed its culture by exposing Newcomb students to diverse heritages and languages. It’s also redefined the meaning of “family” to the many residents who have hosted visiting international students. “I believe this has the potential to become a rural norm,” Hults says. “It’s a win-win.”

LESSON LEARNED

“[W]hen you change the culture, you have to go slow, you have to educate, and you have to explain what you’re doing and for what reasons. We started slow, and it became a cultural norm.”
Heather Ainsworth for Education Week

How It Works
A former elementary school teacher and principal, Hults found his calling in education after working as a loan operations officer and a nonprofit business administrator. After spending 15 years in Arizona, Florida, and California, he and his wife returned in 2003 to the Adirondacks, where the school administrator’s family ties reach back three generations. Hults was named Newcomb’s school superintendent in July 2006, and he realized shortly thereafter that the district

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couldn’t continue to lose students. A majority of the community agreed something had to be done, and Hults had few critics when he proposed the internationalstudent program, according to Ed LaCourse, who’s taught mathematics for about 15 years at Newcomb Central. “Skip could probably sell a lawnmower to someone in Antarctica,” LaCourse says. “He’s a very optimistic person, and he really sold the program well as far as all of the positive aspects.” It’s not uncommon for high schools to host one or even a few international students, but Hults has taken that idea and done it en masse. In its high school grades, the school has about 40 students; 18 are from other countries. That’s a significant number, given that the town has only about 200 families. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re turning students away,” Hults says. Over the years, Hults has learned the differences between various types of visas, and he says the type of visa the district now requires enables it to receive tuition and accept host-family living expenses. Newcomb has earned a good reputation among international students, and it sells itself with its location in the heart of a 6-

million-acre park and its strong academics, Hults says. Hults also has established relationships with more than 10 agencies that help find foreign students who want to come to his district.

Students’ Benefits
The district requires students to have a conversational level of English-speaking proficiency to ensure they can succeed. Any lesser ability would negatively affect the classroom experience for local students, Hults says. “If it weren’t benefiting our students, I wouldn’t do this program,” Hults explains. “It truly does benefit our students. It has opened their eyes. It has given them broad exposure to the world, and for the kids who come here, they remain a part of our community. I think they will forever.” International students pay $4,500 annual tuition to attend the school, as well as a $4,500 housing allowance to the local families who host them. District officials receive application packets with photos and information about prospective students, and they choose whom they want. Hults estimates the program will bring in about $250,000 in

revenue this year, and that covers its expenses while contributing extra dollars to the district’s $3.9 million general operating budget. Money aside, the program has addressed what Hults describes as a “complete and total lack of diversity” in the school, where most students are white and middle-class.

Attracting Families
Sue Goodspeed, her husband, and their two sons lived in a town about 25 miles away, and the international-student program is one of the reasons they’ve since moved to Newcomb. “It’s the best thing we could ever have done for either of them,” she says of her children. She thought it would be good for her younger son, who is adopted from South Korea, to attend a school with more diversity, and the program would give both of her children the chance to meet students from across the world, she says. The family has hosted four international students, two of whom are living with them now. One of the students they previously hosted planned to return for a Christmas visit last year. “It has redefined and expanded our family,” Goodspeed says.

“I love all the ones we’ve had; they’re like extended family.” Hults’ effort to create the international-student program has earned him statewide and national recognition. He’s working with more than a dozen New York and Vermont school districts that want to replicate Newcomb’s program, and he’s speaking at the National School Boards Association conference in April. He’s also been a key advocate for changing a federal law that prohibits international students from staying in American public high schools for more than one year; such students are allowed to stay in private schools as many years as they want. Hults has teamed up with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and David Little, the director of governmental relations for the New York State School Boards Association, to lobby on that issue.

Global Competition
“We’re in an era where we’re expecting our students to be able to compete on an international basis, and at the same time, our finances are minimizing their opportunities to accomplish this goal,” Little says. “This program has the unique ability to address

both sides of that.” The international-recruitment program is not Hults’ sole innovative idea. Hults “is unique in that he’s not just looking to see what helps Newcomb, but he’s got these ideas that, if extrapolated, could help schools throughout the United States,” Little says. Hults constantly thinks about ways to keep his school afloat and to grow the community so it becomes “home” to more people, he adds. The school chief also has looked at the possibility of building a dormitory and recruiting urban students to the district, Little says. City students would have a different experience and the chance to, for example, compete on every sports team if they wanted—something that might be harder to do in a larger school. Hults “truly believes in the value of this rural community and this rural experience that his kids get,” Little says. LaCourse says Hults also has developed a program that will enable the district’s high school students to graduate with a two-year associate degree. That program has helped Hults attract nearby students to the school and increase enrollment, according to LaCourse. “He’s a visionary squared.” n

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LESSON LEARNED

SPECIAL EDUCATION

“Building local capacity, that’s just really critical for me. I think it’s been a lifesaver for our local school divisions.”

Judy Sorrell
DIRECTOR Shenandoah Valley Regional Program for Special Education, Fishersville, Va.
BY NIRVI SHAH

W she would devote her life to working with
hen Judy Sorrell was a child, she knew children with disabilities. As a 5th grader, well before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act existed, requiring public schools to educate students with disabilities in the “least restrictive” environment possible, Sorrell was already indignant over the way a younger cousin with Down syndrome was being treated in school. Though her cousin attended school on the same campus, Sorrell wasn’t allowed to talk to her or see her all day. Now 59, Sorrell has drawn on that sense of indignation when necessary to bring the most up-to-date services and professionals to her students in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where

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Matt Eich for Education Week

she coordinates special education services for students with low-incidence disabilities for six school districts. Over 33 years in that job, her curiosity and passion have led to changes locally and statewide in how educational interpreters are certified, how children with autism are educated, and, most recently, how children with traumatic brain injury are taught. And she’s done so while answering to the six separate school boards, special education directors, and superintendents that pay into the Shenandoah Valley Regional Program for Special Education, the quasi-governmental program that she directs. Over the years, her responsibilities have grown from 48 students across the six rural districts and a budget of $1.5 million to 350 students and $10 million in funding support. Her only staff is a secretary. Among the work Sorrell is most lauded for is in the autism arena. More than a decade ago, she saw that parents across Virginia were suing school districts because the schools weren’t meeting the needs of their children with autism. Many districts struggled or failed altogether to provide the right kind of therapy and education to such students, namely in the form of applied behavior analysis. ABA is a specific approach to working with children and adults with autism that is designed to change behavior. “I didn’t think that was wrong,” Sorrell says of the parents’ legal action. “The school divisions did not have the knowledge or capability with respect to behavior analysis to work with these children. The more I read, the more I knew we needed to move in that direction.”

DISTRICT-UNION PARTNERSHIP

Cynthia M. Stevenson
SUPERINTENDENT Jefferson County Public Schools, Colo.

