School & District Management

Districts Make Strides With Common Vision

By Linda Jacobson — January 30, 2007 7 min read
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Fog settles thickly in the morning over the orange groves and grape vineyards of the Central San Joaquin Valley, making the small towns dotting this vast agricultural area appear even more remote.

This seems an unlikely place for a San Francisco-based school improvement organization that originally focused on the reform challenges of large urban districts to direct its efforts to reduce achievement gaps. But that is what Springboard Schools has done.

In some ways, the needs are greater in these isolated California districts, which serve a large proportion of children from poor, migrant farmworking families, many of whom are learning English.

“The highest need is not actually in Los Angeles,” as many people might think, said Merrill Vargo, the executive director of Springboard Schools. “It’s in the Central Valley. There’s almost no improvement infrastructure out here.”

Springboard initially faced some skepticism from educators in this region. Teachers and district leaders were surprised that a San Francisco group would make a commitment to work here—much less a three-year commitment, which is generally the length of time Springboard works with districts.

Working in small, rural districts, Ms. Vargo has found, poses some challenges different from those in large metropolitan areas. While the schools are subject to the same student-performance targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the options provided under the law—such as supplemental tutoring from outside providers and transfers to higher-performing schools—aren’t readily available. “All the market-driven points don’t work out here,” Ms. Vargo said.

Teacher Teresa Escamilla works on a reading exercise with kindergarten students at Sheridan Elementary in the Kings Canyon Unified School District, which has been working with a Bay Area school reform group.

Most education conferences in the state take place in Los Angeles, Sacramento, or San Francisco—not an easy drive for educators here in the central part of the state, about 40 miles south of Fresno. And while students in urban areas might be able to take advantage of online tutoring or homework help, such is not the case here where Internet service is spotty.

Like many school improvement efforts, the nonprofit Springboard Schools emphasizes the use of student data—especially those for key demographic subgroups—to determine where the needs are the greatest.

“We thought we were doing a lot of things well,” Juan Garza, the superintendent of the 9,200-student Kings Canyon Unified School District, said one day recently. But it was when the 600-square-mile district thought it was headed for “program improvement” under the nclb law that it decided to sign a contract with Springboard. Even though the district never reached that point, Springboard at the same time was aiming to expand into the Central Valley.

“Firefighter, firefighter, what do you do?” ask the 2nd graders in James Camacho’s classroom as they work on reciting a poem as part of a study of community helpers. Leading them in making siren noises, Mr. Camacho emphasizes the rhythm of the rhyming words.

Next door, another 2nd grade class at Lincoln Elementary School here in Reedley works on the same poem, taking its time with the first couple of lines. And finally, in a third classroom, the students have moved into writing their own poems.

This teaching method being used in Kings Canyon Unified is called redeployment. It’s designed to target language instruction to the specific—but diverse—needs of English-language learners, who make up such a large proportion of the population in the Central Valley that they can hardly be called a subgroup.

It’s also a strategy that has increased in use since Springboard Schools started working here. Springboard originally worked with individual schools, using an “inquiry” process that leads members of school “leadership teams” through a series of questions about achievement. But Ms. Vargo and others at the organization learned that improvements often dwindle if district personnel are not involved as well.

Springboard Up Close

Springboard Schools, originally called the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, was founded in 1995 in response to the Annenberg Challenge—a five-year effort to improve nine urban school districts financed by the philanthropist, ambassador, and publisher Walter H. Annenberg.

In 2003, the group, headed by Executive Director Merrill Vargo, decided that to continue its work addressing achievement gaps in schools with large percentages of students deemed at risk of academic failure, it would need to look outside the San Francisco area. Now it works in some of the most rural school districts in California.

The organization, using on-site “coaches,” works in urban, suburban, and rural districts with a philosophy that school reform doesn’t take hold unless district leaders are involved and supportive.

Springboard Schools holds annual “best practices” institutes to help district and school leaders learn more about the strategies that are helping to improve student performance. The organization has also published research studies to make what it has learned available to a wider audience. For example, “Challenged Schools, Remarkable Results,” released in 2005, focused on successful practices in high schools with large numbers of students who are poor and still learning English.

Springboard Schools’ involvement at the district level, however, hasn’t always been found to make a significant difference in student performance. An evaluation released last year by MDRC, a research organization in New York City, found that when Springboard was still the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, school improvement in the five districts working with basrc was no greater than in other similar districts in the area. The researchers concluded that the “connection between the district-level focal reforms and changes in daily school life were not sufficiently realized.”

Ms. Vargo says that the organization had actually stopped working with two of the districts, and describes the evaluation as “a classic case of research studying an intervention as if it were a stable thing, while the program people continue to learn and adjust.”

