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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Superintendents in Action: One Small Step Toward Reform, One Giant Leap for Students

A look at six superintendents and the steps they took to improve their school districts.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

Credit: Edutopia

Systemwide reform can be daunting. Teachers are doubtful. Money is tight. Expectations are high, and the public wants instant results. But reforms can start with small steps. We've asked six reform-minded superintendents from across the United States to share with us "one small, but meaningful step" they have taken toward bringing change into their districts. Their answers offer a range of practical advice, from homespun to high-tech, for embarking on the road to reform.

Rick DuFour

Credit: Photo by Rod Dixon

Adlai E. Stevenson School District, Illinois

To some, "Monday Meetings" might sound positively Dilbert-esque.

To teachers at Illinois's one-school Adlai E. Stevenson School District 125, the phrase means opportunity -- opportunity to discuss lesson plans, curriculum, and course structure with other teachers every week.

The Monday Meetings are the legacy of Rick DuFour, who became superintendent in 1991. As the area's population grew during the 1990s, so did student enrollment and faculty hiring. Teacher John Bolger recalls that his thirteen-person social studies department mushroomed to thirty-seven, outgrowing its small office seemingly overnight.

To regain a collaborative atmosphere, DuFour built time into Monday's schedule for teams of teachers to evaluate instruction and achievement. Bolger says the meetings allow veteran teachers to mentor newcomers. Fellow teacher Christin Rudolph says they help her plan lessons such as the math lab her team created, which teaches exponents using Skittles® candies.

Stevenson holds four Blue Ribbon awards for excellence from the U.S. Department of Education. DuFour, who left in 2002 to pursue his career as an author and speaker on school reform, attributes the district's achievements to teacher collaboration, not to his strategic improvement plans. The teachers give him more credit. Unlike those of some other administrators, says Bolger, "his theories actually work in practice."

Tom Payzant

Credit: Thomas Payzant

Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tom Payzant is part visionary, part tinkerer. Boston School Development Director Rachel Curtis says, "Tom has had one strong agenda and he allows us to keep tweaking things." That agenda is reforming the district into "130 schools of excellence," using student data to refine curriculum and classroom practice.

Boston's data-driven accountability system started five years ago with one simple, low-tech step. Payzant had schools examine their yearly Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System results and then answer three questions:

1. What curricular steps will we take to address the problems we see?
2. What professional development will we provide to our teachers to enable them to execute these steps?
3. How will we measure whether what we've done has made any difference?

In 1999, the year Payzant was named Massachusetts Superintendent of the Year, Boston Public Schools began administering additional diagnostic tests three times a year, examining results and adjusting practices immediately. By 2001, test scores had gone up across all grades and subject areas, exceeding or equaling statewide gains.

A districtwide intranet, called myBPS, makes this information accessible. Principals track student performance, down to the test questions students struggle with most. One click reveals the specific standard that each question addresses, diagnosing not just "trouble reading," but "trouble decoding words in expository text." Professional development is concentrated on the most problematic standards.

"Before this, just managing the data was daunting," says Curtis. "Now that the process is easier, staff can focus on understanding the information and making the improvements."

Libia Gil

Credit: Libia Gil

Chula Vista Elementary School District, California

"It's lonely at the top." That's what principals in the Chula Vista Elementary School District on the California-Mexico border shared with newly arrived Superintendent Libia Gil in 1993.

The issue of isolation came up during conversations about what principals at the 25,000-student school district -- the largest K-6 district in California -- saw as an ineffective, sometimes unfair performance evaluation system. Gil addressed principals' concerns by adding "peer group" evaluations to those conducted by assistant superintendents. The peer groups do more than facilitate evaluation, says Gil, who left the district last year to become chief academic officer for New American Schools, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase student achievement through comprehensive school improvement strategies. Peer groups allow principals (who often have no other opportunity to talk with one another casually, much less confer in a formal, professional setting) to share ideas about everything from curriculum to boosting teacher morale. The evaluations promote professional and personal growth and development through an inquiry process of questioning and analyzing data.