Doing It ‘Proactively’
Without any in-house expertise, Sorrell partnered with Commonwealth Autism Services, a Richmond, Va.-based organization that provides training for school districts by embedding its staff in districts, where they model techniques for teachers and therapists. “Other people have been involved in lawsuits and litigation about this kind of therapy and come in after the fact” to provide it, says Jessica Philips, the organization’s vice president and chief operating officer. “Judy did it proactively,” she says, noting that Virginia only began requiring health insurers to cover ABA therapy in 2012. “She really, really wants the program that she runs to be top-notch quality. She believes that parents should be able to get services in their public school. If those kids are academically and socially more on track, they are more likely contributing members of society,” Philips says. “At the gut of it all for her was, ‘What’s good for kids?’ ” Sorrell’s work was mentioned in a state legislative committee’s report assessing autism services in Virginia as an example of a successful collaboration. The six districts began in 2004 with one embedded behavioral analyst. Now there are 10, including some who were teachers in the districts and have since become certified in the approach— which Sorrell found money in her budget to pay for. “Building local capacity, that’s just really critical for me,” Sorrell says. “I think it’s been a lifesaver for our local school divisions.” That building of local capacity sometimes includes herself. Earlier this school year, Sorrell studied to become a brain-injury specialist. Traumatic brain injury can affect cognitive function, motor skills, the senses, and emotions. “You have to have a way to meet the needs of those kids,” says Sorrell, who remembers hearings about the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act held at Madison College, now James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., when she was a student there in the 1970s. “We don’t make 100 percent [of parents] happy,” she says, “but we have the responsibility to make sure we’re providing an appropriate program.” n

Kerrie Dallman
FORMER PRESIDENT Jefferson County Education Association
BY STEPHEN SAWCHUK

A

s anyone who has ever sat at either side of a bargaining table can attest, the labormanagement relationship is already challenging enough in flush times. And it’s an order of magnitude tougher when budgets are tight and talk turns to paring things back. But as one Colorado district shows, it is not impossible for district and union leaders to work together to make tough decisions. When the state’s Jefferson County school district faced a budget crunch in 2011, officials of the district and its teachers’ union purposefully decided to take a chance and collaborate, rather than engage in the common alternative: posturing, internal squabbling, an impasse, and, ultimately, layoffs. Superintendent Cynthia M. Stevenson and Kerrie Dallman, then the president of the Jefferson County Education Association, hosted an “employee summit” at which representatives from the district, the union, and other employee groups outlined budget fundamentals, agreed on areas to cut, and then carried the details into their respective bargained contracts. The accord kept employees on the rolls, minimized class-size increases, and preserved electives. And it has been generally (though not uniformly) praised in the 85,000-student district, located west of Denver. The new approach to budgeting in Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, is notable partly because the administration and the union, while not sworn enemies, had had their fair share of uneasy moments. Contract talks had stalemated before, both over wages and over policy issues, such as the

process for dismissing probationary teachers. But the budget situation, Stevenson says, demanded a different way of interacting. “We are just like every other place in the country: changing,” she says. “And in a changing environment, in times of declining resources and increased expectations, you have to operate differently.”

Put to the Test
Stevenson, who has been the superintendent for 11 years, understands change in the district better than most. She grew up in Jefferson County and attended school there. Dallman only recently left the local union to assume the presidency of the state’s National Education Association chapter; her biography on the state affiliate’s website lists her collaborative work on the summit among her top accomplishments. The idea for the summit grew out of a 2011 national conference on labor-management cooperation sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. That convening, in Denver, brought together some 150 teams, each consisting of a district’s superintendent, school board president, and teachers’ union leader, to try to identify new ways of working together. For a good number of the attendees, the notion of collaboration never went further than a group photo with the U.S. secretary of education. But for Jefferson County’s leaders, the ideal would be put immediately to the test. Midway through the conference, team members received word that the state portion of K-12 aid would be cut by nearly 10 percent. Jefferson County’s rev-

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LESSON LEARNED

“One of the dangers of being a superintendent is that you can really start thinking you’re important. You really have to work against that. In the summit, when you’re all equal players, suddenly what you say has no more impact than what everyone else says, and that can be difficult.”
Cynthia M. Stevenson, left, with Kerrie Dallman

Nathan W. Armes for Education Week

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enue, like that of other school districts in the state, had depended increasingly on the state money. Fresh from attending a session in which Montgomery County, Md., officials made a presentation on a financial process drawing on input from employee associations, Dallman floated the idea with Stevenson and with David Thomas, then the chairman of the Jefferson County school board. Back in Colorado, the three leaders won board approval to pursue a similar approach. “The way we’d done bargaining in the past really pitted groups against each other,” Dallman says. “This was a way we could come to the table around common values. And the common value chiefly was student achievement.” Two representatives each from the district, the teachers’ union, the school board, and groups for administrators and classified staff members attended the two-day summit. According to Jane Barnes, a school board member from 2003 to 2011 who sat in on the proceedings, negotiators discussed cuts in everything from transportation to academic programs to compensation to athletics.

Budget Details
The final agreement cut some $40 million from the 2011-12 budget, which was approved

at $932 million. Among other provisions, it: •฀ Cut some 200 positions, mainly through attrition; •฀ Instituted two furlough days and eliminated four professional-development days for teachers; •฀ Set a 3 percent wage reduction for teachers to match the shorter year; •฀ Closed two schools; and •฀ Imposed new transportation fees for parents. As painful as those reductions were, Jefferson County’s education leaders say the alternatives might have been worse, resulting in the elimination of counselors’ jobs, higher class sizes even in early grades, and the decimation of arts and music programs that would have “taken the heart and soul out of our schools,” in Stevenson’s words. Barnes says the process also demonstrated unity in the face of adversity. “We didn’t go into nasty boardunion negotiations or air our dirty laundry in public,” she continues. “We came out of there with a much deeper respect for one another, and were able to say collectively that this was the best for the children of Jefferson County. ... It was a great solution to the situation we had at the time.” The process was used again in 2012, with several of the previous

decisions carried over, including the furloughs. The agreements helped solidify other areas of accord between the district and the union, such as working to support a property-tax increase, which voters narrowly approved this past November. And they’re also united in pressing for changes in the state K-12 funding process.

‘Right Players’
The summit process itself was not necessarily easy, though. Both the superintendent and the union leader say they faced internal constituents who were uneasy about the new approach. Describing the negotiations, Stevenson draws a parallel between letting go of favored initiatives and giving up a degree of control she’d been accustomed to in her position. “One of the dangers of being a superintendent is that you can really start thinking you’re important. You really have to work against that,” she says. “In the summit, when you’re all equal players, suddenly what you say has no more impact than what everyone else says, and that can be difficult.” Both she and Dallman praise a mediator brought in from the Washington-based Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help with the discussion.

Asked what advice she’d give other administrators interested in the process, Stevenson cites having a working relationship with local employee associations first. She meets with union leaders at least once formally and once informally each month. And she recommends being prepared to give up “sacred cows” during negotiations, and having a mediator on hand to help guide discussions. “We had the right players, the right relationships, the right mediators, the right shared values,” she says.

