Spurred both by fiscal realities and momentum from the U.S. Department of Education’s agenda for school improvement, local and state education leaders are moving forcefully and quickly to make big changes to districts and schools that have long struggled with low test scores and graduation rates.
In Kansas City, Mo., the school board voted last week to “right-size” the district by closing 26 of the system’s 61 schools. In addition, the 17,000-student district plans to close its central office and two other buildings.
“We can’t continue to have a public school system that has proven to fail children year after year after year,” Superintendent John W. Covington said in an interview. The goal, he said, is to create a system that produces graduates who will be “fierce competitors” in the global arena.
In Cleveland, the school board last week passed Chief Executive Officer Eugene T.W. Sanders’ “transformation” plan, which would close 16 schools in the 50,000-student district of more than 100 schools, reorganize the central office, and shift high schools from a traditional, comprehensive model to one of smaller academies.
And in Detroit, a coalition of local foundations and community organizations—with the support of Mayor Dave Bing—last week unveiled a $200 million plan that aims to transform not only the city’s beleaguered public school system, but also its private and charter schools, creating a citywide standards commission that will publish annual report cards for all those schools.
Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said the nation can expect to see more such aggressive moves as cash-strapped school districts leverage financial conditions to help make changes.
“The economy is forcing the issue,” Mr. Domenech said. “Many places might see this as a time for constructive abandonment. Sometimes it’s easier to get rid of programs that haven’t been effective when you have a serious economic issue.”
Districts are also being prodded by the availability of competitive education grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus law that has placed an emphasis on the goals those cities are pursuing, including stronger teacher evaluations and turnarounds of low-performing schools.
States have also gotten in on the action. Massachusetts announced last week that it may use a new state law designed to address persistently failing schools to take over 35 low-performing schools, primarily in Boston and Springfield, if they do not improve.
Kansas City Shake-Up
The move to shutter nearly half of Kansas City’s schools “should have come as no surprise for citizens of the community,” said Superintendent Covington, whose district saw a 50 percent decrease in enrollment over the past decade. “We have known for years this is a decision that needed to be made.”
The Kansas City plans also call for laying off about 700 of the district’s 3,000 employees. About 285 teachers are expected to be included in the layoffs.
But the shake-up is only the beginning of the district’s plans, Mr. Covington said.
While the cuts in buildings and staffing allow the district to avoid a $50 million deficit in its $300 million budget, the district plans to make more cuts and use the resulting savings to help pay for its academic-transformation plan, which is to be unveiled later this month. Mr. Covington said that plan will include performance-based pay for teachers, individualized education plans for students, and an end to social promotion of students.
“We are right-sizing the district not only for purposes of ensuring we are not spread too thin, but to ensure we have the ability to better utilize our financial and human resources in ways that lead to greater student academic achievement,” he said. “We can’t do that within the current structure.”
Such changes are long overdue, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group representing more than 60 of the nation’s largest urban school districts.
The council issued an extensive report in the summer of 2006 on Kansas City’s academics and operations. The study found a district that suffered from high turnover, the lack of a clear vision, and a need to close underutilized facilities.
“They are operating too many buildings with too few systems, and it is bleeding the system dry,” Mr. Casserly said in an interview.
A mixture of school closings and program redevelopment is also at work in Cleveland.
“One of the reasons we wanted to do it was the need for comprehensive school reform—not just in terms of addressing the budgetary and student-enrollment challenges,” said Mr. Sanders, the schools chief.
The district is attempting to address a projected $52 million deficit for the 2010-11 school year in a budget of approximately $700 million. The school transformation plan, which is expected to cost about $70 million over three years, is also expected to produce $17 million in cost savings.
The Cleveland initiative creates a plan for each school in the district. Those not closed will be placed in categories called “growth,” “refocus,” or “repurpose.” The district plans to put more emphasis on making sure the transition between middle and high school is stronger for 9th graders, in an effort to raise the graduation rate.
Mr. Sanders said the district hopes to use federal economic-stimulus funding—potentially from the Race to the Top competition, Title I School Improvement Grants, and the Investing in Innovation Fund—to help pay for about a third of the cost of the transformation.
Ohio was recently named one of 16 finalists in the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion Race to the Top competition. The state next month will learn if its $410 million proposal is a winner. (“Race to Top Enters Home Stretch,” March 10, 2010.)
“We know how competitive it is, but we think our story in Cleveland is also compelling, and we think it will be an attractive story to federal officials,” Mr. Sanders said.
Cleveland’s plan, Mr. Casserly said, is “interesting, bold, and badly needed in a school system that had not seen much substantial academic progress over the years.”
Reimagining Detroit Schools
The Detroit initiative, being spearheaded by a coalition called Excellent Schools Detroit, envisions that in 2020, the Motor City will be the first major U.S. city where 90 percent of high school students graduate, 90 percent of them enroll in college or a postsecondary training program, and 90 percent of the high school graduates do not need remediation in college.
The goals will undoubtedly be a real challenge for Detroit, a city whose students lagged behind all other urban districts on an administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (“Decline and Fall,” Dec. 16, 2009.)
“We know how to graduate children, and we know how to get them into college with the right set of skills. We haven’t had the will do it,” said Carol Goss, the president and chief executive officer of the Skillman Foundation, a Detroit philanthropy that has worked extensively on education reform and is a lead partner in the effort.
“We have done it in small settings,” she said. “The issue is taking that to scale in this community, and we can do it.”
The plan also calls for building support for mayoral control in Detroit. Mayor Bing, who is among the signatories of the new plan, has said he supports mayoral control if it is something citizens say they want.
The city previously experienced a form of mayoral control during a state takeover of the school system from 1999 to 2005. The experiment ended with the district $200 million in debt and made many residents wary of returning to a similar arrangement without an elected school board.
Bringing the whole city together may prove difficult. The school board sued the district’s emergency financial manager, Robert C. Bobb, last week, saying accepting money from foundations to help pay his salary violated state ethics law. Mr. Bobb has been overhauling the deficit-plagued school system since his appointment last spring by Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm. (“Some Urban Districts Show Progress in Math NAEP,” Aug. 12, 2009.)
The Detroit board is already engaged in a legal dispute over how much control over academics Mr. Bobb is allowed to have as emergency financial manager. That lawsuit, filed in August, is still in the court system.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bobb, who is also a signatory to the reform proposal, was set to release a new academic plan for the 84,000-student district this week.
Excellent Schools Detroit says dramatic action is necessary. To help accomplish the improvement in student achievement, the group hopes to help coordinate the speed of opening more than 40 new schools by 2015 and 70 new schools by 2020. Many of those schools will be on the high school level.
“We believe we need a single point of accountability ... so innovation can actually take place,” Ms. Goss said. “Does that mean that everybody wants this to happen? Of course not. There are a lot of people who are focused on institutional issues who want to maintain the status quo.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as School Transformation Efforts Accelerate