School & District Management

Kinder and Gentler

By Jeff Archer — April 11, 2006 8 min read

As the veteran principal of a high-poverty urban school, Marion Grady has experienced her share of district-led turnaround strategies. Often, she says, they’ve amounted to little more than tough talk or purported silver-bullet programs.

Amanda Asdel, left, an instructional-reform facilitator, observes a class at Glen Park Elementary School in San Francisco, where the school district provides extra asistance, not sanctions, to help low-achieving schools get better.

“With one superintendent, the program was that the principals were called together and belittled for an hour a couple times a month,” said Ms. Grady, who has served as the principal of Glen Park Elementary School here for 23 years.

So when she learned five years ago that leaders of the San Francisco Unified School District had included Glen Park in a new initiative for the lowest-performing schools, her first thought was: Here we go again.

Then she heard what each of the schools would get: a full-time substitute teacher, more teacher planning time, and a master educator to lead schoolwide training. The central office pledged to send experts to visit classrooms and give feedback on what they saw.

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As districts get more assertive in trying to jump-start achievement in their most troubled schools, San Francisco stands out for its emphasis on assistance. Rather than restructure schools, or dictate particular teaching models, the aim is to try first to remove the barriers to good instruction.

“These schools weren’t making bad decisions, but something else was wanting, and so they weren’t making progress,” said Arlene Ackerman, who is departing after more than five years as the superintendent here.

Ms. Ackerman credits the program, called STAR, with helping raise the district’s overall performance. Last year, San Francisco was one of five finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, a national award given by the Los Angles-based Broad Foundation to recognize improvement in city districts.

The approach does have limits. Some schools that failed to improve even with the additional help were restructured. Another challenge, just now emerging, is how to wean schools from the supports when they progress enough to no longer be considered STAR schools.

“It’s not perfect,” said Ms. Grady, whose school is among those now “graduating” from the program. “But, it’s a pretty good blend of part what the district sees as support and part how we then use that support. I think it was brilliantly conceived.”

Dominic Spears, 6, takes a test in Jonathan Rojo's 1st grade classroom at George Washington Carver Elementary School in San Francisco last month. The school has received extra resources to help it address the needs of students and teachers.

In San Francisco, the belief that schools know best is at the heart of the district’s improvement strategy. All schools must teach a common curriculum, but they have wide latitude in deciding how to allocate their resources to get the job done.

While a good fit in a city famous for grassroots activism, the approach presents a challenge in figuring out what to do with schools that don’t measure up. That’s the problem a group of district administrators faced in 2001 when they asked why about 40 of the system’s schools were lagging.

In some cases, they agreed, poor leadership was a culprit. But more often, they saw other factors that conspired to keep the schools—which had some of the highest poverty rates in the district—from being able to improve learning in all of their classrooms.

Some were relatively simple. As schools enrolling students with many especially challenging needs, they had trouble getting substitute teachers. That forced principals to divvy up students among several classes whenever teachers were out, wreaking havoc on multiple classrooms.

Others were more complex. The principals were consumed with the immediate crises of the day, making it difficult for them to give direction to teachers, a particularly acute problem in schools that tended to have greater turnover and more novice educators in the classroom than the norm.

“While there was a great need for the principal to focus on instruction, it was often very challenging for the principal to do that because of all these other issues,” said Chris Hiroshima, the district’s chief academic officer.

And so it was that a STAR was born, short for Students and Teachers Achieving Results. Along with full-time substitute teachers, STAR schools get art and music instructors to cover classes while regular teachers do planning, parent liaisons to better connect with families, and additional nurses and counselors.

The linchpin of the program is the “instructional-reform facilitator,” an experienced educator who works at the school to coordinate professional development for its teachers. STAR schools pick their facilitators from a pool hired and trained by the district.

Amanda Asdel, third from left, leads a group of Glen Park teachers in a "debriefing" after an observation of a 5th grade class at the school.

Stacey Childress, a lecturer at Harvard University who has studied the program, says the site-based facilitators, in particular, allow San Francisco to have a districtwide strategy that nonetheless can be tailored to each school’s needs.

“They get common professional development, and are paid for centrally,” said Ms. Childress, a founder of the Public Education Leadership Project, an initiative of Harvard’s business and education schools that includes the 56,000-student San Francisco district. “But once on the ground, their own practice is different based on the school they’re in.”

She also notes that STAR schools continue to report to their grade-level supervisors in the central office—not to the coordinator of the STAR program. Often, districts that intervene in a subset of their schools do so by centralizing their supervision under one assistant superintendent.

With 43 of the district’s 117 schools in the program, the cost to the district of the added resources is $9.5 million, out of its annual budget of $450 million. District leaders paid those expenses partly by shifting money from other efforts they felt weren’t effective, including some community-based after-school programs.

