School & District Management

‘First Things First’ Shows Promising Results

By Caroline Hendrie — March 08, 2005 10 min read
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When James P. Connell arrived here nine years ago peddling a school improvement model he called First Things First, plenty of people wished he’d head back home.

“First Things First came in and I thought, ‘More of the same,’ ” recalled Robert Bayer, an assistant principal at the city’s 1,125-student Wyandotte High School. “I didn’t want any part of it.”

Eventually, Mr. Bayer and many other educators in this 20,000-student school system changed their minds. As the district gradually restructured all five of its high schools into small learning communities using Mr. Connell’s model, feelings grew that the developmental psychologist from Philadelphia just might be on to something.

Now, at a time when high schools have risen to the top of the nation’s education agenda, this hardscrabble city is piquing the interest of educators searching for models.

Teacher Traci Burks meets with a small group of students.

No one is calling it a miracle, but the Kansas City, Kan., district’s experience with First Things First—with backing from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation—is offering hope that the redesign of urban high schools is not a lost cause.

In his speech to the nation’s governors at last month’s summit on high schools, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates placed the district first on a short list of examples that he said provide “mounting evidence” that redesigning high schools can work to improve graduation rates and prepare students for college, work, and citizenship. (“Summit Underscores Gates Foundation’s Emergence as Player,” this issue.)

“It appears to be the best model for improving existing high schools out there,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education for the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major national supporter of smaller, more academically engaging high schools.

While perhaps not everyone would go that far, the district’s progress under First Things First stands out when viewed against the disappointing results often yielded by attempts to carve high schools into smaller units. The gains have come in an urban system in which nearly four of every five students are nonwhite, and three out of four qualify for federally subsidized school meals—a profile that typically correlates with subpar achievement.

Attendance is up, and as Mr. Gates pointed out in his Feb. 26 speech, the graduation rate for the district’s four nonselective high schools climbed from 48 percent in 2000 to 78 percent last year. Reading scores in high schools have risen, though they are not stellar. Test results have edged up only slightly in mathematics in the high schools, however, a trouble spot that local officials attribute partly to an initial focus on literacy.

“It’s been a struggle,” Superintendent Ray Daniels told a group of 70 educators from seven districts who visited last month for a closer look. “But we’re really beginning to see the results.”

To Andy Tompkins, the Kansas commissioner of education, the district’s story is one that educators elsewhere should hear. “They’ve made tremendous progress, and they’ve got a long way to go,” he said of the Kansas City schools. “And they’d be the first to tell you that.”

Kicking the Tires

A former tenured professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York, Mr. Connell came on the scene here shortly after leaving academia to focus on a nonprofit school improvement organization he had formed called the Institute for Research and Reform in Education.

The IRRE has received major grants over the years from the U.S. Department of Education; $2.8 million from the Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Foundation for its work here; and a recent commitment of $3.8 million from the Gates Foundation to scale up.

The institute is now working in Houston, New Orleans, and across the river from here in Missouri’s Kansas City. Other locales using its model or planning to do so include Norristown, Pa.; Sarasota, Fla.; Riverview Gardens, Mo.; and the Mississippi school districts of Greenville and Shaw.

Kansas City, Kan., was the first and only district to put First Things First in place in all its schools. So for Mr. Connell, this district is where interested educators come to “kick the tires of First Things First.”

The model has three pillars for the high school level: small, themed learning communities that each keep a group of students together throughout grades 9-12; a “family advocate” system that pairs teachers with 15 to 17 students over four years; and a heavy emphasis on instructional improvement.

High school learning communities have no more than 325 students, and in many cases are smaller. At Wyandotte High, the first here to implement First Things First, the eight small learning communities each average around 170 students, who take all their core academic subjects within their SLCs.

Besides strengthening relationships between students and teachers, the structure is designed to broaden the roles of faculty members, heighten their collaboration, and promote a sense of collective responsibility for students’ success.

“We have asked our staff to do so much,” Superintendent Daniels remarked. “I keep wondering when they’re going to say, ‘That’s it; go to hell; we’re not doing any more.’ ”

Within each SLC, teachers typically handle all but the most grievous student-discipline matters. Faculty members also decide how to allocate money and time, and play a big role in filling staff vacancies.

Teachers have common planning periods each day and two hours of professional-development time every Wednesday, when students are sent home early. District leaders see those hours as critical.

“It is a gift from our community, a true gift that we treasure and that we are very careful not to abuse,” said Steve Gering,the district’s executive director of instruction for secondary schools.

Cassandra Kincaid, a social studies teacher at Wyandotte High, said teachers in her SLC gather in one another’s classrooms on Wednesday afternoons to test-drive teaching strategies aimed at snaring students’ interest. “We give feedback on how engaging it is,” she said of a new teaching approach. “If we start talking and we’re bored, that’s a good sign that the kids will be, too.”

