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ERS Stories: Doing Turnaround Differently in the South Bend Empowerment Zone

When the Every Student Succeeds Act handed states massive new flexibilities – with significant dollars attached – to support improvement efforts in struggling schools, the question was, what would states do with it? Would anything really change? Would states use ESSA as an opportunity to infuse expertise, energy and stakeholder engagement into school districts to help them do things radically different to change the experience of students in struggling schools?

As that question remains on the minds of many, we wanted to share the story of one state and school district leading the way by taking the feds up on their offer.

Research shows that great schools organize people, time and money around an aligned set of curriculum, instructional practices and assessments in powerful ways. Teachers have ample time to learn and work in teams facilitated by expert colleagues, and they have opportunities to grow in their work and to play different roles that leverage their knowledge and passion. Students are in different group sizes depending on the lesson, subject and instructional purpose throughout the day. Time is often extended and varies based on student need, subject and lesson purpose.

In 2015, Indiana passed a law that permits school districts to develop “transformation zones” that access ESSA dollars to jumpstart rapid improvement in struggling schools. While too often school improvement initiatives focus on the next great program, the transformation zone model empowers school leaders and educators to make key strategic decisions about the full design of their schools, including decisions related to professional learning, curriculum, school culture, schedule, programs, personnel, and more.

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In South Bend, the Community School Corporation (as they call the school district) developed a transformation zone plan to support and improve learning outcomes at five schools – Navarre Middle School and four elementary feeder schools, Coquillard, Harrison, Warren, and Wilson.

The South Bend Empowerment Zone, approved by the Indiana State Board of Education in May, provides significant flexibility and support to the schools and Zone leadership to customize the learning experience for students across those schools. The Zone is overseen by a Chief who answers to a community-led management board that is ultimately accountable to the Indiana State Board of Education and the families/community most impacted by the Zone’s transformation.  In September 2019, the Zone bard passed the “student- and family- centered decision-making policy” which states that every decision will be made through the lens of the how it will impact students and families.  Through its decision-making autonomy, the Zone can redesign systems and schools to ensure a powerful student education and an elevated student and family experience.

The Zone Chief owns the development and the enactment of a Zone-wide transformation strategy, analyzes and manages the political context surrounding the Zone’s work, ensures that schools have access to funding and support, and holds schools accountable for improving student learning.

Partner organizations with expertise in school improvement, such as ERS, Instruction Partners, and Empower Schools are providing strategy support in a variety of areas. These organizations advise on school schedules, data collection, curriculum quality, instructional practice and more.

In its first year, the Zone is focused on creating a strong foundation by building:

  1. Instructional excellence
  2. A student- and family-centered school culture
  3. Aligned and efficient systems

Over the next several months, Empowerment Zone Chief Dr. Cheryl Camacho will continue to engage stakeholders (students, teachers, families, community members) as she makes adjustments and refines strategy to enable Zone schools to dramatically improve in ways that will lead to stronger outcomes for our children. She states:  “Our transformation efforts will explicitly identify and engage the strengths of our students, families, and communities while working with urgency and setting a high bar to ensure stronger outcomes for our students.”  We’ll be supporting them in that work and cheering them on as a place that’s taking every advantage of ESSA to try to do what’s best for students and families.

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