Urban Advocate: Urban School Board Excellence

Strong governance pushed three urban districts into the spotlight

Del Stover

Strategic vision, good governance practices, and an uncompromising commitment to raise student achievement—these are the hallmarks of this year’s winners of NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) 2015 Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence.

Three districts—Ohio’s Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Indiana’s Fort Wayne Community Schools, and Nebraska’s Lincoln Public Schools—have earned this year’s prize.

“These school districts have made notable progress in raising student achievement and engaging the community while confronting some of the most challenging conditions in public education,” says Van Henri White, president of the Rochester, New York, school board and chair of the CUBE Steering Committee.

“Their success shows that strong local leadership, practicing the best in school governance practices, [is] a powerful force for positive change in public education and is a necessary component to preparing all students for future success after high school.”

Each year, CUBE recognizes exemplary school boards for their excellence in school board governance, ability to build civic capacity, success in closing the achievement gap and working for equity in education, and demonstrated success of academic excellence.

At CUBE’s annual conference in Phoenix, Arizona, Oct. 1-3, district leaders will have the opportunity to showcase their work and share their success stories and best practices, while highlighting the crucial connection between effective school board governance and student achievement.

The CUBE Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence is supported by NSBA’s corporate partner, Sodexo. In addition to each receiving a $2,500 award check, the best practices of these award-winning districts will be featured in future issues of ASBJ and highlighted throughout the year in CUBE programming.

Cleveland Public School

Wanting to turn around a school district struggling with low academic performance, near financial insolvency, and weak community support, the Cleveland school board took a bold step in 2012.

It asked the Ohio state legislature to grant the school district unprecedented flexibility from state education laws. In exchange for removing what the board called legal obstacles that stymied necessary school reforms, the district agreed to institute sweeping changes for the benefit of city schoolchildren.

“We needed to make huge academic and financial improvements, but we knew we couldn’t do it by ourselves,” says school board Chair Denise Link. “We needed state law changed, just for Cleveland, mainly revolving around workforce rules … and these changes would allow us to take action.”

These legislative changes were part of The Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools—better known as The Cleveland Plan—that gave city school officials more flexibility in dealing with teacher assignments, hiring, evaluations, and compensation, says Superintendent Eric Gordon. New state rules also allowed the district to shift more budget and hiring decisions to school sites.

Championed by the school board and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, the Cleveland Plan awarded the school system unprecedented operational flexibility in exchange for the school system tackling four key initiatives:

  • Create more high-performing schools.
  • Transfer more authority and resources to school sites.
  • Create a joint accountability system and stronger partnerships for district-run and charter public schools.
  • Invest in “high-leverage” school reforms from preschool to college and career.

To meet these expectations, the school board has since approved scores of important measures, such as new innovative school models, additional resources for low-performing schools, expanded preschool opportunities, stronger partnerships with charter schools, and an infusion of intervention services.

These efforts have had their impact. The district’s graduation rate has climbed nearly 12 percentage points over the past five years, and student test scores are on the rise.

The school board also has worked to encourage community partners to step forward and provide wraparound supports for students, Link says. For example, one local medical group supports on-campus health clinics at some schools.

“It really does take the whole community,” she says. “We want to make sure everything we’re doing is sustainable, and there’s no way we can do that on our own.”

The district’s progress has been well received by the community, which showed its support last year by approving a 15-mill, four-year levy that will generate as much as $85 million annually for the district’s operating budget.

“I’ve been serving on the school board for 16 years,” says board member Willetta Milam, who also serves on the CUBE Steering Committee. “When I came on the board, public trust wasn’t there. Now we have renewed that trust, and we have engagement from parents and students. Parents and students are coming back to our schools.”

Fort Wayne Community Schools

With so many issues demanding its attention, a school board can find it difficult to keep its focus on raising student achievement.

That’s why the Fort Wayne, Indiana, school board has established a framework of tools to help board members stay atop the district’s work—and keep that work aligned to its core mission.

One of those tools is the Balanced Scorecard, a management review system that assists the board in setting program goals, determining benchmarks for success, and monitoring the progress of its initiatives, says school board President Mark GiaQuinta.