Model Evolves

Initially, the tenets of First Things First were fuzzier than they are now. So the district became a testing ground for concepts that the IRRE revised over time—sometimes to the frustration of local educators.

At first, IRRE did not require small learning communities that keep students together over all four years of high school. So some schools started out with 9th grade academies, moving students to theme-based SLCs for the upper grades. But IRRE and district leaders soon concluded that the academies were not raising graduation rates.

Another feature of First Things First that evolved is its family-advocacy system, which was piloted in 2001 and fully phased in this school year. Under the system, teachers are designated as advocates for groups of 15 to 17 students, for whom they remain responsible for four years. Advocates meet for at least an hour a week with their groups, and are supposed to hold private conversations with each student for at least five minutes. And they are to get in touch with students’ families monthly and meet with them in person twice a year.

The idea was not an instant hit, and with some, it still isn’t.

“There are some SLCs that haven’t bought in,” said Traci Burks, a special education teacher at Wyandotte High.

But others say the system works well. For teachers, having designated advocates who know students well and keep in touch with their families can be a big help when concerns arise about students’ performance. And students say the system helps them feel like more than just faces in the crowd.

Armon Williams, a senior at Wyandotte High who has diabetes, said he realized that his teacher-advocate, Ms. Kincaid, really cared for him a few years ago when she walked him to the cafeteria to get a snack after his blood sugar had dropped dangerously low.

“Another teacher would have just given me a pass and had me go down on my own,” he said. “There’s no guarantee I would have made it.”

Officials here decided early on to use First Things First in all the district’s schools, a focus they say has contributed strongly to their success. Mr. Connell also stresses that leadership and support from the central office here has been critical.

Yet he insists that districts can succeed by adopting First Things First in only their high schools. Indeed, for the past five years, the IRRE has concentrated mainly on secondary schools, and most of the districts now interested in adopting the model share that focus.

“I think K-12 is the best way to go, but it’s not the only way,” Mr. Connell said. “The high schools are the heart of the community, and if you get all the high schools, you’ve got district reform.”

Local school officials say they have been greatly helped by outside support, principally the $10.6 million that the Kauffman Foundation has given the district to support First Things First since 1996. But they say that the district has shown a matching commitment by shifting people and resources around, including redeploying curriculum coordinators from the central office to work directly with teachers on instruction in schools.

Managing resistance from staff members has been challenging all along, officials here say.

“Teachers ran Connell out of the building a couple of times, literally screaming at him,” Mr. Gering said.

Getting on Board

Still, the teachers’ union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, got on board when it counted, administrators say.

“There was a lot of skepticism, quite a bit of mistrust,” said Linda Hollinshed, the president of the NEA-Kansas City, Kan. At first, she said, the union was miffed that it hadn’t been consulted before the district decided to go with First Things First. But that attitude started shifting after the district held a retreat for the union’s building-level representatives—a gathering where alarming student-performance data were laid out.

“Our students weren’t graduating from our schools at the levels we wanted, and the state test scores were low,” Ms. Hollinshed said. “The question became, ‘So if not this reform, what next?’ ”

In the years since, implementation of First Things First has been uneven across the district. Some observers caution that what role the model played in the district’s improvements is not entirely clear. Leaders of the Kauffman Foundation, for example, say they still have unanswered questions.

But on the whole, an evaluation released last month concludes that the effort has had a positive impact at the high school level on graduation rates, attendance, student engagement, and test scores.

On the attendance front, just 20 percent of students had no more than one unexcused absence per month in the year before each high school put the model in place. After three years, 40 percent met that standard, said Michelle Alberti Gambone, the lead researcher on the evaluation, conducted by the Philadelphia-based Youth Development Strategies with partial funding from the Kauffman Foundation.

On the Kansas State Assessments, the district has seen sizable math gains in elementary and middle schools. But the proportion of high school students who scored at the proficient level or better merely inched up, from 14 percent in 2000-01 to 16 percent in 2003-04.

In reading, the high school gains have been better, though still not on a par with those in the lower grades. From 2000-01 to 2003-04, students rated as proficient rose from 25 percent to 40 percent.

District leaders and Mr. Connell say they are far from satisfied with those figures. Still, they are heartened by the progress, and attribute much of it to sticking with the program over time.

“For the first couple of years, there weren’t changes in student performance, and that’s when most reforms die,” Mr. Gering said. “We were so close to having it die so many times.”

The district is now at a turning point. Funding from the Kauffman Foundation is winding down, and Superintendent Daniels will retire this summer. Jill Shackleford, a deputy to Mr. Daniels who is moving up to the top spot, said the coming transition has triggered some “shakiness” among staff members, who have wondered whether she means it when she promises to stay the course with First Things First.

Her message to them is yes. “It is working—better in some places than others—but it’s just the way we do business now,” she said. “We’ve got too much invested in it to not make it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as ‘First Things First’ Shows Promising Results

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