Moving Forward
As of December, the budget cycle in the district was just beginning again, and it was not yet clear whether the summit process would continue. Despite the new revenue from the tax increase, officials anticipate more cuts. Not everyone shares the opinion that the summits have been a successful approach. Laura Boggs, the only school board member to vote against entering into the summit process in 2011 and 2012, feels that since the convenings weren’t formally part of bargaining, they should have been open to the public. And their results didn’t necessarily reflect community wishes, she contends. In 2012, community members put furloughs last

on a list of cost-saving strategies in surveys commissioned by the school board, yet they were continued into a second year, she says. “It’s a fantastic concept; anything you can do to take the adversarial [nature] out of collective bargaining should be a good thing,” Boggs says. “The dilemma comes when you put these people who are so like-minded in the same room, and the result is students are in school for fewer days. How is that focused on academics?” She would like the district to consider longer-term structural changes to the teacher-salary schedule and pension plan. Barnes, the former school board member, acknowledges that most of the committee’s fixes have been short-term. But she says that was partly a function of the need to make immediate budget reductions. Ultimately, she believes that the summit delivered the right results at a critical time, and that it will be up to Stevenson, the school board, and Dallman’s successor at the JCEA to determine whether it continues to be the appropriate way to budget in tough times. “I think communities are ready for different processes at different times,” Barnes says. “You need to keep bringing new folks in, and they may be ready for a different process. Who knows?” n

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PARENT ENGAGEMENT

LESSON LEARNED

Michele Brooks
ASSISTANT SUPERINTENDENT Office of Family and Student Engagement, Boston Public Schools
BY MICHELE MOLNAR

T

he day Michele Brooks “lost it” as the frustrated mother of a Boston high school student became a moment that transformed her life forever. That was 20 years ago, and today Brooks works inside the Boston school system as the assistant superintendent in charge of the district’s office of family and student engagement. Brooks is credited with strategically aligning Boston’s parentengagement efforts with the district’s academic goals, which moved the work of her office from a peripheral activity to one that is central to the needs of the district’s 57,000 students and their families. “When I first started in this role, I could say I was the only one who would bring up, ‘So, what about the families?’ Now, whether I’m at the table or not, the conversation is about the families,” says

Brooks, who has been leading the office for the past four years. One of her high-profile efforts over that time has been launching and overseeing Parent University—a program that has educated parents on their roles as teachers, advocates, leaders, and learners themselves. Her staff collaborates with the other offices in the district, coordinates outreach and training, creates publications, and implements programs to advance the district’s vision: “Every school will welcome every family and every student, actively engaging them as partners in student learning and school improvement.” None of that was in Brooks’ scope as the disgruntled mother of a 9th grade daughter two decades ago. Brooks, 59, had moved her family from Tennessee back to Boston so her three children could benefit from the outstanding education she herself had

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Charlie Mahoney/Prime for Education Week

“I’m always looking for connections. That’s the key. When the district lays out its priorities, every single one of my colleagues has a piece of that work, including me. I do an analysis: How can I support their work and connect our work?”

LESSON LEARNED
received in public schools there. But things went south fast. When her daughter received an A on a slapdash essay, and defiantly conveyed a guidance counselor’s comment that “not everyone is cut out for college,” Brooks—who worked in information technology then—came to the school to talk with the principal. His secretary first ignored, then insulted her, Brooks says. “I was livid,” Brooks recalls. The principal respectfully asked Brooks why she was so upset, saying, “ ‘I work for you. How can we make this right?’ ” He explained his challenges with the teaching staff and enlisted Brooks’ help, asking that she demand better, and be present at the school. Brooks volunteered the following day, then the next—quickly deciding to leave her fulltime job so she could devote even more time to the schools. Brooks has never looked back. She started a family center in her daughter’s high school where parents can meet to network and seek resources. She also helped organize parents when the school lost accreditation and, four years later, shared in the pride as the school graduated an entire class of students. “Every single one had a college-admission letter or was going into the [military] service,” she says. meant training them to do more with less, deepen their knowledge base, focus on strategies rather than events, and leverage instructional shifts to influence educational practice. For parents, she says, the goal was to “build confidence in their own ability to navigate the school system, advocate for their children, partner with their teachers to support student learning”—helping them to become what Rudy Crew, a former schools chief in the New York City and Miami-Dade County, Fla., districts, calls “demand parents.”

Saturday ‘Universities’
One way Brooks’ office attempts to do that is through Parent University, launched in her first year on the job. Parents choose classes in three intensive Saturday “universities” throughout the year. Topics include what children should know at different grade levels, their brain development, how to deal with adolescents, how to navigate the school system to advocate for your child, healthy cooking, and how to use a computer. Those programs have more than doubled in attendance since they began. In addition, parents attend satellite sessions in a range of subject areas, from English-as-a-second-language instruction to completing their own high school education or getting a GED. Funding for Parent University primarily comes from the district’s Title I funds. In her second year, Brooks’ team created grade-level guides for student learning in conjunction with the curriculum and instruction office. The guides instruct parents about what their students should be learning as they progress through school. Aligned with the Common Core State Standards, those guides have been translated into a number of languages. In 2011, Brooks’ office launched professional development to help educators think about family engagement in new ways. Plans are also in the works to award “Family Friendly School Certification” to schools that excel or progress in their efforts to engage families. A backdrop to the accomplishments of Brooks and her office are the budget cuts that caused the size of her staff to drop from 23 when she was hired in 2008 to 13 today, and shrank her budget to its current level of $2.9 million. They were “a curse because we’re limited in what we can do, and a blessing because [they] really forced us to focus and prioritize,” she says. Brooks’ work has gained a national reputation, partially thanks to her position as a founding member of the District Leaders Network on Family and Community Engagement, a 50-member peer network that brings together district leaders from across the country to meet in Washington at the Institute for Educational Leadership. Michael Sarbanes, the executive director of the office of engagement for the Baltimore public schools, is one of the district leaders who have worked closely with Brooks through the network. “What I think has been extraordinary about how Michele has come at the work is a combination of her deep experience working with parents, coupled with an understanding of the leverage points around academic achievement within the school system, and then how to link those up,” he says. Brooks’ ultimate goal is to create sufficient capacity so that her office will be unnecessary. “If we’ve done our job right, we will not have a job,” she says. n

“Listen, the best teaching strategy for leveling out bad behaviors is having really engaged classrooms. If you’re really excited about what you’re doing in a classroom, you’re not getting into trouble.”

Organizing Parents
She went on to become the founding director of the Boston Parents Organizing Network, which began as a community-based group advocating to avert school budget cuts and establish a strong office of family and community engagement. Brooks spent five years in the network and later was appointed to the school board. Superintendent Carol Johnson recruited Brooks for her current position in 2008. “As an organizer—that’s how I do this work. I’m always looking for connections. That’s the key. When the district lays out its priorities, every single one of my colleagues has a piece of that work, including me,” says Brooks. “I do an analysis: How can I support their work and connect our work?” For example, this year the district’s priority is literacy. Her office conducted a parent and child writing club, which turned out to be a successful pilot, with 15 families meeting to improve their 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders’ performance as writers on open-response assignments. Over eight sessions, parents and children worked on projects together. Eventually, parents became writing coaches for their children. This laser focus on broader districtwide goals means Boston has avoided the pitfalls of similar family-related offices in many other districts, where schools become caught up in what experts call “random acts of family engagement,” says Karen L. Mapp, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the director of its education policy and management program. “In Boston public schools, we really see that family engagement is a strategy toward whole-school improvement,” Mapp says. Brooks’ first step when taking her position was to define “family and student engagement” as the work of everybody in the district: administrators, teachers, support staff, custodians, and bus drivers. The school system adopted the National PTA’s six standards for family-school partnerships, and measures schools and teachers against them. “We measure ourselves to those standards, too,” Brooks explains. Early on, Brooks confronted another issue. “We know the folks in the district really believe family and student engagement is critically important. One of the assumptions you make is that, if you believe in it, you’ll go out and do it. That was wrong,” she says. So Brooks began to focus on a new area: capacity building. For her shrinking staff, that

