Recap: Underperforming schools and the strategic plan

Tonight’s Committee of the Whole was the type of meeting I like the most: thoughtful, substantive and less formal than the regular meetings of the full Board.  There were two items on the agenda: a presentation by Deputy Superintendent Richard Carranza updating the Board on our strategic plan progress, and a presentation on the administration’s plans for the 10 schools designated as “persistently underperforming” by the state.

I was so impressed by Mr. Carranza’s presentation, entitled “Beyond the Talk 2.0.” He and I have previously discussed many of the issues he highlighted this evening, but it felt very different to hear the newest member of our executive team finally give, in public, his frank assessment of the strengths and challenges of our district, and then offer his plan for moving forward.  One particular portion of the presentation was so cogent that I hope I can surmount the technological issues involved in posting an audio excerpt to the blog — stay tuned and cross your fingers for me.

It’s hard to summarize, at this late hour, all of Mr. Carranza’s plans for the district moving forward, but suffice it to say that he is focused on equity and some very concrete strategies for increasing achievement. These include:

  • Setting non-negotiable student outcome measures (and setting a bar higher than simply “proficiency” on the California Standards Test);
  • Implementing common instructional expectations across schools (including a common and inclusive approach to special education, a simple commitment that nevertheless brought tears to my eyes because I have NEVER heard a member of the district’s executive team articulate this goal with such clarity);
  • Establishing systems for monitoring and continuous improvement;
  • Equitably distributing resources.

The second part of the evening’s agenda was devoted to the district’s plans for the 10 schools on the state’s list. Regular readers of this blog know that I am not happy with the choices before us, but this is a tough one, since the Federal government is dangling some big numbers in front of us in the form of School Improvement Grants for schools identified as persistently underperforming.

The first interesting piece of information I learned tonight is that there is apparently no penalty for refusing to apply for a grant or implement any of the state’s (and Federal government’s)  prescribed turnaround strategies.  So we could, if we chose, refuse to participate. That is a difficult choice to make, however, because each school on the list could receive anywhere from $50,000 to $2 million in Federal money.

The picture gets cloudier. First, there may not be enough money available for every school on the list to receive more than the minimum grant — so there’s no guarantee of getting anywhere near $2 million per school, or even $50,000 per school. Second, the state and the Federal government are sending different messages on the issue of whether districts must apply for ALL of their schools this year (the state says yes, but the Feds say that districts can “cascade” their implementation of turnaround strategies, working with a few schools each year).  So a fair amount of the Board’s discussion focused on just understanding the mixed messages flying back and forth between Sacramento and Washington, and determining whether it would be worth our effort at all to apply for the funds.

There was strongly worded public comment on the issue of engaging every family at every one of the 10 schools, and impassioned discussion about whether dismissing the prescribed turnaround strategies was tantamount to accepting the status quo for schools that have been failing their students for too long.  Why are we not outraged, one Commissioner asked, by the fact that some of these schools have just 25 or 30 percent of children scoring proficient on the state’s test?  Another Commissioner pointed out that it is just as much an outrage that the state and Federal authorities are prescribing drastic strategies (many of which we have tried on some of these very schools over the years) that have never been proven to work. The Superintendent chimed in with the observation that landing on the state’s list has introduced a welcome urgency in the ongoing discussion about how to lift achievement at our most troubled schools, and with typical optimism suggested that lasting reform might result from encouraging schools to embrace one of the turnaround strategies.

To my mind, this debate comes down to local control. We are cash-strapped, and the money the Feds are dangling might really give us the boost we need in some of these schools. If the prescribed strategies fall into what we would have done otherwise to reform these schools, and we can get the Federal money to help us, then great. On the other hand, given the uncertainty as to how much we might receive (no one seems to know how funding will be determined and exactly who will do the determining), it may not be worth it. And anyway, why would we implement strategies we are pretty sure won’t work (reconstitution or school closure anyone?) just to get money to pay for those strategies?

We left the discussion there, but decisions will have to be made very quickly — the grant applications are due June 1.

Update: I’ve posted a copy of the presentation on the options for the 10 schools and an FAQ on the School Improvement Grants.  Still working on the audio from Deputy Supt. Carranza’s presentation.

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2 responses to “Recap: Underperforming schools and the strategic plan

  1. “Setting non-negotiable student outcome measures (and setting a bar higher than simply “proficiency” on the California Standards Test)”

    Rachel, given that Grade 5 proficiencies in the CST for many of our schools are at 30-40% for low-SES kids, is setting a higher bar really realistic? As an aspiration for the next ten years, maybe, but in the immediate term there’s a whole lotta ground to make up.

  2. Dear “Helen” – thanks for posting on the blog. Next time, please use your real name. This kind of post is really beneath a person of your experience and stature.