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Article of Interest - Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoGovernors Told Urban Schools Need to be "Blown Up" to Improve
Gongwer News Service, August 18, 2003
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(Indianapolis, IN) The structure of the nation's high schools, particularly those in urban centers with high concentrations of poverty, need to be "blown up" in order to improve student performance, governors were told Monday. The message at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association came from the superintendent of the Cleveland school district, who also declared city elected boards do not work, and the director of the Gates Foundation.

The session on the federal No Child Left Behind act was one of two programs focusing on education at this year's meeting that drew 30 of the 50 governors to Indianapolis. The opening plenary session on Sunday involved a presentation on the support needed to turn failing schools can be turned around.

In calling for radical change in structure and governance of urban schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of the Cleveland Municipal School District, said, "It is clear that this is the 21st century's civil rights movement."

She said the district is in the process of jettisoning its junior high schools in favor of K-8 schools, which she said offer a more stable environment and smaller settings for adolescents before they move on to high schools.

And those high schools, she said, "are too damn big" and do not facilitate the individualized attention urban students need. "We plan to blow up our high schools," she said. "The rocket science is how do you create a smaller focused place."

Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, also called for new options for minority students, noting one third of those entering high school fail to graduate and about the same number get diplomas without adequate skills.

"High schools are the worst part of the system and the hardest to change," he said. "The current model is a disaster. You need a highly supportive environment where every student is known and respected."

Mr. Vander Ark said specialty schools and high schools offering college credits are needed to help boost student performance.

Brad Duggan, president/CEO of Just For Kids, added that drastic action is needed for high schools, though he said data collection to measure high school performance and particularly an individual student's progress is "horrible." He said until better data systems are fully implemented, states will be challenged in trying to make schools accountable.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett said the school will announce Tuesday it is no longer in financial or academic emergency for the first time since its governance was changed to mayoral control from an elected board.

Students have met six of 22 targets set in state tests, with overall scores up 10 percent over the past year, Ms. Byrd-Bennett said. Furthermore, average attendance is over 95 percent, up from 80 percent when the elected board was eliminated.

The district has gone from a $200 million deficit since she was hired from New York and now has balanced the books for three consecutive years.

She said the Cleveland model with employees working on an at-will basis and principals on performance-based contracts may not work everywhere, although she added, "There may be some fine elected school boards; I just haven't seen it."

Responding to a question by Governor Jennifer Granholm regarding data comparing the performance of the 50 or so urban districts with control in the hands of the mayor, the state or a combination compared to those with elected boards, Ms. Byrd-Bennett said the best of the new governance models besides her district are Boston and Chicago.

In Michigan, the state turned control of the Detroit district over to a state-mayoral governance structure, with voters currently scheduled to decide in November 2004 whether to return to the elected board. In Cleveland, 74 percent of the voters opted for the mayoral control structure when the issue was presented.

Ms. Granholm also said she was struck by Ms. Byrd-Bennett's call for better involvement by parents. "Education is a civil right," she said, "and we can't let good education affect only those children who chose the right parents."

Sunday, Richard Elmore, Harvard University professor of education, said more schools are being identified as failing as states step up their accountability standards, adding the challenge for policymakers is to help states and local schools upgrade their services.

"I think there will have to be major changes in staff and the system," Mr. Elmore said. "Unless we invest in fundamental human knowledge and skills we will not be successful."

Mr. Elmore said the issue facing education is a 100-year event. "You can go to any city and find one of the best schools and one of the worst schools," he said. "The problem is how do we provide good education in scale?"

Mr. Elmore emphasized that low-performing schools face different problems and are at different stages in becoming better or worse. He also said some lenience is required for schools that have invested heavily in change but have not yet seen results in student performance. And he said states should develop a structure to support low-performing schools, particularly in helping to provide incentives to minimize teacher turnover.

Mr. Elmore noted a lot of the work states have done to pressure schools to be accountable relate to structural changes, such as sanctions, charter schools and where legal, tuition programs. But he added, "Changing the system does not necessarily change those within the system.

The governors heard from fifth and sixth graders and the teacher of an Indianapolis elementary school, which raised its rate of passing the state test for third graders to 73 percent from 29 percent over a three-year period.

The teacher, Karen Stuart, credited use of a rolling computer that permits individualized testing of students several times a year with instant feedback, better parental involvement, after school programs and a reexamination by staff of what was not working in a school dominated by students from low-income families.

A report circulated to governors by the NGA Center for Best Practices on turning failing schools around, highlighted Ms. Granholm's public-private partnership targeted to 216 schools that did not meet annual yearly progress targets in math and reading.

Each school is to submit an AYP achievement plan to the state for approval, its administrators are being sent this summer to a principals academy and leadership school and local businesses and groups are recruited to provide mentors, social services and other support.

It was one of three programs highlighted in the report.

Another was a South Carolina program that sends in an external audit team to schools rated unsatisfactory based on test scores, and the state provides teacher and curriculum specialists. The troubled schools are eligible for extra funding for training and materials. 


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