To our readers
This week, we're taking you on a virtual journey to help tackle one of our community's most intractable problems. This week and occasionally throughout the year we'll report on urban school districts in the United States where educators have proved the most successful in teaching poor, minority students. We hope our “Field Trip” helps the Omaha School Board, its new superintendent, Nancy Sebring, and all educators, policymakers and citizens who seek the best for disadvantaged children.
— Executive Editor Mike Reilly
Sunday: Urban schools playbook
Monday: Measurable goals
Tuesday: Data-driven instruction
Wednesday: Strong principals
Thursday: Effective teachers
The education offered at Charlotte's Allenbrook Elementary had fallen down.
Allenbrook, an urban school with high levels of poverty, had become too used to poor performance, outside evaluators of the school determined. Low expectations for students were pervasive, according to the district's “Quality Review Report” on the school.
The pace of learning was slow, the review said. Lessons relied on repetition, not intellectual challenge. A parent group was nonexistent. Less than one-third of the students could pass both the state math and reading tests.
This was the environment the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decided to turn around in 2009.
Allenbrook's principal was removed. In came a new principal with a strong reputation, who brought along a select group of assistants and five quality hand-picked teachers, all choosing to accept the tough assignment.
The new leadership made rapid, dramatic improvements, the evaluators said.
Expectations rose. Teachers worked together more. Instructional time increased. Teachers dug into test scores more. Volunteer hours soared.
And achievement at Allenbrook picked up. In its best subject, math, scores are approaching the district's average.
The school turnaround strategy is part of Charlotte's “Strategic Staffing Initiative,” based in large part on the power of the principal. The initiative has spread to about 25 schools, providing encouraging academic results and earning Charlotte national acclaim.
Charlotte says it considers the principal the lever to turn around a struggling school.
While the district has been applauded for its moves, Ann Clark, its chief academic officer, said she is somewhat perplexed by the attention. Clark, a former national principal of the year, said the district is doing what everyone knows they should do for troubled schools.
“Why is it that a school district in 2012 is getting saluted for being courageous and putting their best people in the lowest-performing schools?” Clark asked.
At the nation's highest-scoring urban districts, a heavy emphasis is placed on the work of inner-city principals.
While teachers are on the front lines of a student's education, a good principal can lead those teachers and rally a whole school to success. Increasingly, the focus is on principals acting as the instructional leader for their teachers, not merely managing a building.
That's also a point of emphasis for the Omaha Public Schools as it implements a new plan to improve student achievement.
But on the issue of replacing weak principals to improve achievement, the Omaha district recently has turned down a chance to get federal dollars that might have required the removal of a principal.
Ted Hamann, an associate education professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said research has shown that principals can build on the progress teachers make in the classroom.
A strong principal, Hamann said, can keep a teacher's gains from getting diminished by weaknesses elsewhere in the system. The principal then can carry that success to the next teacher in the next classroom, he said.
Hamann said principals must be as savvy as their successful teachers.
“They can assure that there's quality across the system in the way that a classroom teacher just isn't positioned to,” Hamann said.
Charlotte's turnaround program, which began in 2008, started with a solid principal at its foundation. That is one of five tenets of the strategic staffing program.
Along with the principal, the district says, a team needs to come along to help in the rebuilding. Aside from the teachers and principal, the team can include an assistant principal and literacy or math specialists.
The principal can remove five existing staff members. And the principals are given at least three years and extra administrative flexibility to carry out the turnaround.
All the new staffers receive extra compensation — a 10 percent bump for principals and administrators and an additional $20,000 over three years for teachers.
No one is forced into the duty.
In developing the program, then-Superintendent Peter Gorman did a lot of research into “pushing” or “pulling” people to the schools, said Heather Zavadsky, director of research for the nonprofit group Educate Texas, an author on school district reform and a former manager of the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education.
Charlotte decided that it wouldn't work to force people into the assignments, Zavadsky said.
The strategic staffing schools have shown encouraging progress, although a report from the district's own researchers illustrates how much work remains.
Test scores at those schools have made sizable jumps — often rising faster than scores have increased districtwide.
