With 18,000 students, Waterbury Public Schools (WPS) in Waterbury, CT is smaller than most of the large urban districts we typically work with. However, WPS still faces many of the same challenges as districts like Charlotte, Denver, and D.C., including a relatively large and low-performing ELL population, a special education identification rate of 16%, and dramatic budget cuts over the past several years.
So this summer we took a new approach to reach more districts by partnering with the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER) and three summer fellows from various graduate programs. With our guidance, they undertook a study that focused on how WPS used resources in 2011-12, and ways in which they could use them better to improve student outcomes. Though the project was shorter and less comprehensive that our typical consulting engagement, Waterbury Board member Elizabeth Brown called it “revealing.”
Waterbury Public Schools, like many urban districts, has high turnover among teachers and administrators. Additionally, spending on professional development is not closely tracked. This is a common problem for urban school districts.
What could Waterbury and their peers do to address this? To improve retention, WPS might consider re-evaluating its value proposition (the complete set of offerings and experiences the district can provide). These offerings include not just salary, but the benefits, working conditions, career path, and growth opportunities available to employees.
As teachers are increasingly asked to do more, job-embedded professional development is important to help teachers grow in their roles. Opportunities for job-embedded professional development can be combined with career track and personal growth opportunities such as teacher leader positions to help retain and grow the best teachers. By tracking and monitoring professional development spending WPS will be able to determine which pieces of this investment are paying off and continuously improve how they are helping teachers grow. A tool like the Professional Growth & Support Self-Assessment, or the Professional Growth & Support Spending Calculator, helps districts assess if their professional development strategies and budgets align with best practices.
Special populations, including special education and English language learners (ELL) often have lower performance than their peers, and this turned out to be true in Waterbury. This study found that WPS had a relatively high number of special education paraprofessionals and relatively low spending on English language learners.
WPS has more special education paraprofessionals than special education teachers, which is very unusual. Depending on the needs of the students in the district, some of the resources currently invested in paraprofessionals may be better used in providing early intervention for students, providing training across the district to improve the process for evaluating students and writing IEPs, or replacing 2-3 paraprofessionals with an additional teacher to provide more individualized instruction.
Another finding in WPS was that dedicated spending on ELL students was much lower than in other districts. As these students continue to lag behind in performance, districts should evaluate whether they are devoting enough resources to these struggling populations or if there are cost-neutral ways to implement more effective programs to support these students.
This project was a strong start to a new way of extending our reach to school districts, and we hope to engage in similar partnerships in the future. We would like to thank the Connecticut Council for Education Reform and the three summer fellows for their tremendous work on this project.
 Puffer, Michael. (2013, Sept 9) “Waterbury School Board Reviews New Audit of Schools.” The Republican-American.