Even with its expansion into rural districts, Springboard continues to assist urban school systems, including the 82,000-student Fresno Unified district and the 61,000-student Santa Ana Unified district. Last school year, the organization worked with more than 80 districts in the state.

“We found that if there wasn’t support at the top, then the ideas never get to the school sites, and then to the classroom,” said Valerie Himes, who works as a Springboard “coach” in the 1,800-student Exeter Union Elementary School District in this region. With Springboard’s contract in Exeter winding up at the end of this school year, the question is whether the practices adopted by the districts and the schools are embedded enough to last. Renee Whitson, the superintendent of the Exeter district, predicts that they will. “This has changed the way we do business,” she said.

While both Kings Canyon and Exeter have similar demographics and serve a significant proportion of English-learners, there is a lot of diversity between the schools in this area. Nevertheless, Mr. Garza, the Kings Canyon superintendent, gives a strong example from the district’s early years in partnership with Springboard of why certain instructional practices need to be embraced districtwide, and not just for the lowest-performing schools.

At an evening gathering, one of what Mr. Garza calls his “school site chats,” someone from Alta Elementary—a 400-student, higher-achieving school in Reedley—asked why it was necessary for the school to focus on English-language development even if it was scoring high on California’s “academic performance index.” A board member from the district then asked the questioner whether every student was reading at grade level. The answer was no.

Mr. Garza, himself the son of a migrant worker, like so many of the families in his district, argues the methods used to improve achievement among English-learners are beneficial for all students. “There was some pushback from schools that thought they were doing well,” he said. “But their higher achievers were carrying everybody.”

Educators at Dunlap K-8 School, a 400-student school in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the district’s eastern region, also wondered why they needed to focus on English-language skills when more than 70 percent of the students are non-Hispanic whites. But many of the English-speaking students aren’t meeting standards in reading, Mr. Garza noted, and need extra instruction.

Identifying the teaching strategies that improve performance for groups of students who face hurdles in their education is part of the service that Springboard Schools provides. Even though plenty of education research exists, academics often don’t say how to put their findings into practice in the classroom, says Ms. Vargo, the Springboard executive director. While some educators, she continues, grumble about an increase in state testing, the resulting data have allowed groups like hers to see which districts are raising achievement levels, even among poor and minority students.

Even though No Child Left Behind requires schools to do many of the same things Springboard Schools recommends—examine data, focus on subgroups—Mr. Garza says the 5-year-old law is a “bad word” here.

“It’s tremendously useful to say, ‘Given nclb, you have to do this,’ ” Ms. Vargo said. “We position ourselves as helpers instead of the bad guy.”

Indeed, the teachers at the 460-student Sheridan Elementary School in Orange Cove, a town so poor it can’t afford 24-hour police protection, “wanted to do whatever they could do to get out of ‘program improvement,’ ” said Principal Linda Klein. She sat in a teacher workroom plastered with printouts of student-achievement data and student expectations.

The teachers provided tutoring to students before and after school. And they adjusted their teaching styles to better meet the needs of English-learners. Now, 2nd grade teacher Alma Aquirre has students—including one who was held back in 1st grade—who choose to skip recess so they can work with multiplication flashcards.

“If you have 30 [English-language-learner] students or three [ell] students, you’re responsible. They’re not going to go to the back of the room with something to color,” Ms. Klein said. “Now our teachers are seeing that their hard work has paid off.”

In September, the school marked its ascent out of “program improvement” with a “Goodbye PI” celebration.

At Wilson Middle School in Exeter, another school working with Springboard, teachers are also trying to strengthen the reading and writing skills of English-learners, but the strategies at this level are different. Taking notes and using assignment organizers are strongly emphasized, says Principal Frank Silveira.

In Grace Klassen’s 7th grade language arts class, students are using those skills to make memoirs. They start by thinking of 10 to 15 life events that were either positive or negative and then enter them into a chart, which they use later to write vignettes that will make up their memoirs. For example, 11-year-old Sara Pernu adds her birthday and getting her cat to the list of positive events.

“This brainstorming is a key part of the process,” said Ms. Klassen, who has taught at the school for 27 years. “I’ve never seen kids able to express themselves as well as they do now.”

Educators in this area also say Springboard’s work with the two districts has made a strong enough impact that even changes in school leadership don’t interrupt the process of evaluating data, and using the teaching practices found to be effective. “It’s the staff that has taken on that role” of sticking to a consistent message, said Donna Jackson, who just became the principal of another school, also called Lincoln Elementary, in Exeter. “It’s nice to have people who I can learn from.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Districts Make Strides With Common Vision


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