Education Chat

Creating Smart School Systems

Editor Robert Rothman answered questions about the challenges facing city schools and the steps urban school officials can take to create "smart" systems.

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Creating Smart School Systems

Robert Rothman, principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and the editor of its journal, Voices in Urban Education.

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s chat with Robert Rothman, the editor of the new book City Schools: How Districts and Communities Can Create Smart Education Systems. Smart systems link highly effective school districts with a comprehensive web of supports for children, youth, and families, according to Mr. Rothman, who is a principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. We’ve had a lot of interest in this topic so let’s turn to your questions now.

Question from Margaret Sorensen, PhD Candidate, Walden University:
While there are occasional examples of districts moving towards the kinds of smart education systems you describe, there seem to be two significant barriers. One is the turf issue that complicates system-to-system cooperation, but more important, I believe, is denial. Are schools (and possibly communities) ready to admit that something more is possible? So much of what I hear indicates that everyone is doing the best that they can--and we should be happy and stop paying attention to the indicators that say otherwise? Any comments on how to overcome these barriers?

Robert Rothman:
This is a very important point. One way I have seen that districts and communities have been able to overcome denial is through the use of data. In Dallas, the city’s cultural affairs commission asked a local group to conduct a study on the availability and accessibility of educational outreach programming offered by the city’s arts and cultural institutions. The findings were startling: while a quarter of the district’s schools received performances, field trips, and master classes, about 75 percent of the schools received none of those things. Large numbers of students, in other words, passed through Dallas schools without ever taking a school-sponsored cultural field trip or live performance. Faced with such data, the city, the school district, and the cultural community agreed to form a partnershiop that would provide educational services to elementary schools.

Question from Mark Standley, Principal, Highland Tech High, AK:
What can parents do to help bring systemic change to their community schools?

Robert Rothman:
Parents have vital roles to play. Schools in smart education systems will only be effective, and will maintain support, if they are responsive to the families they serve and if families take an active part in schools. There are many examples of how this has been done successfully. In New York City, for example, a parent group in the South Bronx, concerned that their neighborhood schools were harmed by constant teacher turnover, teamed up with other local community groups and worked with the teachers’ union to develop a plan to establish “lead teachers” in the schools. The idea proved so successful that it was adopted citywide, and a similar parent collaborative has formed in Brooklyn.

Question from jeff schwartz, education program manager, appalachian regional commission:
Two questions that need to be answered together: 1) How does a system take all of the resources it has, both internally and in the community (e.g., businesses, cultural institutions, government) and integrate them into a comprehensive deployment? At the same time, 2) How does a system manage the individual needs of schools and entrepreneurial talents of individual administrators and teachers who need/are able to bring to bear various resources? This is another look at central control vs local or building control.

Robert Rothman:
I’m not sure that the issue is one of central control vs local control. Districts can provide resources and authority to enable schools to operate according to their individual needs and entrepreneurial talents, while at the same time providing supports to ensure equity. In Hamilton County, Tennessee, for example, individual schools had substantial authority, but the district, with help from a community foundation, provided additional resources to nine low-performing schools that strengthened their teaching force and helped improve student learning.

Question from Robert Lange, Ph.D. retired:
In Florida, schools that serve students from low income families seem forced to drop any activity that does not relate directly to practice for the state high-stakes test. Teachers seldom stay for more than a year or two, etc. Only activities that have short-term impact seem to be permitted. Is there really time in the school week for collaborative activities with organizations?

Robert Rothman:
The pressures that are driving administrators to drop programs make smart education systems even more necessary. One answer is to think more broadly about what constitutes “education.” Learning isn’t limited by the school week; education shouldn’t be, either. There are many activities and services students could participate in after school, on weekends, or in the summer, that will support their learning. But it shouldn’t be up to individual principals to form collaborative relationships with municipal agencies and community groups. Districts need to develop the capacity to establish these relationships in order to ensure that they continue in an equitable way and on a large enough scale so that all children can benefit.

Question from Christine Sharp Education Consultant UK:
What are the major issues surrounding Education outside the classroom from the perspective of educational establishments, parents,organisations arranging activities and vendors of experiences?

Robert Rothman:
There are many issues outside the classroom that affect student learning. One of the most challenging is the inequity in access to educational services that support learning--museums, cultural events, recreational activities, internships, and more. These services exist, but the challenges are making sure that all families are aware of them and have access to them, and making sure that they complement student learning in school.

