School & District Management

Urban Districts Create ‘Subsets’ of Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 10, 2005 7 min read
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Under pressure to improve their lowest-performing schools, urban districts are increasingly forming subsets of those schools and remaking them in significant ways, ranging from highly focused instructional changes to total restructuring.

Big-city districts have been targeting groups of struggling schools for special rescue techniques for nearly a decade. After New York City pioneered the strategy in 1996, some other districts saw the potential and tried variations.

But more and more districts are picking the idea up now, as their states’ accountability systems and the federal No Child Left Behind Act increasingly turn the spotlight on schools that chronically underperform.

“We’ve seen that districts that use this approach often find they can make extra headway,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for large urban districts. “Even before No Child Left Behind, cities have been learning from each other, and beginning to do this because it made some sense.”

Devising Strategies

Some districts are building into their plans pieces of New York’s approach. Rudolph F. Crew, then the city’s schools chancellor, made a separate district of the 10 worst-performing schools, mandating smaller classes, intensive staff training, and a uniform curriculum. Additional supports were tailored to each school’s needs.

Children in schools in the “Chancellor’s District” outperformed their peers in other low-achieving city schools on the New York state reading tests.

Philadelphia is consciously modeling its newly announced plans for low-performing schools after aspects of that special New York district. Twelve schools that have performed poorly on state or national tests for the past six years have been grouped into the “Creative Action and Results” region, with an administrator to oversee their progress.

They will undergo detailed “needs assessments” by a team from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. District officials could make a host of changes, including new curricular and instructional approaches, staff changes, expansion of the school day and school year, or even school closure.

Far more than a dozen schools in the 205,000-student Philadelphia system could have qualified for the new group, but were not included because they are already being restructured under changes driven by the district’s 2001 state takeover, said Paul G. Vallas, the district’s chief executive officer.

The schools chosen for the CAR region were the ones that needed the most aggressive intervention, he said.

Los Angeles is targeting for intervention the schools deemed to be failing under the No Child Left Behind Act. But its plan goes beyond the law’s mandates. The 720,000-student district plans to continue its systemwide “managed instruction” approach and frequent assessments in the 72 schools that must restructure, or plan for restructuring, said Ronni Ephraim, the district’s chief instructional officer.

Each school will make a plan outlining how it will improve, and the district will try to provide the supports the school needs, Ms. Ephraim said. Because each school is in a phase that the federal law calls “program improvement” for a distinctive combination of reasons, the plans have to be “very individualized and based on the unique characteristics of each school,” she said.

But for the 72 schools, the district reserves the right to use strategies it deems necessary, including reassigning employees or changing schools’ organizational structure. Los Angeles notes in its accountability plan that once schools enter the fourth year of mandated improvement under the law, “school governance will become the responsibility of the superintendent or his designee.”

The Miami-Dade County, Fla., district this year created a “School Improvement Zone” of 39 high-poverty schools with low attendance and weak leadership where students have scored poorly on tests. A new deputy superintendent who reports directly to Mr. Crew, who is now Miami’s superintendent, will oversee the schools, said Joseph Garcia, a spokesman for the district.

The 365,000-student district worked with the local teachers’ union to lengthen the school day by an hour, and the school year by 10 days, in the “zone” schools. It temporarily filled 132 teacher vacancies from central-office staff members so the schools could open fully staffed in September, Mr. Garcia said.

Schools in the Miami-Dade improvement zone adopted a uniform curriculum. The middle and high schools switched to block scheduling so that the students who scored lowest on state tests could receive mandatory double periods of mathematics and reading.

Using What Works

Minneapolis is focusing special attention on six schools that haven’t made enough progress for four years under the No Child Left Behind law. Dubbed “Excel Schools,” the group is now overseen by a newly appointed administrator who reports directly to Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles.


Principals in Excel Schools receive leadership training. Teachers get training in areas of difficulty they identify, such as how to differentiate instruction according to pupils’ needs, or how to use materials to intervene or remediate, Ms. Peebles said. More frequent assessments are used, and teaching is refined to make sure it is aligned to assessments and across grade levels.

Ms. Peebles adopted the subset strategy for the 37,000-student Minneapolis district because she had seen test scores rise—though by varying margins—at Cleveland’s most troubled schools, known as the “CEO’s Schools,” when she oversaw them before going to Minneapolis last summer. She cautioned that the approach is not a panacea, but can prove helpful.

“The value I see in it is that you are able to target assistance,” she said. “It’s very different for these schools to be scattered among other schools and just going along with ‘one size fits all.’ Clearly in these schools, one size does not fit all.”

Chicago’s approach to its lowest-performing schools has been a large-scale initiative called Renaissance 2010, in which about 60 schools will be closed and reopened as 100 smaller schools in the next five years.

The district is also directing special attention to about 200 other low-performing schools. Extra reading specialists, coaching for teachers, reduced class sizes, mandated after-school programs, and extra time on math and reading are some of the tactics being used to boost achievement, said Barbara Eason-Watkins, the 430,000-student district’s chief education officer.

“It’s about changing the culture and putting in strategies we know will be successful,” Ms. Eason-Watkins said. “We feel we are doing some things that are definitely making a difference.”

Commitment, Resources Key

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district identified about a dozen low-performing schools in 2000 to become “A+ Schools.” They adopted uniform pacing for course content, introduced a 15-minute “focus lesson” that highlights the main ideas of the unit being taught, and began using frequent mini-tests to help adjust instruction.

The 121,000-student district now monitors more than 50 schools, because it has broadened its criteria for which ones should be watched, said Jenell M. Bovis, the district’s A+ director. She believes the strategy has paid off, noting that in 2001-02, 40 schools had fewer than 70 percent of their students performing at grade level, but by 2003-04, only 13 schools fit that description.

For a subset approach to work, a district must be committed enough to devote the necessary money and staffing, said Dorothy E. Siegel, a senior researcher at New York University and a co-author of a 2004 study of the New York City Chancellor’s District.

New York spent about $2,300 more per child in those schools, mounted an intensive effort to staff them with well-qualified people, and gave them smaller classes, more instructional time, a lot of staff training, and administrative support, she said. The chancellor’s district, which included 58 schools, was phased out in 2003 when a new chancellor chose a different approach.

“You have to be honest in confronting your resources,” Ms. Siegel said. “This project worked because a whole bunch of stars were aligned.”

Whether the approach will work elsewhere depends on how much real support the subsets of schools have at the top tiers of their districts’ administrations, and those leaders’ willingness to change ways of doing business, if necessary, to ensure the schools’ success, said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates improved urban education.

“Are the superintendent and school board a vehicle to really get them the help and resources they need, or [is it] a way to get them off the back of some other administrators?” she said. “If they’re stuck out there by themselves without being able to call on extraordinary resources and support, then the possibility is that they get worse.”


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