School & District Management

Pennsylvania

By Jeff Archer — September 12, 2006 6 min read

By any measure, Wynton Butler has a mammoth job. As the principal of Reading High School in Pennsylvania, he leads a building with 4,300 students—eight in 10 of whom live in poverty.

Among his to-do’s: create smaller learning communities, put in place school-to-career programs, upgrade teacher training, implement data-driven instruction, and launch new efforts to improve the English-language skills of non-native speakers.

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September 13, 2006
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“I would not be honest if I didn’t say it was a challenge,” says Butler, who has been a principal for just a year.

Fortunately, he’s able to tap the advice of a team of veteran administrators assigned to his district by the state of Pennsylvania. With their help, he’s learned to delegate responsibilities, to plan more strategically, and to set priorities.

The 17,000-student Reading district—pronounced Redding—is one of 13 districts that in fall 2005 became the first beneficiaries of Pennsylvania’s “distinguished educator” program. Each received a team of specially trained administrators to provide on-site assistance for two years.

“They’ve played a critical role in tying it all together, and making sense of it,” Butler says. Otherwise, he adds, “you’d have 21 loose initiatives going in lots of different directions.”

Working like consultants, the DEs, as they’re called, analyze districts’ needs and recommend action steps. They connect local educators with others elsewhere who have had success in improving achievement. And they act as sounding boards.

Reading Superintendent Thomas Chapman, himself new to the role of district chief, says the support is invaluable as he aims to make big improvements in teaching and learning and in facilities in a school system identified as “in need of improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“It’s like having four or five consiglieres,” says Chapman, a film buff, making reference to the Italian term for a trusted adviser made famous in The Godfather. “We couldn’t go out and buy these guys.”

Expanded Role

The program marks an expanded role for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. After adopting a system of statewide standards and accountability measures for schools several years ago, the agency has more recently focused on creating tools to help local educators realign their efforts to achieve better results.

“Accountability and demands are one part of the equation, but equal to those—or at least equal—should be the support systems,” says Gerald L. Zahorchak, the state’s secretary of education. “When you have both those together, you get stronger results.”

A critical job of the distinguished educators is to show local leaders how to use the tools available to them. For last year, the state recruited and trained 35 former principals and district administrators to serve in teams of up to six DEs, most of which split their time between two districts.

Seal of the State of Pennsylvania

By focusing on districts rather than schools, the aim is to achieve lasting change, says Juan Baughn, who directs the program at the state department. No district was required to take part, but none that was offered a team last year rejected it. All are among the lowest-performing school systems in the state.

“I’ve seen too many times where we had a charismatic principal, and things went well, and as soon as the principal left, everything fell apart,” Baughn says. “So we’re trying to put together systems in districts that can make things work.”

Administrators in Reading felt they had little to lose when the state gave the district the option of being included in the program’s inaugural year. Two of its 19 schools—as well as the district as a whole—had been labeled as needing improvement two years in a row under the No Child Left Behind law. A third school is in “corrective action,” triggering intervention.

An hour west of Philadelphia, the district serves a city of 81,000 struggling amid the decline of the heavy industry that long powered its economy. About 85 percent of its students live in poverty. Two-thirds are Hispanic, many the children of parents who see Reading as more affordable than a larger city.

Detailed Assessment

The district’s relationship with the distinguished-educator program began with an assessment. Six DEs—two of whom would later be on Reading’s ongoing team of six consultants—spent a week last fall observing instruction, reviewing data, and interviewing staff members, students, and parents.

The reviewers lauded the district for starting to use data to make instructional decisions, but noted a need for a new data-management system. They liked the variety of teaching methods they saw, but proposed more alignment across the district in what gets taught.

“They have a lot of work to do, but they’re moving forward,” Stanley Landis, one of the distinguished educators on the team assigned to the district after the assessment, says of Reading’s school leaders.

Reading’s six distinguished educators, each of whom has worked in education for at least 30 years, reflect a range of experience. Landis has mentored new principals; one has administered special education programs; and other members have led the restructuring of middle and high schools.

Reading has been able to exploit the variety of skills to its advantage. For example, Butler, the high school principal, has relied heavily on Landis to help organize the work of his school’s other leaders. One result was a recent retreat for the school’s vice principals.

Meanwhile, Distinguished Educator LouAnn Miller has helped Butler implement a state high school improvement program she had put in place in her own district. That help included arranging a visit for Reading High staff members to see the program in action in a nearby school system.

The distinguished educators also arranged for all of the Reading district’s principals to undergo training by the National Institute for School Leadership, whose course of study—designed by the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Washington—teaches skills like team-building and progress-monitoring. Distinguished Educator Michael Gibbs says much of their aim is to raise expectations for what’s possible.

“It’s getting them to that point where they truly do believe that all children can learn,” says Gibbs, who advised the adoption of new literacy programs for English-language learners at a Reading middle school. “Our task has to be to have them have experiences that allow them to come to that belief.”

At the district level, Reading administrators have sought advice from the team on how to roll out new initiatives. Last year, the district unveiled a multiyear, $135 million building plan to accommodate new theme-based magnet schools and the breakup of Reading High into two buildings, among other goals.

Superintendent Chapman credits the distinguished-educator program with improving relations with the state. Two years ago, under a different superintendent, Reading sued the state, alleging it was not providing adequate resources to meet NCLB expectations. The suit hasn’t been dropped, but Chapman downplays it.

Providing for the distinguished educators poses challenges. Paying for the first cohort cost $2.8 million. Baughn, the program’s director, says it was hard to find enough people who had been successful leaders in the kinds of districts where they’d be placed.

But Zahorchak, the state schools chief, says the program is worth the effort: “Too often, states have only put out the standards and then said ‘good luck’ to everyone, and then they wonder why nothing is working.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Pennsylvania

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