Urban Educators Stress Value of Big-City Schools Group

By Denisa R. Superville — August 29, 2016 5 min read
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When the Orange County, Fla., district needed to upgrade its IT system, it turned to the staff at the Council of the Great City Schools, which dispatched a team of experts that included technology directors from other urban school systems.

When Tulsa, Okla., embarked on an exhaustive curriculum review to make sure that its instructional practices were aligned, it also called the council.

And it was through the council, the Washington-based organization that supports urban school districts, that the Toledo school system got the idea to use Title I money—federal dollars for high-poverty schools—to pay for its pre-k expansion. The network also put Toledo officials in contact with counterparts in the Fort Wayne, Ind., school system, who were able to show Toledo how they went about the same process.

Education Week recently profiled the council, which is in its 60th year. The story focused a lot on the group’s work in Washington to advance the interests of urban school systems.

But while many district leaders—past and present—lauded the council’s work on Capitol Hill, they were equally effusive about the organization’s on-the-ground efforts to make urban systems run better, the expertise of its staff, and the sense of camaraderie they felt in being part of the group. And while urban district leaders said there were areas in which the organization could do more and acknowledged that collectively urban districts still needed to rapidly improve academic achievement, they said the council’s services have been vital to their work.

“The bottom line is that whatever it is we are struggling with, whatever our needs are, that’s where the council focuses its resources,” said Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent in Orange County, Fla.

The work of running a big-city school system (oftentimes the only district of its size in a particular geographic region) can be lonely and daunting, many leaders said.

"[The council] allows us to sit down together and look at best practices around the country,” said Romules Durant, Toledo district superintendent.

While urban school leaders are always on the prowl for good ideas and say they can pick up those ideas from other membership organizations, the strategies gleaned from the council and its meetings are often more relevant and applicable, they said. Urban school officials might learn a lot more from peers attempting to implement a 1-to-1 digital initiative, for example, than from a similar presentation in a district of, say, 5,000 students.

“The needs of urban districts—meaning that the challenges that we face, the context in which we work, the magnitude of the work that we do—are just different from other districts,” said Deborah Gist, the superintendent of the Tulsa school district, which is one of the council’s newest members.

Vital Support

The district leaders also listed specific services the council provides that they found invaluable. They liked the annual “job-alike” meetings—gatherings for people serving in the same roles, including for finance directors, curriculum directors, or public relations directors.

“My folks come back both inspired and informed on some things they can do to improve,” Jenkins said.

The council’s research and reports on topics like instructional practices and reaching English-language learners are devoured by districts. Its reports bluntly lay out district shortcomings, while suggesting steps to improve. And its staff is able to break down complicated federal policy in easy-to-understand bites for district leaders—and do so with rapid speed.

The organization has also developed what it calls key performance indicators, or KPIs, borrowed from the business world to help districts improve operations.

The district leaders said they appreciated the big things (such as help with curriculum and transportation) as well as the small things (such reaching out to Executive Director Michael Casserly for a pep talk or the inclusion of a blurb in the Urban Educator, the council’s newsletter, about a new program or district initiative.)

Kaya Henderson, the schools chancellor in the District of Columbia, said she is always amazed at how much is accomplished by the council’s lean staff—fewer than 30 people work at the organization.

Critics have charged that despite the council’s significant efforts over the years, urban districts still lag their suburban peers in a number of measures. The district leaders said they were aware that urban schools needed to improve at a faster clip. But they also said that it was unfair to hold the council solely responsible for the performance of school districts because the council is not directly responsible for teaching and learning in the districts. Jenkins said she believes that the organization has done enough and continues to do its part.

“Have they cured everything about urban education when it comes to academic outcomes? Certainly not,” Jenkins said. “None of us have exactly cured everything, and there is no silver bullet. But the sharing of successful practices on the instructional and non-instructional sides have always been extremely helpful.”

Felton Williams, the president of the school board in Long Beach, Calif., said: “There is no organization that ever, ever ... gets it all done.”

But given the challenges of poverty, funding constraints, and student mobility, among others, the council is helping the districts make progress, Williams said.

As the council moves forward, some superintendents said that, by way of improvement, the organization could expand its reach to more directly impact teachers. Jenkins said the organization might be able to channel some of its resources and considerable expertise into helping districts improve teacher recruitment and retention, especially with respect educators who work in the neediest schools.

Some superintendents would also like the council to continue to focus on district governance. Frequent turnover at the top makes it difficult for improvements to stick, superintendents and other district leaders said.

Still on the school leadership front, another superintendent suggested that the council might also want to put more emphasis on developing and supporting female superintendents and superintendents of color.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.