SCHOOL CLIMATE

Patricia A. Ciccone
RETIRED SUPERINTENDENT Connecticut Technical High School System
BY JACLYN ZUBRZYCKI

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She is wary of boxed school climate programs. “Kids need to be connected to adults and other students in the schools,” she says. “If you have a program that says, ‘When this person says this, you do that’—that scripting can mean you won’t take the responsibility to form relationships with the kids; … you’re going to hide behind it and so are they.” She also believes that the increased focus on bullying nationally has prevented some adults from seeing the difference between “normal conflict between young adults” and pathological behavior. Instead, she encouraged school leaders to set targeted, manageable goals—for instance, increasing the percentage of students who report feeling that there is an adult at school they can talk to, or increasing the number of positive responses on the school climate survey. “A lot has to do with adult behavior, so the responsibility is on us,” says Nivea Torres, the system’s interim superintendent. “It’s about developing positive relationships, adult to adult and adult to student.”

Preparing Citizens
Schools in the technical district also have the task—unique in Connecticut, where every other school district is formed around a town or a city—of building tolerance and a sense of community among students from many different locations. The school at which Sartoris is principal, for instance, draws from 27 towns and close to 50 middle schools, some in affluent suburbs and others in less-well-off city centers. To help prepare students for their trade schools and build connections in such diverse settings, N.F. Kaynor Technical High School, in Waterbury, has a leadership course for freshmen that was recently extended to sophomores, says Kathryn Patrick, who teaches leadership at the school. Students learn to greet each other and teachers with a handshake, and focus on skills like anger management and empathy in monthly lessons from a Peaceful School Climate Committee made up of students and teachers. The course also has a community-service component. Both Ciccone and Sartoris say the schools’ task, besides imparting academic and vocational skills, is to help prepare students to become citizens. “Absolutely, we want children to leave us with demonstrated growth in academic areas and their trade areas,” Sartoris says, “but we’re also preparing students to be members of their communities. It goes hand in hand.” The technical schools’ program—students spend half their time on trade instruction and half the time on more standard academic fare—can foster engagement, but it also means behavior problems could have bigger consequences. “You’re standing right next to boiling water, hot grease, and flame,” notes Ciccone, who is currently the interim schools superintendent in Westbrook, Conn. But the schools’ focus on helping students be prepared for and make informed choices about college and career encourages students to invest in school, says Ivette Melendez, 18, a senior at Kaynor Tech who is studying hairdressing and plans to use her trade to support herself while studying marine biology in college. “At Kaynor, we have more responsibility because we have to focus not only on our trades but on our academics. ... It’s challenging, but it prepares us really well,” she says. “I’m really glad I got the experience to come here.” n

s an administrator at Manchester Community College, in Manchester, Conn., Patricia A. Ciccone wondered why so many of her students were not finishing their degrees. “What was the goal?” she remembers asking. “How do we help students make those decisions?” Seeking the answer to that question led Ciccone, to consider the transitions students make between primary and secondary school, from secondary school to college, and from college to career. Her search eventually drew her to the Connecticut Technical High School System, a state-run district where students from across the state can get a grounding in real-world work skills while acquiring the academic credits they need to graduate from high school. “I believe this [vocational education] is the answer,” says Ciccone, 60, who served as the superintendent of the 11,000-student technical high school system from 2003 until retiring in December 2012. “Even if they choose not to work in their chosen field, they have such significant exposure” that they can make informed choices, she says. Students leave the district with a high school diploma and a certificate in a chosen trade. But even in the technical schools, Ciccone found herself frustrated by how much

A

of her time and her students’ time was lost to discipline issues. She perceived that students were getting lost along the way—the same problem she had seen in community colleges. So, in 2006, she worked with the schools’ principals and Jo Ann Freiberg, a school climate consultant for the state’s department of education, to create a survey of students and staff members at all 16 schools in the system. The aim was to gauge if students felt safe in school, and if they and the staff felt the school was a good place to learn—in short, to measure the schools’ climate. The survey revealed that many students felt connected to an adult in the school—but not all did. Some didn’t even feel safe from physical harm. Analyzing the survey results helped schools in the system set tangible goals for improving their school climates, the former superintendent says. The next step was to address the concerns the survey revealed. Teachers and administrators in the district receive state-run training on school climate, Ciccone says, and she was present at each session. It can be hard to get busy administrators to feel comfortable leaving their buildings for training, Ciccone says, but she made sure that the financial and staff support was available for that to happen.

In the drive to improve school climate, Ciccone supported an approach to discipline based on restorative justice that encouraged students to find their way back to school even after offenses. And each school in the district has three data-driven goals to strive for each year: one each in reading, math, and school climate. Whether because of the emphasis on school climate or not, students in the technical-high-school system are sticking around: Its graduation rate in 2010-11, at 91.6 percent, was 10 points higher than the state’s average of 81.8 percent.

Leading the Way
Last year, the state of Connecticut followed suit, mandating that all 180 of its districts use a survey modeled on the one the technical district pioneered. The survey has helped administrators target issues and students in need. “We more actively address concerns that we may not have had before because of the work on climate and recognition of a specific need,” says Robert Sartoris, in his fourth year as the principal at Howell Cheney Technical High School, a school in Hartford and part of the system Ciccone led. But solutions need to be tailored to the school community, Ciccone says.

Christopher Capozziello for Education Week

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LESSON LEARNED

“Having a shared vision from the beginning is very important, rather than to come in and say, ‘This is what I think is a great idea.’ ... It wasn’t one person’s initiative. It was our initiative, as a district.”

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Sara D. Davis for Education Week

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Austin Obasohan
SUPERINTENDENT Duplin County Schools, Kenansville, N.C.
BY CARALEE ADAMS

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fter Austin Obasohan visited Duplin Early College High School on the campus of James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville, N.C., he was inspired. The academic expectations for students were high there, and nearly all students were graduating from high school— most with an associate degree. The then-new superintendent of the 9,375-student Duplin County schools said to himself: If this is working, why not offer it to all students? “We want a unified commitment to give every child the same opportunity,” says Obasohan, who came on the job in July 2010. “We can no longer afford pockets of excellence. We want to make sure that every, every, every child in Duplin County experiences what early-college students are experiencing. “That’s why we decided to scale up,” he says. “Because we think it would be an injustice to deprive any child.” Determined to start children thinking about college as early as prekindergarten, Obasohan began to call for a districtwide early-college system. With the model, students in all five district high schools have a chance to earn college credit. And, to prepare students for morerigorous courses, elementary and middle schools plant the seeds of postsecondary aspiration and foster a college-going culture. Now, Duplin County is the only school system in North Carolina and one of two in the nation to implement districtwide early college. (The other is the Hidalgo school district in Texas.) The seamless education model was adopted by the Duplin County school board in 2011, a year after Obasohan became schools chief. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate in the county has risen, growing from 71 percent in 2009-10 to 80.7 percent in 2011-12, and some local educators trace that improvement to the expansion of

the early-college model and other initiatives begun by Obasohan. Located in the rural southeast part of the state, the district is made up of roughly equal percentages of white, Hispanic, and African-American students. About 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Among the county’s adults, 80 percent have no postsecondary credential.