It’s too easy, he notes, for a board to put resources into a program and then forget it, never determining whether the effort is ineffective and should be shut down—or whether a program is successful and should be expanded, he says. The Scorecard ensures programs stay in the board’s eye—and is shared with the public.

The board also relies on project management oversight committees (PMOCs), comprised of administrators, staff, and/or community members, to take the lead on certain issues and projects, adds Superintendent Wendy Robinson. The board can turn over an initiative to a PMOC and be confident that goals will be laid out, targets set, duties assigned, and a timeline followed for seeing the work completed.

The goal is to ensure that the right questions are asked—and answered—so that the district is always improving, she says. “What is it we’re trying to change? What is our current state? What do we want our schools to look like? What skills do we need to develop? What behaviors do we need to change? That’s the kind of approach that we utilize to make sure we get things done.”

These tools have been invaluable in allowing the district’s leadership team to launch a series of important improvements in staff training, instructional practices, and expanded preschool and kindergarten programs.

In the 2010-11 school year, for example, the school district started its LEAD Schools program as a pilot project in 11 schools that served as laboratories for the research-based educational practices. Since then, the LEAD model has expanded to all city schools.

Providing a high-quality academic program means little, however, if students face serious obstacles to learning—or if they are forced out of school by inflexible disciplinary policies. So the school board also adopted its Pyramid for Success strategy, which created a structure of increasingly intensive interventions for students with behavioral issues.

“There was dissatisfaction with the traditional means of dealing with students who bring different behaviors and challenges to the table,” GiaQuinta says. “This is our effort to recognize that student behaviors should not be dealt with in a haphazard fashion, but they should be evaluated and changed as part of a comprehensive process that’s measured and involves increasingly intensive action in a positive way.”

All of these efforts, coupled with a strong community outreach effort, have had their impact. As student achievement has risen, so has public support. In 2012, city voters approved a $119 million bond issue by a 2-to-1 margin.

Lincoln Public Schools

How does Nebraska’s Lincoln Public Schools plan to achieve its goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2019? One student at a time.

“When the school board asked why students weren’t graduating … we called kids and the community together to share their stories,” says school board President Kathy Danek.

“We learned that every student has a unique story. Some have health issues. Some are homeless. Some can’t speak English. Some have special education needs. We realized we needed a no-excuses attitude to find the problems of students and solve them.”

To meet this challenge, board members turned to some key principles of school governance: Create a vision for the school district, convince the community to support that vision, and rally the resources to make that vision a reality.

Guiding these efforts is a strategic plan, developed with the involvement of the community, which calls for the district “to ramp up career and college readiness,” says Superintendent Steve Joel. As importantly, the school board has stayed faithful to that plan as it made key policy decisions over the years.

For example, once the board decided to raise the graduation rate, it “passed a budget—the biggest budget in years—designed to help us to get to that 90-percent goal,” he says. “We would not have had any success with that if we didn’t have a board of education that practiced boardsmanship.”

The district was growing by 800 to 1,000 students a year, with increasing numbers of students living in poverty, homeless, or struggling with behavioral issues. It has been critical for the district to focus on those myriad student needs.

As part of that effort, the board adopted a Positive Behavior Interventions and Support initiative to target at-risk youth with behavioral issues. The board also supported new instructional interventions, full-service community schools, and an all-day, year-round preschool center for disadvantaged students from birth to age 5.

“It’s really about putting in place programs that are designed to get help to kids that historically don’t succeed,” Joel says. “And we’re seeing results that exceed our expectations.”

Pushing college and career readiness also is a priority. For example, the district has piloted offering ACT college-readiness tests to all juniors for free. It also opened a new career academy to allow students to explore vocational and career training, earn college credit, and participate in internships and apprenticeships.

“We set a goal to ramp up career and college readiness, and that morphed into what I think is a national model … a career academy that’s a three-way partnership with Southeast Community College and the business community,” Joel says.

These—and more—initiatives are helping the district raise student test scores above state and national averages.

Soon, one more benchmark should be met: that 90-percent graduation rate. Last year, the district’s graduation rate stood at 87.2 percent, up from 78 percent five years ago.

Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is senior editor of American School Board Journal.

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