But for the most part, the schools still lag behind the district averages in math and reading.
And while scores are rising, only four of the initial 14 schools had improved enough to beat scores from comparable high-poverty schools in the district, according to a district analysis of the program's first couple years.
Allenbrook Principal Celeste Spears-Ellis, who is finishing her third full year at the school, acknowledges that the elementary school has work ahead, particularly in increasing reading scores.
“We are not there yet. We are absolutely not there yet,” she said.
But there is progress. In 2010-11, for instance, 85 percent of Allenbrook's fifth-graders scored proficient in math — up from 53 percent the year before in fourth grade.
To get better results, the school had to do things differently. In fifth grade, the school used a new strategic staffing teacher, who was exceptional at teaching math, to teach the course to all four fifth-grade classes, Spears-Ellis said.
The strategic staffing program provided a green light for doing whatever was necessary to turn around the school, she said.
Previous efforts at the school were well-intentioned but weren't unified, Spears-Ellis said. It was important for the school to focus its efforts, she said.
“We were so fragmented, doing so many things, that we lost focus.”
The approach has been recognized nationally for getting troubled schools on the right path.
The nonprofit Aspen Institute, in a report on the program, said Charlotte's strategy demonstrated that tailored turnaround efforts can be highly effective in improving achievement.
While the program is still a work in progress, it recognizes that schools cannot be great without a great principal, said Ross Weiner, vice president of the Aspen Institute.
“This is really the calling of an educator — to go to a school where students need the most help,” he said.
To expand the crop of strong principals, the country's leading urban districts focus on grooming up-and-coming leaders.
In the Atlanta area, the Gwinnett County Public Schools earned national recognition for their Quality-Plus Leader Academy, a one-year program that gives participants residency assignments. The district says it looks for aspiring principals who are energetic, results-oriented and who embrace accountability.
To fill new principal positions, the vast New York City school district — with 1,700 schools educating more than 1 million students — often turns to an “aspiring principals program” operated by the nonprofit New York City Leadership Academy.
The program includes a six-week summer training program for would-be principals, followed by a 10-month residency under the mentorship of a veteran principal. After a summer of planning, they take over their own schools.
The best training programs get the aspiring principals out into schools for real-world experience and practice in the skills of leading a school, said Tim Waters, president and CEO of the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory, a Denver nonprofit.
Then, after someone becomes a principal, good systems continue giving that principal feedback on his or her performance, he said.
“There is something to practice and getting feedback on that practice,” said Waters, whose organization is a leading researcher on the impact of principals.
In OPS, principals are part of the district's new plan to increase achievement. The district has long had a system where principals evaluate their teachers.
ReNae Kehrberg, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and learning, said OPS is making an effort to intensify the principal's role as the instructional coach for teachers.
In April, the school board implemented a change in policy that district leaders consider to be a key recognition. The district's formal policy now states that principals are a school's instructional leader and should guarantee that the school's plans carry out “the highest level of proven best practices” in teaching, testing and curriculum.
Incoming OPS Superintendent Nancy Sebring, who was hired from the Des Moines Public Schools, said principals must be instructional leaders, although managing the building remains a big part of the job.
Sebring said principals must primarily focus attention on results, then lead a discussion if the results fall short.
“The principal has to make sure that discussions stay focused on what do we control, and what do we need, what are the missing pieces and how are we going to shore that up.”
While in Des Moines, Sebring was willing to replace principals in an effort to improve a school's achievement. Her district took federal money that OPS criticized because it included the possibility that principals would have to be removed.
Early in his tenure, Superintendent John Mackiel replaced some principals for poor performance and spoke openly about the importance of accountability.
In recent interviews, OPS officials would not specifically address whether principals are removed for weak academic performance.
When deciding whether to reassign a principal, the district looks at a variety of factors that could be influencing achievement, from school climate to a principal's training opportunities to whether the school is meeting its improvement goals, said Janice Garnett, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources.
Raising student achievement at a school can take time, she said.
“We don't base anything on just one criteria,” Garnett said.
World-Herald staff writers Joe Dejka and Paul Goodsell contributed to this report.
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