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Raising Expectations
A transplant from Nigeria, the 53-year-old Obasohan has a marketing degree from Sussex College of Technology in England and earned his doctorate in educational leadership from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. In his 30-year career in education, he has worked with public schools in Alabama, Virginia, and North Carolina. When Dana Diesel Wallace first met Obasohan two years ago, she was struck by the clarity of his vision of preparing all students for success early. Wallace is the vice president for school and district support at North Carolina New Schools, in Raleigh, a public-private advocacy organization for innovation in education, and works with Duplin County on strategies to expand the early college and train teachers. “They have done incredible outreach to every entity in their community, … to business, faith-based organizations. It really is growing a communitywide vision,” says Wallace. “I’m unaware of any other district that has taken as deep of a dive as Austin has taken his district.” Obasohan started by listening. He formed advisory groups for teachers, parents, and students— each of which meets monthly. He says he heard “a yearning for innovation and change. I sensed a very bold cry for preparing our children for careers and college.” Tarla Smith, the executive director of career/technical education

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LESSON LEARNED
and innovative programs for the district, says the superintendent analyzed the school system and brought everyone to the table to drive expectations. Obasohan “has been a bridge-builder and advocate for opening doors for business involvement,” she says. The push for postsecondary training means promoting four-year degrees, as well as associate degrees and occupational certificates. In the school system, there are now five career academies in the high schools for students interested in agribusiness, computer information technology, health sciences, teaching, and leadership. Students can take college-level courses, with the format depending on the course. With some, a college professor teaches in the high school. Others are hybrid online courses, where the student goes to class on the college campus one day a week and works via computer the other four.

Making Adaptations
Bringing the early-college model to all schools has been a challenge, says Kevin Smith, the senior lead achievement coach for the district and the former principal of the first Duplin Early College High School. Administrators from Duplin County visited Texas to look at the model the Hidalgo district created, but Smith says schools have to adapt to make the concept work in their own settings. “There is not a cookie-cutter way of doing this,” he says. Duplin County has embraced the North Carolina New Schools concept of student-centered learning, in which the goal is for “every student to read, write, think, and talk in every class, every day,” says Smith. Before Duplin County can fully expand the early-college model to all of its high school students, it needs to work through some state legislative hurdles. It must get a waiver to go beyond the current limit of offering earlycollege classes to just 100 students per grade and get approval to offer the courses in the high schools, not just on college campuses. Obasohan says he has garnered support on the issue from local lawmakers and is hopeful the full legislature will agree to expand the concept. Smith says it’s been a major shift in thinking to push all students to rigorous pathways. Rather than overlook average students for honors classes, teachers now think about how to offer courses with supports. “Educators have always worked hard, but the intensity has increased,” says Smith. “There is definitely a pressure to make sure we are offering every student what they need. The pressure is long overdue.” The school system has worked closely with James Sprunt Community College for years, but the relationship has deepened under the current superintendent’s leadership, says Lawrence Rouse, the president of the college. Additional adjunct faculty members have been hired to accommodate the increase in the number of high school students wanting to take the college’s courses. The college has also developed a more cohesive approach to course offerings, in which students follow a prescribed pathway based on their long-term goals, rather than having to take courses that seem irrelevant to them. As a result, Rouse says, passing rates are up. Rouse agrees with the idea that students needed to be better prepared coming to his campus. Obasohan “came in with a very discerning eye to what’s happening in Duplin County, and he decided to act on that vision,” says Rouse. “We are working together to make sure our courses dovetail with what they are doing in high school.” In the district’s five elementary schools and three K-8 schools, every grade level adopts a college and is encouraged each year to visit one campus. Tanya Smith, the assistant principal at Rose Hill-Magnolia Elementary School, a district school in Rose Hill, credits Obasohan for motivating young children to think ahead to college. “When we hear ‘college readiness,’ our mind focuses on the high school students,” she says. Obasohan’s “vision is that it takes preparation prior to high school. If we can start the conversation as early as pre-K, [students] have at least seven or eight years to be exposed to different colleges.” What can an 8-year-old get from a campus visit? “To know that the future does exist,” says Obasohan. “If you, too, can be on the college campus, then you can explore and learn more about college,” he says. “It’s building the connection.” n

“The whole key is individualizing instruction and education for the student. We’ve got to reinvent school and make it a place where the kids want to come.”

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DIGITAL ACCESS

Dennis Stockdale
SUPERINTENDENT Garrett-Keyser-Butler-Community School District, Garrett, Ind.
BY MICHELLE R. DAVIS

D

Swikar Patel for Education Week

ennis Stockdale arrived as the superintendent in Garrett, Ind., six years ago, when the Garrett-Keyser-Butler school district seemed as remotely connected to 21st-century learning as its rural landscape might suggest. Today, amid the farms and small-town stores, all three schools in this 1,800-student district have been equipped with Wi-Fi, elementary school students use their own iPads in class, older students take their MacBook laptops home every day, and a state-of-the art, totally wired high school opened this school year. Stockdale says he also made sure that all students in his system, 21 miles north of Fort Wayne, 73 percent of whom qualify for subsidized lunches, have equitable access to the Internet beyond school hours. “The whole key is individualizing instruction and education for the student,” Stockdale says. “We’ve got to reinvent school and make it a place where the kids want to come.” That change didn’t come overnight—the school had few computers and outdated Internet connections when Stockdale arrived—and it took some convincing, particularly when it came to the school board, says Anthony L. Griffin, the board’s vice president. And though Stockdale was passionate, not everyone on the board was ready for the high-tech ideas he proposed. “Even myself, I had some questions,” Griffin says. But Stockdale pushed board members to attend conferences highlighting the possibilities of a 1-to-1 device system. He urged them to travel to other districts to see initiatives already in place, made his own presentations using technology, and ultimately made sure members had their own iPads for board business. “Some of the board members that were not much for it, when they saw what it could do and where it could go, that helped sway them,” Griffin says. And Stockdale, 48, found the money to get the job done. To begin with, he redirected money that parents already were paying in state fees for printed textbooks into buying devices and using electronic curricula. “We’re not dependent on textbooks at all,” he says. “We’re spending money differently than we ever spent it before.”

