School & District Management

Urban Districts Turn to Their Peers For Hard-Hitting Tips

By Karla Scoon Reid — February 28, 2001 7 min read
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Plagued by poor student achievement and low staff morale and facing turnover in top leadership, the Buffalo, N.Y., public school system needed help.

Timothy Martin, left, of Chicago, Nathaniel Taylor of Detroit, Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools, and Michael Turza of Milwaukee craft recommendations for the Buffalo schools.
—Manish Naik

The district had hit “rock bottom” last spring, said Paul G. Buchanan, the president of the school board.

For solutions, board members and Superintendent Marion Cañedo turned to their peers—fellow educators familiar with the challenges of running urban districts.

Through “Cities Building Cities,” a program to assess districts’ management and operations provided by the Council of the Great City Schools, they got an eye-opening lesson. Buffalo school leaders are now in the process of trying to put the council’s ideas into action.

The Washington-based membership organization, which represents 56 of the nation’s large urban school systems, marshals its top educators and administrators to review urban districts and craft recommendations to put them on the path to improvement.

“It seemed like a natural affinity to hear from people in other urban settings,” Mr. Buchanan said. “For a bureaucracy resistant to change, it’s easy to say, ‘They don’t understand us. They don’t understand urban education.’ Those who don’t want to change can no longer use that argument.”

‘On the Inside’

After the school board tapped Ms. Cañedo last April to be superintendent, the board and the new school leader sought help for the 46,000-student district.

“Everybody here knows we really need to turn our schools around,” said Ms. Cañedo, a veteran educator in Buffalo. “When you’re on the inside, it’s harder to tell each other the truth.”

Mr. Buchanan said numerous studies had been conducted about the district, but most were shelved and forgotten. Buffalo needed expert advice and specific strategies to shape the district’s future, he said.

The Council of the Great City Schools brought 20 urban administrators from 15 cities, including New York, Nashville, and Seattle, to Buffalo last summer for a comprehensive evaluation. Superintendents from Boston, Milwaukee, and Providence, R.I., met with Ms. Cañedo late last fall to discuss the council’s findings.

“In Buffalo, there were a lot of people who thought they were doing OK,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council. At the end of the review, he said, some educators had to be told, “No, you’re not.”

The 115-page report found that while the Buffalo school system isn’t broken, it is at a critical crossroads. According to the report, district managers are obsessed with control and compliance to the detriment of student achievement.

The council made 242 recommendations grouped into seven priority areas which included increasing professional development for teachers and administrators, stricter accountability, raising student academic achievement, providing parents with more school choice options, and delegating more decisionmaking to schools. The report also stressed the need for a clear mission for the district.

Ricki Price-Baugh, Houston’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instructional development and a member of the Buffalo team, said a mission statement is essential. She said Houston’s guiding philosophy has clarified staff members’ roles and the 210,000-student district’s ultimate goals.

"[The mission statement] has to be more than words written on paper,” Ms. Price-Baugh said. “You have to spend time with people determining what the words mean and put it into action.”

Looking for Answers

The Council of the Great City Schools’ effort to assist urban districts began in 1998 as a project to aid the District of Columbia public schools, then led by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Since then, the Cities Building Cities program has grown and has conducted reviews in Broward County, Fla., Cleveland, Milwaukee, and San Franciscoin addition to Buffalo. A council team will head to Providence next month.

“The really big step for me was just to ask for help,” said Ms. Ackerman, who is now the superintendent of schools in San Francisco, where the council this month reviewed the 60,000-student district’s information-systems department.

Although some questioned the wisdom of Ms. Ackerman’s decision to seek the council’s help while she was the schools chief in Washington, she said that as a first-time superintendent there, “I [didn’t] have all the answers.”

Mr. Casserly said the program matches “the best of the best” in urban education with the particular needs of a district. While Cleveland asked for help in transportation and student assignment, Buffalo requested a comprehensive evaluation.

A team of experts in each area visits a district over a three-day period to conduct interviews with staff members and review district policies and procedures. On the last day, the team presents a draft report to the superintendent. The final report is complete within a few weeks.

All council members donate their time, and the district being evaluated pays for travel, lodging, and food.

For Ms. Ackerman, the speedy process was a big plus. A new administration usually takes up to six months to examine a district’s operations, she noted, and then another six months to decide what action to take. In contrast, the council’s report on the 72,000-student District of Columbia schools became the foundation for improvements, she said.

“I didn’t have the luxury of waiting a year to wait and see,” Ms. Ackerman said in a recent interview. “I came into a district that was in crisis, both in terms of academics and infrastructure.”

Another benefit of the council evaluation is the review team itself, participants say.

Karen R. Jackson, the director of human resources for the 103,000- student Milwaukee school district, said district staff members don’t have to explain the nuances of the education environment when working with evaluators who understand urban schools.

“We’re going to come in some ways not only knowledgeable, but sensitive,” said Ms. Jackson, who was a member of Buffalo’s review team.

Recommendations made by the council’s experts also can have a greater influence on district employees because they are drafted by their peers, making it difficult to dismiss the advice.

“What we’re trying to do is improve urban schools,” Mr. Casserly said. “Sometimes, making a harsh assessment and making it publicly is a better approach because it will wake people up.”

Reform Road Map

In Buffalo, Superintendent Cañedo said the council’s report had provided her with a road map to create a comprehensive plan. The review also created a network of experts that the district can use as a resource, she said.

“It is painful,” Ms. Cañedo acknowledged. “It’s also extremely exciting. But, oh my goodness, where do you begin?”

Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the 64,000-student Boston schools, said he had advised Ms. Cañedo to sort out her priorities and not take on too many initiatives at once. He added that she couldn’t achieve dramatic change alone.

Buffalo is currently seeking financial support from local foundations to hire a consultant to manage changes. The district also hopes to form a new executive team made up of a chief operations officer, a chief academic officer, a chief information technology officer, and a human resources director.

Five teams of school and district staff members are examining the recommendations and setting priorities.

Still, some local education leaders worry that the recommendations will end up falling flat.

Anthony R. Palano, the principal of the Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute, a Buffalo elementary school, said he doesn’t have a lot of faith in experts who “talk a good game.”

Ms. Cañedo, a well-respected educator, is the key to any meaningful and successful changes in the district, he said. Still, Mr. Palano, the president of the Buffalo Council of Supervisors and Administrators is involved in helping to set direction for various improvement projects.

“There is a desire for change,” said Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “I’m not convinced the motivation and direction for the change is going to be classroom- centered.”

Mr. Rumore said the district needed to shift its management style from supervising schools to supporting schools. Without that substantial change in mind-set, he said, any reform is “doomed to be superficial.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Urban Districts Turn to Their Peers For Hard-Hitting Tips

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