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Districts at Work

Profiles of eight school systems transforming how the central office supports schools, and seeing student results


Daria is a high school junior in San Diego. She knows she can fulfill all the course requirements to graduate and be the first in her family to attend college.

Sean is a 5th-grader in Dallas. He reads at a 3rd grade level, but his mom knows he’ll have options to go to a high-growth middle school where he can catch up.

Ms. Black is a new math teacher at FirstLine Schools in New Orleans. She collaborates with teachers from across the charter network to master rigorous new curriculum.

What do all of these stories have in common?


many school system initiatives struggle to get results. WHY?

We know the huge challenges education leaders face, from persistent achievement gaps to teacher shortages. And we know the frustration that they feel when their strategic plans and best efforts don't produce significantly better outcomes for teachers and students. 

To address this conundrum, Education Resource Strategies visited eight school systems that are getting traction and seeing results, like improved support for principals, more time for teacher collaboration, and increased graduation rates and student learning. We found a key commonality that turned the wheels in all of these districts: the central office supported schools in a better way by first clearly defining what schools needed to do to be successful, and then shifting resources and designing processes to give schools the support they need.

We created the Districts at Work series of case studies to open up the black box and look at the specific, concrete ways 8 districts connected planning to implementation and got their initiatives to really work for students and schools. Use the tabs below to explore each of the eight case studies and access tangible artifacts—such as templates and tools—that leaders in each district created to guide their work. 


The eight school systems we studied wanted the same things for their students as many other school systems—for example, improved early literacy, enhanced social and emotional learning, and more equitable access to rigorous coursework—all in service of preparing every student for college and career, regardless of their race or income. And like many other districts, they set clear strategic priorities. 

What sets these eight school systems apart is that they didn't stop there. Leaders from these districts rolled up their sleeves to carefully and collaboratively construct three other gears that effectively powered their strategic priorities:

  • A clear theory of action that included both school-level changes and central office supports;
  • Tough trade-offs to shift resources; and
  • District process shifts to enable schools to implement the changes

Download the Executive Summary

Dallas Independent School District  

Advacing Equitable Access to Great Schools

Dallas, Texas: The central office in Dallas ISD reenvisioned school support to transform instruction and student learning at consistently low-performing schools AND expand diverse programming options across the city. 

Go to the Case Study

Explore Dallas ISD's Artifacts

FirstLine Schools

Reorganizing Time to Help Teachers Grow

New Orleans, Louisiana: Network leaders from FirstLine Schools reenvisioned school support to dramatically increase professional learning for teachers and school leaders.

Go to the Case Study

Explore FirstLine's Artifacts

Fresno Unified School District

Adding Time to Accelerate Student and Teacher Learning

Fresno, California: The central office in Fresno Unified reenvisioned school support to provide differentiated instruction for students AND support teachers in improving instructional quality.

Go to the Case Study

Explore Fresno Unified's Artifacts

Highline Public Schools

Leveraging Strategic Planning for School Improvement

Burien, Washington: The central office in Highline Public Schools reenvisioned school support to enable everyone in the system—from central office staff, to principals, teachers, and support staff—to see their work as an important contribution toward achieving five bold goals outlined in the district's strategic plan. 

Go to the Case Study

Explore Highline's Artifacts

KIPP Bay Area

Supporting Principals to Manage Budget Uncertainties

Oakland, California:  KIPP Bay Area leaders reenvisioned school support to help principals create sustainable plans. 

Go to the Case Study

Explore KIPP's Artifacts

San Diego Unified School District

Building Paths to Graduation for Every Student

San Diego, California: The central office in San Diego Unified reenvisioned school support to ensure all students have equitable access to the coursework they need to succeed AND leverage community resources to help students develop plans for post-graduation life. 

Go to the Case Study

Explore San Diego Unified's Artifacts

Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership

Empowering Principals to Successfully Lead School Turnaround

Springfield, Massachusetts: SEZP leaders reenvisioned school support to help principals use their flexibility to create inclusive and rigorous experiences for their students.

Go to the Case Study

Explore SEZP's Artifacts

Tulsa Public Schools

Redesigning Schools for Professional Learning–On a Budget

Tulsa, Oklahoma: The central office in Tulsa Public Schools reenvisioned school support to implement a job-embedded professional learning model for teachers that included rigorous, comprehensive curricula; content-focused, expert-led collaboration; and frequent, growth-oriented feedback. 

Go to the Case Study

Explore Tulsa's Artifacts

Don’t beat the odds—change them

Take our System Snapshot Mini, a brief self-assessment tool designed to help your team explore how to take strategic approaches to the work happening in your district.

Get support

For more than a decade, ERS has worked with school systems to transform how they use resources. We are ready to partner with your school system or connect you with other service providers. Send us an email and talk to us directly.

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Lots of other groups in the education space have also been looking into how districts work - not just ERS. Here are some other great contributers to the field. 

  • From Fragmentation to Coherence
    The Carnegie Corporation makes a case that an integrative approach to problem-solving one that includes a shared purpose, attention to all the actors involved, and continuous improvement can transform education where fragmented approaches have failed to make a difference for students.
  • District Leadership Design Lab
    The District Leadership Design Lab (DL2), led by Meredith Honig, studies how redesigning school district central offices can support excellent teaching and learning. Their highly detailed research and guidance help district leaders transform their teams.
  • Public Education Leadership Project
    The Harvard Public Education Leadership Project studied the relationship between central offices and schools in Achieving Coherence in District Improvement. Case studies in five large urban districts illustrate their finding that districts can make their strategy most effective by aligning stakeholders, resources, systems, structures, and culture.
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