Teachers’ Roles
Stockdale emphasized professional development as the devices were rolled out. Now,

teachers are curating curricula and creating their own electronic-resource libraries to promote individualized learning. Rather than group by grade level for early-grades mathematics, students are grouped by learning level and outcomes, which can change daily or weekly, Stockdale says. “Technology is not a replacement for teachers,” he says. “It’s a tool and a resource for efficiency in educational delivery. Teachers can do more because they have that tool.” In addition to using textbook fees, the district received a $300,000 classroom-innovation grant from the Indiana Department of Education to help offset costs. “Our kids deserve these resources as much as any area, and it’s our responsibility to provide those,” Stockdale says. Once the 1-to-1 program was in place, however, there were worries that students who had Internet access at home would have an unfair advantage over those who didn’t. The district used some of the grant money to buy 100 mobile Wi-Fi hot spots that students can take home to provide access. In addition, the district wired the community center in Garrett with Wi-Fi, so students have access there. The local library is also wired, and in the new high school, part of which opened this school year, administrators will denote a wireless area that will be open until 10 p.m. on school days for students to work. But getting to this point wasn’t all smooth sailing. The district experienced what Stockdale calls an “implementation dip.” For a year, test scores fell while educators worked out the kinks of the 1-to-1 program and continued training. Stockdale says he faced some criticism, but the teachers, the community, and most board members stood behind him. Now, scores have rebounded. For example, the middle school’s state rating went from a D during the implementation dip to an A last year, according to the state education department. Amber L. Hartsough, the president of the J.E. Ober Elementary School PTA, says the positive effects of Stockdale’s efforts are evident. Students created a video to highlight why they needed a new playground, for example, which they posted on the school website. “My 1st grader knows more about technology than I do,” she says. “In today’s world, they’re going to need that.” n

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Ryan Henriksen for Education Week

LESSON LEARNED

SOCIAL NETWORKING

Kyle Pace
INSTRUCTIONAL TECHNOLOGY SPECIALIST Lee’s Summit School District, Mo.
BY MICHELLE R. DAVIS

K

yle Pace has been training teachers to use technology since he was a student himself. Now an instructional technology specialist for the 17,500-student Lee’s Summit, Mo., school district, Pace recalls being fascinated with the computer his mother—a Missouri middle school teacher—received in her classroom when he was a child. His mother brought the computer home during the summer, and Pace taught himself to use it. He became so proficient that his mother, and her fellow teachers, would come to him for advice on the technology, particularly when Pace began attending the middle school himself. “I informally became the teachers’ go-to person. In the summer, they’d have me come over and they’d say, ‘Teach me how to do this,’ ” says Pace, 36. “So teaching other teachers about technology has always felt very natural to me.” His skills have only leaped forward in his current job in Lee’s Summit. This school year, he’s helping train

“As educators, we can get narrow-minded pretty fast being in our own little building all the time. With social networking, you get fresh viewpoints and varying perspectives. It opens up your thinking.”

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teachers to use Google Apps for Education and Chromebooks, or Google laptops, along with Gmail and Google Docs. It’s all pretty new. But Pace says if he needs advice on any of those endeavors, educators who are further along in the process are just a click away. He has created his own online network of experts whom he can access at any time. Pace himself is seen as a resource for others, speaking at conferences or providing training, using his social-networking expertise. “No one has to feel like they’re isolated anymore,” he says. “That’s the beauty of social networking.” A former elementary school teacher, Pace says he once felt isolated in the classroom. Though he wanted to push the technology boundaries in his class, he didn’t know others in his school or district who were trying to do the same thing. So he’s making sure that teachers in Lee’s Summit don’t face the same issue. Social networking

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holds the key to that, he says. For example, Pace often uses Twitter to find resources for teachers in his district; he calls it “connecting the dots” and helping guide others to new techniques. Social networking “is still daily guaranteed learning for me to find something that is immediately applicable for my job,” he says. “An awesome byproduct of my networking is helping other people get the information they need.” He’s encouraging teachers to do the same and build their own personal learning networks online. Pace pushed Richardson Elementary School 6th grade teacher Ashley Tegenkamp to venture onto Twitter, though she had never used it for professional development. He helped her connect with other teachers who have given her ideas for her own classroom, and Tegenkamp then decided to start a Twitter feed for her classroom to keep parents informed. Currently, she is following several teachers who “flipped” their classrooms (a process in which teachers have students watch the lecture portion of a class at home on video, then do the homework or more hands-on work, in class), and is preparing to go in that direction with her own class. “Twitter is absolutely pushing me to be a better teacher,” she wrote in an email.

STUDENT DISCIPLINE

Jonathan Brice
OFFICER OF SCHOOL SUPPORT NETWORKS Baltimore City Schools
BY NIRVI SHAH

Twitter EdChats
Social networking has also altered the course of Pace’s professional life in many ways. Pace started with Twitter, and he became so enamored of the way he could connect with educators around the world that he began co-hosting Tuesday-evening EdChats on the social-networking site. Pace helps guide those online chats using Twitter’s 140-character posts to discuss a different educational topic every week. Topics have ranged from alternatives to high-stakes testing to the effects of “anytime” learning on the classroom; the chats often spawn in-depth discussions on blogs and other websites. That role led Pace to like-minded technology educators with whom he began to collaborate. He now speaks at conferences with people like Eric Sheninger, the principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey, about social networking for educators. The aim is to inspire teachers to get outside their comfort zones and connect with other educators online. Online and in face-to-face presentations, Pace brings his real-world experiences to others, says Sheninger, to help them find ways to surmount technology roadblocks in their own schools. “Kyle is a practitioner. He works with teachers and is exposed to the budgetary realities that schools are faced with, as well as administrators that embrace a vision for tech integration and those that are resistant,” Sheninger says. “That allows him to be a very powerful resource.” Twitter also led Pace to learn about EdCamps, a socalled “unconference” movement springing up around the country. The freewheeling professional-development gatherings have no set agenda and are often centered around the use of technology in education. On the day of the event, attendees sign up, often on a large whiteboard, to make presentations. Participants are encouraged to drop in and out of sessions as they determine which are most relevant to their teaching practice. Pace heard about EdCamps on Twitter and decided to organize one of his own. His first EdCamp, held in Kansas City, Mo., in 2010, drew more than 100 people. He’s since organized two others there, and attendance has grown. “As the organizer, that’s always a bit of a tense moment that morning when you have that big piece of paper on the wall and you think, ‘Please let there be people who want to have a conversation,’ ” Pace says. And it all came out of social networking. Pace says it’s unlikely, for example, he would have become a Googlecertified teacher without finding out about it online. He would not have connected with Sheninger and others who have given him so many new techniques and resources to pass on to his teachers. And he wouldn’t know that a principal in a school outside Chicago is a few years ahead of his district in implementing those Google Chromebooks. “At any time,” Pace says, “I can send him a tweet and say, ‘How did you do this?’ ” n

W

hen Jonathan Brice was hired to tackle school discipline reform in the Baltimore public schools in 2008, about one in five students was being suspended out of school in the 85,000-student district each year. Brice, fresh off a stint in Jacksonville, Fla., where he also oversaw discipline districtwide, rolled up his sleeves and got to it. “It was: ‘Walk in. Let’s get to work,’ ” Brice says of his early days of work in Baltimore, where he had grown up and attended school. And so he did. The vision for overhauling the way students were disciplined—out-of-school-suspensions were contributing to the district’s dropout rate and undermining students’ academic achievement—was that of the district’s nationally known schools chief, Andrés A. Alonso. But it was Brice who was tasked with turning vision into reality. The community was ready for a change, says Brice, 44, but not everyone in the school district was. He and Alonso hoped revamping the district’s code of conduct would be a major driver for cutting out-of-school suspensions. “What was difficult was getting our principals and staff to understand that changing the code of conduct did not mean we were not going to hold students accountable,” Brice says. Part of his work was to convince schoolbased leaders that they could maintain safe, orderly environments while also keeping students in school who traditionally would have been suspended. So he and others in the district reworked the code of conduct to give Baltimore principals alternatives to suspension. Now, before resorting to out-of-school suspension as punishment for both minor and major offenses, principals can and must take intermediate steps. “What was critical to the work that we did was identifying alternatives to suspension,” Brice says. Parent conferences, mediation, referral to a studentsupport team, development of behavioral-intervention plans, or use of “restorative justice” solutions are among the options principals now have available to them. At the same time, the code of conduct makes clear to school administrators that students who commit the most serious offenses won’t be just slapped on the wrist and allowed to stay in school. “Students have maybe participated in a fight, attacked another student or staff member, brought a weapon to school—we had to be very clear: We will not allow those [behaviors] to go on without removal,” Brice says. But, because of work by Brice and others, even those students aren’t just kicked out of class. “We developed learning environments to put those students in, instead of just putting them on the street,” Brice says. One of those alternative learning environments is called Success Academy, which Brice says he spent just 90 days creating from scratch.