Question from Marilyn Tormey, Action for Children:
Early childhood plays an important role in laying the foundation. For young children, child care and early learning programs nurture the development process that leads to a child’s readiness for academic learning. At the same time, these programs form the beginning of the partnership between parents and their child’s teachers. They often lay the foundation for the value parents place on education and their continuing involvement in their child’s academic future. Early learning programs, which also provide child care for working parents, take place in a wide variety of settings. How can neighborhoods work to build relationships between these programs and the local schools?

Robert Rothman:
Early learning programs are an excellent example of a key learning support that is widely available, yet often inequitably accessible and uncoordinated with schools. Municipal leaders can play an important role here. In Denver, for example, the mayor held an early childhood summit, which led to a commitment by a local water company to provide funds to increase the supply of early childhood programs, and he worked with local cultural organizations to ensure that every child enrolled in Head Start participated in at least five cultural events before the age of 5--he called it the “Five by Five” campaign.

Question from James N. Rutter, Associate Superintendent of Quality Assurance:
How best can our teaching staffs and administrative staff develop a better working knowledge of the students backgrounds and build from that knowledge to overcome poor expectation in our student populations by pre-judging their academic outcome/achievement.

Robert Rothman:
One way might be to foster more engagement with out-of-school learning providers, who might have more information about what students are capable of. In Dallas, for example, teachers and cultural providers involved in that city’s effort to offer cultural opportunities to elementary children found that many students who had struggled in class could, when provided with the opportunity, imagine, invent, and investigate.

Question from Kim Weaster, Teacher, The Oaks:
How are students’ emotional health needs addressed in smart school systems?

Robert Rothman:
One way is by bringing health services to the table with the school system to figure out ways to coordinate services for students. Another is providing opportunities outside of school that enable students to succeed.

Question from Maurice Sweat, Teacher, Walter P. Carter Elementary, Baltimore City Public School System:
How can we infuse rigor back into curricula when so many students in urban schools need remediation and intervention in mathematics, reading fluency and comprehension? How can we create a “culture of learning” in communities where some parents don’t see the efficacy or worth not only in regimental learning in schools but also reading, writing, math, and discourse in their child’s total ecology?

Robert Rothman:
Cognitive research shows that proficiency, what we want all students to achieve, will take something qualitatively different than ratcheting up basic skills. It will require different learning experiences, ones that tend to be more engaging than “regimental learning.” Some of these experiences can take place outside of class--in science museums, for example, where parents can participate and develop a “culture of learning.”

Question from Si Si Goneconto, Overcoming Obstacles:
The population of immigrant children have soared in recent years - how can a school system help these children navigate successfully through their schooling and help them and their families adjust to our way of life.

Robert Rothman:
One thing that might help is a greater understanding of who immigrant children are, what they bring to school, and what might help them succeed. Stronger links between schools and families could improve that understanding.

Question from Natalie Bernasconi, teacher/Ed.D candidate, Univ CA Santa Cruz:
What role will technology play in a smart school system?

Robert Rothman:
Technology plays many roles. In Denver, the city is using global positioning satellites to map community services, by neighborhood, so that the city is aware of which neighborhoods have access to services and communities are aware of the services that exist in their neighborhoods. In addition, several school districts have developed sophisticated data warehouses to provide accurate and up-to-date information to central office staff, schools, and community leaders that help them plan more effectively and target resources where they are most needed. There are many other examples as well.

Question from H. Leigh Toney, Executive Director, Miami Dade College, North-Meek Center:
What role do charter schools play in creating smart school systems?

Robert Rothman:
Charter schools provide opportunities for community organizations to take a direct role in operating schools. Districts have a responsibility, though, to make sure the educational opportunities available are equitable.

Question from Claudia Weisburd, Executive Director, Center for Afterschool Education, Foundations Inc.:
What is the role of afterschool programs and their specialized approach to teaching and learning in a smart education system?

Robert Rothman:
After-school programs are critically important in smart education systems. Not only do they extend learning beyond the school day, they also provide opportunities for young people to learn and develop in ways that schools might not provide. Students can put on plays, conduct science experiments, try out video equipment and do thousands of other things that might build on their in-school learning, in an atmosphere that is far less pressured than in schools.

Question from Tom Buffett, Managing Director, the Michigan Principals Fellowship, Michigan State University:
Given that fear undermines learning, what kinds of leadership activities enable schools facing immense accountability pressure to ‘get smart’?

