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District Transformation Comes in Different Forms

Lessons from Lawrence, Aldine, and ERS’s Newest Case Study of Denver

ERS’s new case study on Denver Public Schools continues to build the case for the power of system transformation to enable all schools to succeed for all students. "It Takes a System: Redesigning a District for Equity and Excellence" follows our in-depth look at the school districts of Lawrence, MA and Aldine, TX. Each district illustrates the different contexts and strategies for making structural change at the system level.

Each district began its journey in a different place:

  • Lawrence Public Schools: Taken over by the state after reaching crisis level, the district needed to quickly make radical changes while building a foundation for sustained improvement.
  • Aldine Independent School District: Confronted with increasing student need and higher standards, the district needed to respond to the wake-up call of a new, more rigorous assessment that was yielding disappointing results.
  • Denver Public Schools: Faced with growing student need and enrollment, the district needed to broaden and accelerate student improvement after early reforms did not pay off.

Although their contexts and approaches were unique, four common principles connect their reforms:

1. A clear vision for a different kind of school system focused on creating the conditions for every school to succeed

    • Lawrence Public Schools implemented anOpen Architecture” model to provide high-quality supports and resources for schools while allowing flexibility for a variety of school models and governance structures to meet student needs.
    • Aldine ISD had a strong central office that focused on understanding school needs, before developing and scaling instructional solutions.
    • Denver Public Schools combined school-level flexibility and support to provide more high-quality charter and district-run options for students and families.  

2. A commitment to transformational, and often difficult, changes over time

    • Lawrence Public Schools combined quick hits with longer-term changes that included devolving many central office functions to schools, leadership changes in over half of the schools, and new models for school support.
    • Aldine ISD systematically changed many aspects of the system starting with curriculum and instruction, then moving on to funding, school support, school design, and support models for special populations.
    • Denver Public Schools involved stakeholders in developing new ways of doing things from teacher compensation to performance measurement to distributed leadership. DPS also significantly increased school flexibilities over hiring, scheduling and spending decisions, and redesigned central functions to be more responsive to school needs.

 3. A strategic investment in people

    • All three districts built strong central teams and benefitted from stable leadership.
    • Lawrence Public Schools prioritized getting and keeping the right people in the district and schools, which required weathering significant turnover at the onset of reforms. But the district remained committed to collaboration even with the authority of state receivership. “The thing I’m most proud of,” said Receiver Jeff Riley, “is fundamentally we decided to do this with people and not to people.”
    • Aldine ISD invested in developing talent by cultivating a strong culture of growing talent from within.
    • Denver Public Schools took a systemwide approach to human capital management at all levels, starting with developing a districtwide set of values and a growth mindset, and proceeding to build systems and structures to support that growth.

4. Accountability and continuous improvement at all levels, including: using data to drive decision making, experimenting and evaluating solutions before bringing them to scale, and providing clear expectations along with the support to help people meet them

    • Lawrence Public Schools differentiated central support to schools based on performance and leader capacity. The district also maintained a willingness to change leaders if necessary.
    • Aldine ISD developed and tested solutions to determine if they should roll them out across the system if they worked, or continue to evolve them if they didn’t (e.g., ELL and instructional practices).
    • Denver Public Schools created a school performance framework, harnessed the power of data-driven decision making, and strategically managed its portfolio of charter and district-run schools to expand high-quality options for students.

ERS’s School System 20/20 is a framework to guide district transformation so that every school succeeds for every student because of the system—not in spite of it. As these case studies illustrate, no two school systems that take the School System 20/20 approach will look alike. But each will be the kind of district that sets a clear strategy and theory of action, is willing to transform “legacy” structures and policies, chooses strategies to better align resources to student needs, and continuously evaluates and adjusts—in service of improving outcomes for every child, in every school.

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