“That’s how we spent our summer,” says Brice of how he and other staff members set up the school in the days leading up to the 2008-09 school year.

Full-Day Learning
Based at district headquarters, Success Academy is an alternative setting for the most serious offenders. In the past, such students would have been sent home with some schoolwork, which they may or may not have done. Success Academy provides a full day of instruction, wraparound services, counseling, and a place where students can keep from getting into more trouble. “The time lost would have been detrimental to students. It would have meant that students are sitting at home,” Brice says. “They clearly need consequences, yet what you don’t want to do is deny them an opportunity to learn how to conduct themselves differently.” The district’s chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, labels Brice’s work “instrumental” in revamping student discipline and expanding alternatives for students who break rules. “He really believes, as does [Alonso], there are kids that make bad decisions all the time, and as a school community, those are teachable moments,” Edwards says. “We were signaling through our actions that we didn’t want the kids in our school; they were behaving accordingly. Expanding the services available to kids who were struggling, who were making bad decisions, who weren’t fitting in—Jonathan was a real advocate for making sure the district had services in traditional schools and outside that could meet the needs of our kids,” Edwards adds. Brice has since been promoted to head the office of school support networks, a position he’s had for about a year and a half. He recently earned a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s urbansuperintendents program. He also holds two master’s degrees and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Baltimore. “Working for the students and families of Baltimore I think is one of the professional dreams of a lifetime,” Brice says. Since his work began, the rate of outof-school suspensions has dropped to one in eight students. Meanwhile, the district’s dropout rate has fallen from 7.9 percent in 2008 to 4.2 percent in 2011, state education records show. In his new role, Brice continues to oversee student discipline, among other responsibilities. “Our children have tremendous potential,” he says. “The sense of urgency that we’ve brought to the work, the amount of change we’ve been able to implement, to grow over these five years is something that really signals to me what can be done if you build a great team, hold high expectations, and are not willing to be passive in the work.” n

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LESSON LEARNED

says

“What we did well was change the conversation. The conversation wasn’t about suspensions. It was, ‘What are the alternatives?’ Reducing suspensions keeps more kids in school and actually leads to more student learning.”

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Matt Roth for Education Week

February 6, 2013

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SMART GROWTH

Jeffrey K. Platenberg
FORMER ASSISTANT SUPERINTENDENT OF SUPPORT SERVICES Loudoun County Schools, Va.
BY SARAH D. SPARKS & CHRISTINA A. SAMUELS

F

or Jeffrey K. Platenberg, every part of a school should support learning, from the science curriculum to the heating system. As the assistant superintendent for support services of the Loudoun County, Va., school district, Platenberg worked to find transportation and energy efficiencies to protect the district’s instructional support during a time of tight state education budgets and a rapidly expanding student population. Loudoun County, an outer suburb of Washington, has seen its school enrollment grow from 40,250 students in 2003-04 to 68,289 in the current school year. “It’s amazing we’ve increased our square footage and decreased our energy consumption; we’re actually saving more money while we’re expanding,” says Platenberg, 51, who, for his work in Loudoun County, was given the 2012 International Eagle Award by the Association of School Business Officials International. From the time of his arrival in the district in 2007, Platenberg began helping it cope with robust growth. That work included building 13 new schools, renovating nine more, and constructing five additions. By constructing new buildings more sustainably and updating inefficient systems at older schools, Loudoun County saved $28.4 million during Platenberg’s tenure from January 2007 to December 2012, and Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick estimates the district has saved $47 million in the past 15 years. “He’s really been able to ratchet up what we’ve been able to do,” Hatrick says. “Jeff’s a pretty creative thinker; he understands the construction business really well, but he comes from a business background, so he’s really able to merge those two things.” Platenberg believes his diverse background has helped him think creatively. His 27-year career in public education has also given him continuing opportunities to learn, he says. For example, during a stint as a school system transportation analyst in Lorton, Va., early in his career, he went through the bus-drivercertification process that he was expected to manage. When he later moved to a position supervising capital improvements for Virginia’s Fairfax County public schools, he earned a general contractor’s license. A stint as head of accountability and information technology for the Lexington County, S.C., schools allowed him to immerse himself in instructional issues. And everywhere he has lived, from Morocco to Serbia’s capital of Belgrade, to Savannah, Ga., he has observed the ways and reasons communities build their schools differently. It doesn’t hurt, Hatrick adds, that Platenberg also gets feedback and advice on how the systems are functioning from his wife, Janet A. Platenberg, the principal of Steuart W. Weller Elementary School, one of the district’s newly built elementary schools. She is one of the National School Boards Association’s 20 “administrators to watch” for technology innovation. Loudoun students give a lot of feedback, too. Platenberg and his colleagues in the facilities office instituted regular talks to students about the ways the district is trying to be energy-efficient and how students can help, including discussions on how heating systems work and the ins and outs of photovoltaic cells. High school students even helped inspire the district’s new solarpanel system, Platenberg recalls. Platenberg says he had considered solar panels to be too expensive to install until a high school student

caught up with him in the hall one day and pulled examples and articles on new, less expensive solar technology from his backpack. Continued interest from students persuaded him to include solar technology in the district’s energy grid, which Platenberg says will help cut the district’s carbon dioxide emissions by 1.8 billion metric tons over the life of the system. “The students really dig it,” Platenberg says. “When you get the children involved, they don’t have any boundaries in their thinking, and they are always pressing us to be more creative, more inventive.”

Green and Growing
Part of that inventiveness comes from creating a feedback loop in which the district evaluates what worked and what didn’t in every construction project for use in the next building’s design. The district now orients campuses to make best use of natural light, filters rainwater for use in its landscaping, and regularly audits the efficiency of every electrical, plumbing, and heating system. It’s easier to experiment with innovative ways to build in energy savings when you are constructing new campuses every year, but Platenberg says districts don’t have to be growing as rapidly as Loudoun is to start making themselves more sustainable. He advises district officials to start regularly auditing all of their facilities systems: heating and cooling, water, electrical, transportation, food, and groundskeeping. Preventive maintenance is often an easy item to cut from a tight school budget, but Platenberg says once administrators understand how those systems work, they can experiment with ways to improve them—and identify leaks, electrical short circuits, and other problems before they turn costly. For example, the district’s move to weekly checklist-based audits of its in-house catering program brought it from a $2.1 million loss to profitability within two years. “It’s not really sexy to be standing in a boiler room at 7 at night, waiting to make sure a system goes off and stays off,” Platenberg says, “but when those things are working effectively, you save pennies [per square foot], and when you multiply that by all the square footage, recurring every month, that’s thousands of dollars. “If we can save that money, we can afford more teachers, and if we can afford more teachers, that’s what we’re here for, teaching and learning,” Platenberg says. It can also help districts get more excited about those “unsexy” improvements to participate in an award or certification program. Loudoun, for example, has 47 buildings certified through the federal Energy Star program, which requires annual audits and recertification. It also won the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 Sustained Excellence Award and first place in the Virginia School Boards Association’s Green School Challenge. “I’d highly recommend districts to participate; it forces you to stay on top of it, which is what sustainability is all about,” Platenberg says. Platenberg’s career came full circle this year. He started a new job as the assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services in the neighboring 181,500-student Fairfax County system—the largest district in Virginia and the one where he first worked as a senior school budget analyst. n

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LESSON LEARNED

“If we can save money [on utilities], we can afford more teachers, and if we can afford more teachers, that’s what we’re here for, teaching and learning.”