Gil, last year's winner of the $25,000 Harold W. McGraw Education Prize, says the district's process has evolved into "a very systematic way of helping review teaching and learning practices." For example, a peer cluster team may notice a writing focus in the second grades but not in the third. Principals can then offer ideas for improving the third-grade program and brainstorm ideas for creating the best writing programs in their own schools. The peer program also requires no additional money, an important feature in today's tough economy.

"This is how we disseminate good things that are happening," Gil says. "Sometimes people are doing great things for children but nobody knows about them."

Deborah S. Akers

Credit: Photo by Bo Bowman

Mercer County Public Schools, West Virginia

In Mercer County, West Virginia, where Deborah S. Akers has been superintendent since 1993, the poverty rate is high -- more than 60 percent of all students receive free and reduced-price lunches. Akers is determined that expectations there must be high, too.

Akers, the 2003 winner of the American Association of School Administrators' State Superintendent of the Year award, has implemented a districtwide compulsory senior project. Working alone or in small teams, every student chooses a topic and completes a research project. At year's end, students assemble a panel of teachers and community members to whom they present their work.

Students conduct Internet research on the school's computers and use PowerPoint® for presentations. Two students interested in engineering created a model of West Virginia's New River Gorge Bridge, the longest-span single-arch bridge in the United States. As they started to research right after 9/11, their inquiry into the engineering details of such a large public structure was met with suspicion, but the students surmounted the difficulties and obtained plans for the bridge.

That kind of real-world experience makes the project challenging and, Akers believes, rewarding. She says that though the project may be intimidating for students (one student said she had "dreaded" the project at first, but felt she had really learned from the experience), it actually eases them into obtaining valuable skills.

"Being able to speak about a subject in front of a group of people is a skill [students] need in life," Akers observes "In college, this kind of project isn't unusual. This is an easier, more friendly start that is still demanding."

Kathryn Leedom

Credit: Kathryn Leedom

Willmar Public Schools, Minnesota

Starting a new school may not be everyone's idea of a small step toward change, but for Kathryn Leedom, superintendent of Willmar Public Schools in Minnesota, it makes perfect sense.

Leedom opened the Lincoln Learning Center, a K-4 school, in 2000 -- the same year she became superintendent of the 4,400-student district.

Character education drives the Learning Center's curriculum. Each month a trait (such as honesty or respect) is integrated into classroom lessons. When reading stories, students discuss the traits each character exhibits. In science and math, students work in groups, then discuss how they interacted: What was your responsibility? Were you respectful? At monthly assemblies, each class demonstrates a word using songs and skits. A recent song extolled cooperation to the tune of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Leedom sees strong ties developing in and out of the classroom. Teachers send home postcards emblazoned with the word "perseverance" if they notice a student working particularly hard. Students slip anonymous notes into a hot pink box to recognize classmates for their positive qualities. Studies of social-emotional learning show that this atmosphere enhances students' sense of personal responsibility and self-esteem, paving the way for academic achievement.

The school, says Leedom, is being treated as a pilot. Character education is being introduced in the district's other schools. One Lincoln teacher says, "Now that [other] teachers see this can be integrated, that it's not something 'extra,' it's really started catching on."

Larry Leverett

Credit: Plainfield Public Schools

Plainfield Public Schools, New Jersey

"Community engagement," says Superintendent Larry Leverett, is a "low-investment strategy that gets big returns in a variety of ways."

Leverett made community involvement a top priority during his eight years at Plainfield Public Schools, a 7,500-student urban district in New Jersey. His success in consensus building, among other skills, prompted Greenwich Public Schools in suburban Connecticut to hire him away this year.

When business leaders, parents, and civic leaders get involved, Leverett says, it pays off in volunteerism such as reading to students, partnerships that help pay for student activities, and support for school ventures. Community members helped write and win approval of Plainfield's strategic plans for literacy, staff development, and technology. Leverett also credits passage of a multimillion-dollar referendum for new construction, renovation, and state-of-the-art media centers in large part to his efforts at engaging the community.

Leverett meets with people whenever he can to build trust and increase communication. The forum can be one-on-one conversations with community leaders, including "people who are disenfranchised with the leadership, who may not typically be heard or that a superintendent may not even want to hear," he says. "Don't wait for them to come to you. ... Don't be deterred because of the past history of relationships."

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rib Laban, hasten to continuing.

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