Public Schools Transformed by Stable Leadership, Challenging Curriculum and Caring Relationships

Recently I listened online to a lecture sponsored by the American Educational Research Association in which Dr. Charles Payne, a sociologist and professor of urban education at the University of Chicago explains what public schools can do to help their students thrive academically even despite what we know are the constraints posed when their families and their neighborhoods are extremely poor.  Poverty, Payne says, poses enormous challenges to children’s thriving at school, but if the curriculum is extremely challenging and the children are known by the adults at the school and feel supported by these relationships, many children can thrive academically.

Payne documents his address from the academic research literature, but what might be seen as a case study for his theory of school improvement appeared in Sunday’s NY Times: an article by David Kirp, the University of California at Berkeley public policy professor who has been visiting public schools in the Union Public School District, located in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Beneath the improvements in Union Public School District—how the District has made its curriculum more rigorous and created a web of relationships that support students—Kirp highlights an additional factor that usually gets less attention. The superintendent who transformed and strengthened this school district retired in 2013 after 19 years and the new superintendent isn’t looking to move on.

In contrast to the theory of disruption that has pervaded corporate school reform and that is also at the heart of Betsy DeVos’s belief in privatization is stable, deliberate, and incremental school improvement. Kirp explains: “Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix.  The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to ‘disrupt’ the status quo. The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students.  This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better. Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district.  And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere… with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.”

Christa McAuliffe Elementary boasts a STEM curriculum—science, technology, engineering and math—for all students.  Kirp describes a 7-year-old who, like his classmates, has developed an algorithm for a video game. The teacher has prescribed the conditions the algorithm must produce: “(A) cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, ‘Aw.'”  Emily Limm, the director of the STEM program, tells Kirp the district offers STEM classes to all students, not just those deemed gifted: “It’s not unusual for students struggling in other subjects to find themselves in the STEM classes. Teachers are seeing kids who don’t regard themselves as good readers back into reading because they care about the topic.”

Over a decade ago, in 2004, the district also undertook to make its schools full-service, wraparound Community Schools: “These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities—art, music, science, sports, tutoring—that middle-class families routinely provide.  They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.”

Kirp emphasizes the stability for students: “Counselors work with the same students throughout high school, and because they know their students well, they can guide them through their next steps.  For many, going to community college can be a leap into anonymity… But Union’s college-in-high-school initiative enables students to start earning community college credits before they graduate, giving them a leg up.”

You can read Kirp’s article to learn about the improvements in test scores, attendance, and the high school graduation rate.  The important point, in addition to the strong curriculum and the web of personal connections that make all students feel known at school, is that the school district’s accomplishments have not come from some kind of quick turnaround.  Kirp quotes Cathy Burden who led the district for 19 years prior to her retirement in 2013: “None of this happened overnight. We were very intentional—we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic—it grew because it was the right thing to do.”

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