Stephen Voss for Education Week

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LESSON LEARNED

STEM EDUCATION

Linda S. Hicks
SUPERINTENDENT Battle Creek Public Schools, Mich.
BY ERIK W. ROBELEN

“In education, I believe we don’t have a day to spare, so people probably think I’m too hands-on, but it’s the only way I can know what’s happening. ... There is no part of my being that accepts that kids are not performing at high levels.”

V

eteran educator Linda S. Hicks arrived in 2010 to lead the city school district in Battle Creek, Mich. Capitalizing on its multinational food manufacturers and nearby research and training facilities, she immediately decided to tap the area’s potential as a source of future STEM-focused jobs for many of her students. And so she began taking steps to enhance the 5,300-student district’s STEM offerings, including revamping an elementary school and a middle school to bring a STEM focus. In addition, she launched a districtwide STEM education panel to help build a strong and sustained vision for education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “This is the perfect place [for an emphasis on those disciplines], because there are so many future STEM opportunities for kids,” says Hicks. Noting the district’s high concentration of students living in poverty—about 75 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—she says: “We have some of the most vulnerable children. [They] need to be inspired. ... Our kids need to see some real potential opportunities for their future.” Nicknamed “Cereal City,” Battle Creek is home to Kellogg Co., maker of such well-known products as Special K, Frosted Flakes, and Eggo waffles, plus a major manufacturing facility for Post Foods, which makes Post Raisin Bran, Grape Nuts, and other cereals. In addition, the International Food Training Institute, which trains food-safety officials, is based in the city. And the company Covance recently opened a nutritional-chemistry and food-safety laboratory. Observers describe Hicks—who is 54 and has 30-plus years’ experience in education as a teacher, principal, and superintendent—as a passionate and hands-on leader who is determined to create meaningful opportunities for disadvantaged young people. And she’s seen as quick to seize on and maximize opportunities to promote enhanced STEM learning, and also to understand the importance of providing a sustained focus on the issue. “I have been so impressed with her STEM commitment,” says Arelis E. Diaz, a program officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is supporting the district’s involvement with a recently launched STEM teacher-fellowship program in Michigan. It’s not just her leadership on STEM that has impressed Diaz, but the superintendent’s broader vision and determination to help the district’s students overcome disadvantages to succeed in academics and life. “She has a courageous spirit about her that I really admire,” Diaz says. “She basically has a ‘no excuses’ approach, that we have to do what it takes to ensure that all students can learn, and that it can be done in Battle Creek public schools.” One opportunity Hicks seized came when she was approached about having her district take part in a STEM teacher-fellowship program. Developed by the Princeton, N.J.-based Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the program recruits individuals with STEM expertise to become teachers in those subjects. As part of the process, participants get intensive clinical experience in local schools, where each one is paired with a classroom teacher.

Building a Teaching Pool
“Linda really understands that this is about developing capacity and talent within her district,” says Audra M. Watson, a program officer for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. “She sees this as an opportunity to not only grow her own strong and high-quality teachers, but also as an opportunity for her own teachers to continue their professional development.” Watson notes that the superintendent was personally involved in selecting teachers to mentor the fellows, and also spent time in professional-development meetings with those teachers to “make sure she had a sense of what was happening, to make sure she set the vision.” Another priority for Hicks has been the new STEM focus at an elementary and a middle school. The elementary school initiated the change in the 2011-12 academic year, while
Brian Widdis for Education Week

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the neighboring middle school transitioned its 6th grade to a STEM-focused curriculum starting this academic year. “This is one of my babies,” Hicks says of Dudley STEM Elementary School. “I call it my ‘school of inspiration,’ where we put a lot of supports to help kids become familiar with career paths that they hadn’t even thought of, or heard of.” The district is already the site of the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center, one of 33 such centers across Michigan that offer STEM coursework to advanced students at the secondary level, as well as provide professional development for teachers and develop curricular materials. The center will soon move to a major new facility under construction in the city, where Hicks hopes more local students can enroll. “I want to make sure I have a pipeline so more of my students have an opportunity to go to this school,” she says, even while saying she wants more advanced STEM opportunities in her district’s existing high school, too.

OHIO

Analyzing Data
Kathy M. Grosso, the STEM facilitator at Dudley STEM Elementary School, says the core idea in that school is to integrate STEM concepts across the curriculum and better prepare students academically in math and science. In addition, the school organizes special events that get families involved, such as a recent Night of Flight—held at an airplane hangar in Battle Creek that’s part of Western Michigan University’s school of aviation—that featured a paperairplane contest for students. Grosso also was named last year by the superintendent to oversee the new districtwide STEM panel, which is composed of school principals, guidance counselors, teachers, and a representative from a local community college. To get started, says Grosso, the district is collecting and analyzing data on who enrolls in STEM classes and who succeeds, among other information. “That will inform the courses that we offer, especially at middle and high schools, and ensure that we’re providing the right kind of support,” especially for African-American and female students, Grosso says, noting two populations that traditionally have been underrepresented in the STEM fields. She also praises Hicks for being deliberate in seizing opportunities to improve the system’s schools. “She’s really been good at listening, being aware of what’s happening in the community, and taking advantage of that opportunity,” Grosso says. The STEM facilitator also finds Hicks to have an inspiring vision that goes beyond rhetoric. “I really feel committed to her vision because it’s rooted in kids, really rooted in kids, not just saying it,” says Grosso. “A lot of people say ‘students first,’ but that is the foundation of everything she does.” n

“K12 helps us be part of this new model of education happening across the nation.”
Danielle Prohaska Director of Teaching and Learning Mechanicsburg Exempted Village School District, Ohio

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Seeks Innovative District Leaders
Education Week wants readers’ input for a special report profiling district leaders who have brought fresh, successful ideas to their school communities. We’re looking for superintendents who have forged new routes to higher student achievement, finance directors who have devised novel strategies to stretch district dollars, curriculum directors with effective, outside-the-box methods for improving learning districtwide—people who have come up with good ideas and led the way in making them work. If you know of a district-level administrator whose approaches or innovations have brought results—in any area from academics to daily operations—we want to hear from you. A nomination form can be found at www.edweek.org/leaders/nominate or send an email detailing your reasons to leaders@epe.org. Include your nominee’s full name, title, and school district, as well as your own, with your contact information.

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