Robert Rothman:
I’m not sure what you mean by “fear,” but one thing I think would help would be additional support and shared accountability. Ideally, the agencies and organizations that provide additional services for students and schools would support school leaders and, and the leaders of these organizations and the schools would hold one another accountable for providing such support.

Question from Michelle Dinkes, Project Associate, NASBE:
What three changes would you suggest Michelle Rhee, the (likely) next chancellor of DC public schools, make within her first month in office and why did you prioritize these actions above all others?

Robert Rothman:
Too often new superintendents come in and wipe the slate clean. While DC surely faces a lot of challenges, this approach often creates the “spinning wheels” Rick Hess wrote about. She might do well to take a careful look at the current capacity of the system, examine the assets and resources available in the community, and begin a dialogue with the broader community about what kind of education system they would like to see in DC.

As a former DC resident with close ties to the city, I wish her all the best.

Question from Mary Surbeck- Oklahoma City Community Foundation Program coordinator:
I have a concern about how parents and families are considered when studying new and innovative systems. Families in which the adults are illiterate or alliterate can undermine those efforts - are there partnerships in which those issues are addressed?

Robert Rothman:
Many parent engagement efforts are not successful because they are one-way: school systems communicate what they want to do to parents, and those who cannot or do not read (or who cannot read English) are often left out. Engagement efforts are more successful when school systems go where the parents are. In Sacramento, the district wanted to involve parents in an effort to raise achievement and lower suspension rates. After finding that parents did not feel comfortable going to schools, the teachers met with parents in their homes. The district started a regular home visit program, and it succeeded in improving student achievement and behavior.

Question from Etta Kralovec, Associate Professor, University of Arizona, South:
In my book, Schools that Do Too Much, I argue that communities should run all after school programs, like sports and drama, shifting the responsibility for these important activities away from the school and onto the community. Do you think it makes sense to broaden into the community the responsibility for providing youth these activities?

Robert Rothman:
In many communities, of course, community organizations sponsor sports and drama and other activities. As with other after-school programs, though, they can be more effective if they are linked to schools. Why couldn’t, for example, a community drama club put on a production of the Diary of Anne Frank while children are reading the book in English class?

Question from Jacqueline Ware, Parent Seattle Public School System:
Mr. Rothman:

I haven’t read your material. However, I would like to know what your book offers urban schools that is considered a “new” approach, with “new” ideas and suggestions, and “new” ways of approving the atmosphere, environment, and academic standards for students attending urban schools? Also, even if the information is there, how does change happen when there are policies to change, political parties to convince, and resources to be found? I’m sure you are aware of a number of inner city (urban) schools that not only lack the basic necessities (sufficient desks, books, paper, overhead projectors, copy machines, etc.), but where the buildings are a structural hazard and a deterrent to learning. How can you have a Smart school when school districts lack funding, properly trained teachers, and political support to establish a school that provides a safe and healthy learning environment, and quality instruction?

It seems that we walked and talked this subject block so many times, that we have worn holes in the “soles” of our shoes and the “souls” of students the system keeps failing year after year.

Robert Rothman:
I wouldn’t want to presume that the idea of smart education systems is a new idea. In his chapter of City Schools, Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, calls it a “new old idea.” But he suggests that it might be an idea whose time has come, because there is a greater sense of urgency that more needs to be done to improve education in cities, there is greater involvement by municipal leaders, and there is more awareness of the need for school and community organizations to work together.

Question from Phyllis Frank, National Association for Year-Round Education, board member:
Did your study look at any K-12 Smart School Systems that have balanced learning opportunities around the year thereby addressing research documented summer learning loss and professional amnesia? If not, why not? These same districts are smart enough to also provide their communities fuller availability of their public institutions and fields, consistent nutrition to feed cognition for students who get this at school, timely supplementary opportunities to learn during Intersession breaks, etc. Look forward to your comments.

Robert Rothman:
We refer to extended learning opportunities and supports, which include any type of learning opportunity outside the regular school curriculum and school day--including summers. Some of the most engaging opportunities are those that take place over an extended period of time, especially during the summer. And you’re right--schools also can provide opportunities for community members to take part in their facilities and services. In Long Beach, California, the school district and the city jointly built a school, with the express purpose of providing a facility that residents of the downtown neighborhood could use.

Question from Caren Cramer, Parent of 2 primary students, Washington County Public Schools, MD:
Do you see these issues as specific to urban schools, or can they be pertinent to rural schools as well?