Ms. Grady has little doubt that Glen Park has benefited from being a STAR school. From 2003 to 2005, the percentages of its 4th and 5th graders scoring at the proficient level or above on state tests has about doubled in mathematics and reading. On some counts, the school now outscores the state average.

STAR Power

Each low-performing school in San Francisco’s Students and Teachers Achieving Results, or STAR, program receives a similar package of supports, including:

• An “instructional-reform facilitator” to lead on-site teacher professional development.

• A full-time substitute teacher to cover classes when teachers are out or in training.

• A half-time parent liaison to build stronger family involvement.

• A part-time nurse and student adviser.

• Visits by art and music instructors who handle classes to give teachers more planning time.

• Up to three walkthroughs a year by teams of district leaders who provide feedback.

Extra materials for test preparation and information packets for parents on teaching goals.

SOURCE: San Francisco Unified School District

“I really think it’s made the difference for us,” Ms. Grady said. “We were beginning to move up before, but I don’t think we would have made the gains we did without the supports that we really needed to have.”

A striking, sky-blue building that dates to the 1930s, Glen Park Elementary sits in a gentrifying neighborhood that belies its many challenges. Seventy percent of the school’s 295 students are from low-income households. Many live in the city’s highly impoverished southeast corner, a short distance away.

The biggest help, says Ms. Grady, has been Amanda Asdel, the school’s instructional-reform facilitator (or IRF, which rhymes with smurf). Ms. Asdel, 28, leads weekly meetings among teachers at each grade level, arranges for them to see one another in the classroom, and models instruction herself.

“It’s a whole lot easier than it used to be when I was running around like crazy and not really making those things happen,” said Ms. Grady.

More often than not, the teachers at her school set the agenda. Last year, for instance, Glen Park’s 2nd grade teachers were struggling with vocabulary instruction. Through peer observations and modeling, Ms. Asdel showed how to teach strategies for inferring the meaning of words from their contexts.

Other school leaders agree that the program feels more like assistance than intervention.

At George Washington Carver Elementary School, Principal Emily Wade-Thompson was able to hire one of her own teachers as an IRF. She adds that her on-site substitute attends her school’s training for teachers, though he isn’t required to.

“You have continuity when the substitute is in the building, and knows the staff and the students,” she said.

Nine out of 10 STAR schools have more students performing at grade level in math and English than they did four years ago. About half the STAR schools have seen double-digit percentage gains in students scoring proficient in English language arts.

Ritu Khanna, the district’s director of research, planning, and evaluation, says STAR has led to a steady reduction in the number of schools in San Francisco at the bottom of California’s 10-point school rating system. Last year, the number of elementary schools in that category dropped from five to one.

“You have the highest leverage with your low-performing schools,” said Ms. Khanna. “By moving them up, the whole district moves up, and that leverage the district has gotten through STAR.”

Pam Mogannam, a student adviser, monitors students at Glen Park Elementary during lunch. As part of the STAR approach, she helps students improve their behavior and avoid tardiness and absences.

But not everything about the program has been smooth sailing. Seven STAR schools that persistently lagged got complete overhauls. Those “Dream Schools” have longer days, student uniforms, an emphasis on college preparation, and extracurricular activities like ballet and tennis.

Requiring the teachers in those schools to reapply for their jobs sparked heated debate, adding to the falling-out between Superintendent Ackerman and the school board that led to her resignation last fall. The board essentially has a moratorium on new Dream Schools, but Ms. Ackerman stands by her decision to take those steps.

Some parts of STAR have drawn minor complaints as well. Ms. Grady says the art and music teachers she got often struggled with classroom management, and didn’t always mesh with the school’s own programs in those areas. For a while, she differed with one of her parent liaisons on how to reach families.

Initially, some principals also had problems with the program’s “walk-throughs,” in which teams of district administrators visit each school up to three times a year. Bonnie Coffey-Smith, the principal at McKinley Elementary School, says that at first, the visits seemed disconnected from the school’s efforts.

“Once the walk-through teams from downtown trusted the leadership to decide what the focus should be, it became much more site-specific and real to us,” she says.

Glen Park and McKinley are among four schools that have improved so much that they’ll undergo a transition out of the program. That means, for next school year, they’ll get 75 percent of the value of all the STAR resources they’ve been receiving—essentially making for a cut of about $50,000 per school.

Each school gets to decide what to give up, with one exception: They must keep their instructional-reform facilitators. While the cutbacks are causing some angst, district leaders see it as a mark of success that schools here welcome a program that targets low-performing schools.

“This isn’t a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater kind of program,” said Ms. Coffey-Smith. “You start with the existing staff, and work as a team, and analyze and build, and use the history and culture of the school as an advantage.”

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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 April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Kinder and Gentler

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