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Districts at Work Press Release

Eight school systems redesign how the central office supports schools

WATERTOWN, MA, April 9, 2019 -- Why do so many initiatives struggle to get results in school systems - despite the best efforts of dedicated leaders, staff, and students?

A new series of case studies from national nonprofit Education Resource Strategies (ERS) finds that an often missing critical element in school reform is whether the central office effectively supports schools by setting the right strategic priorities to support their vision and following through with tough resource tradeoffs and redesigned processes.

The “Districts at Work” series profiles eight school systems - including  large traditional districts and charter networks, all serving high populations of low-income, black and Latinx students - that are gaining traction across a variety of measures, from student performance, to graduation rates, to support for teachers and school leaders.

“What we found isn’t the next silver bullet - it’s evidence that the strategy and implementation matter.” said ERS Managing Director Karen Baroody and lead author of the series. “It’s really hard to set a clear strategic priorities, define how they should play out in schools and shift resources, and redesign roles, timelines, tools, and mindsets in a coherent way. But these are the “gears” that turn strategic plans into effective implementation, and then into powerful engines of student learning that lasts.

In the series, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ERS researchers open the black box to look at concrete ways these school systems tackled familiar challenges and got their initiatives to work for students and schools. The eight case studies are:

Fresno, California
Fresno Unified School District:
Adding Time to Accelerate Student & Teacher Learning

New Orleans, Louisiana
FirstLine Schools:
Reorganizing Time to Help Teachers Grow

Springfield, Massachusetts
Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership:
Empowering Principals to Successfully Lead Turnaround

Oakland, California
KIPP Bay Area:
Supporting Principals to Manage Budget Uncertainties

San Diego, California
San Diego Unified School District:
Building Paths to Graduation for Every Student

Dallas, Texas
Dallas Independent School District:
Advancing Equitable Access to Great Schools

Burien, Washington
Highline Public Schools:
Leveraging Strategic Planning for School Improvement

Tulsa, Oklahoma
Tulsa Public Schools:
Redesigning Schools for Professional Learning—On a Budget

 For example, two of the inspiring stories detailed in Districts At Work:

  • In 2013, the highest-poverty elementary schools in Fresno Unified School District, a midsize California district, performed in the bottom 30 percent of schools in the state. The district set two strategic priorities: improve instruction through better collaborative planning, and provide students with more differentiated instruction. In those struggling schools, Fresno Unified added 30 minutes per day for student intervention and 80 hours per year for teacher professional learning, gave teachers flexibility and support for their professional learning, and added staff to enable principals to focus on instructional leadership, among other changes. Performance growth for low-income students in the targeted schools increased at nearly double the rate of other schools in the district.

  • In Dallas Independent School District, there were significant student performance disparities across schools, and low income students lacked equitable access to high-performing schools. The district made it a strategic priority to transform student learning at low-performing schools and expand diverse programming options across the city. Dallas ISD gave stipends to attract and retain highly-effective teachers and principals in high-need schools, set up enrollment systems to improve access to specialized programming, and invested to create a “tiered” system of support for schools, based on their performance and needs. Since 2014, the number of “Improvement Required” schools dropped from 43 to 4.

We have heard from district leaders that they are hungry for concrete examples of how others are implementing innovative strategies that drive results. So, while the case study approach cannot prove definitive causality, the detailed portraits of districts at work are designed to provide promising models for the field. To make these stories even more useful, ERS also gathered tangible materials used by each school system - such as planning tools, templates, sample presentations, and more - for other districts to use. All the materials are accessible on the Districts at Work home page, which will go live on April 9th.

ERS will release the first two case studies (Fresno Unified and FirstLine Schools) on April 9th, and then two more case studies every week throughout the month of April. Journalists who are interested in reporting on the whole series or specific later case studies are invited to contact us for advanced copies.

About ERS

ERS is a national nonprofit that partners with district, school, and state leaders to transform how they use resources (people, time, and money), so that every school prepares every child for tomorrow, no matter their race or income. ERS has partnered with more than 50 school systems since 2005 as well as several state agencies. We have offices in Watertown, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California. Learn more: www.erstrategies.org

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