Robert Rothman:
Rural schools face many of the same issues--inequitable and inadequate opportunities to learn, the need to integrate out-of-school learning with in-school learning. Cities tend to have a wider array of resources, though.

Question from Dana Brinsin, educational consultant:
How do “Smart School systems” work to bridge the divide between those who argue school leaders and teachers are doing the best they can, given the poor socio-economic environment in which many their students live and those that say that teachers can achieve great results within a school--without “fixing” the social problems in the community?

Robert Rothman:
This debate is in many ways a false one. both factors--in school and out of school--need to be addressed if students are to succeed. The problem is that there are inequities in both, and students with the greatest resources in schools also tend to have the greatest access to out-of-school resources. Pushing on one without addressing the other will not be enough.

Question from Amy Azzam, Senior Associate Editor, Educational Leadership magazine:
What community partnerships would have the greatest impact on student achievement in high-poverty schools? What research supports this?

Robert Rothman:
It would be hard to say which partnership would have the greatest impact. It would depend on the community. The best way for a community and school system to tackle this would be to engage the community to determine what the needs are and to gather as much data as possible to find appropriate solutions. But each community needs to address this question based on its own context.

Question from Dr. Matthew Delaney-NBCT, Educational Leadership Adjunct, Nova Southeastern University:
You note, and I will quote, “Smart systems . . . link highly effective school districts with a comprehensive web of supports for children, youth, and families. How do you propose addressing the overwhelming number of communities and school districts that continue to institutionalize failure by employing educational leaders who are not entrepreneurial, do not commit to change, and basically do not know how to cultivate success.

Are these communities and districts afraid of change, or success, or both?

Robert Rothman:
Leadership is critical, but success should not depend on a dynamic, charismatic leader. Such leaders often end up working around or outside the system. The challenge is to redesign the system to allow leaders to lead. And by leaders I mean the term in a broad sense--teachers, parents, community leaders, as well as principals.

Question from H. Leigh Toney, Executive Director, Miami Dade College, North-Meek Center:
What strategies do the systems employ to focus the entire community on learning outcomes? i.e. the things children should know and be able to do when they leave high schools, not necessarily standards for each grade, but overarching outcomes.

Robert Rothman:
Some communities, often led by community organizations such as public education funds, have led extensive engagement efforts focusing on precisely that question. In Mobile, Alabama, the local education fund led a county-wide process to come up with a community-wide definition of the outcomes they wanted and the kind of school system that would produce those outcomes. That gave the community a sense of ownership that is powerful--and rare.

Question from Pamela Clark New Heights Educational Group:
How can community leaders gain the backing and support that they need from the school systems and government funding to really change things on a large scale?

Robert Rothman:
Municipal leaders are key. In Denver, Mayor John Hickenlooper held a Latino Education Summit to bring community leaders, educators, and business leaders together to figure out what they could do together to address the fastest growing population in the Denver Public Schools. The idea wasn’t necessarily to create new programs, but to figure out what was already happening and ways they could bring them to scale.

Question from Wesley Williams, II, Director, Educator Equity, Ohio Department of Education:
What are best practices in creating job embedded professional development to train in-service teachers to become culturally responsive teachers? This is a major concern in urban school districts, and we must find effective, high quality professional development to address this.

Robert Rothman:
You’re right: this is a major concern. One thing that could help is getting a sense of what current practice is. The Annenberg Institute for School reform has developed a tool called the Teaching and Learning review that provides school systems and community leaders a way to examine instructional practices, including cultural responsiveness, so that they can know what to do to improve instruction. It’s been tried in Baltimore and Portland, Oregon, so far.

Question from John Leary, Teacher Colorado Springs School District:
How do you measure success of a Smart Urban System?

Robert Rothman:
Each community will come up with its own measure of success, but one measure ought to be whether all students have the educational opportunities they need to become successful as college students, workers, and citizens. I don’t think any city can claim to be “proficient” on that measure at this point.

Question from John Leary, Teacher Colorado Springs School District:
What is the number one priority for success in creating and maintaining a successful web of suppport from the many diverse support organizations?

Robert Rothman:
Some communities have started at the neighborhood level. In New York, for example, the Harlem Children’s Zone is building a comprehensive set of supports for children and families in a sixty-block area. The next step is for the city to coordinate services so that the local partnerships can work more effectively.

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for today’s chat with Robert Rothman about the new book City Schools and smart education systems. The chat is now over. A transcript of today’s discussion will be posted on soon.

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