Lessons from other cities: School quality as an equity strategy

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Rochester was chosen by the Reinventing America’s Schools project of the Progressive Policy Institute as one of eight cities to share best practices on improving urban education.

Hosted by the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and the Farash Foundation, the May 30 workshop was organized and led by David Osborne. Author of the recently-published a “Reinventing’s America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System,” Osborne has written many other highly-praised books and monographs over a long career, including the best-selling “Reinventing Government” (1992).

David Osborne

This timely workshop addressed the challenge posed by Rochester public education by introducing participants in promising reform models from other cities. Osborne set the theme of the event in his introductory remarks, observing that successful districts make schools, not central offices, the unit of change, offer parents choice, empower teachers and principals and hold them accountable for student performance, and create a sense of urgency through competition.

New Orleans

Nowhere are these principles better reflected than in New Orleans, the nation’s fastest-improving district. Decimated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, New Orleans’ Recovery School District assumed responsibility and engaged charter school operators to respond to the crisis. This emergency response became a strategy—today, nearly all New Orleans’ children are served by charter schools. Despite the fact that the city’s poverty rate is nearly identical to the pre-Katrina rate, indicators from the schools are vastly improved, strongly suggesting poverty does not have to drive student achievement. As reported by Osborne:

  • Before Katrina, 62 percent of students attended schools performing in the bottom 10 percent in the state; today, only 8 percent do.
  • Before Katrina, half of students dropped out; a decade later, 76 percent graduated in 5 years—higher than the state rate.
  • Before Katrina, fewer than 20 percent went to college; in 2017, 61 percent of high school graduates went to college—3 points higher than the state rate.

Osborne continued by recounting promising outcomes in other major cities, including Washington, Denver, Indianapolis and Springfield, Mass. Two of the panels that followed focused on Indianapolis and Springfield.

Indianapolis: Innovation Network Schools

School reform in Indianapolis is distinctive in two ways: First, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation is empowered to authorize charter schools. This infuses additional accountability at the local level and can be contrasted with New York’s charter framework, where the two authorizes are state-level. Indy’s portfolio of charter schools includes 36 schools on 42 campuses and enrolls more than a third of all public school students. 

Osborne reports that another 8,000 students (about a quarter of the total) are served by Indianapolis Public Schools’ Innovation Network Schools. Enabled by state legislation passed in 2014, these schools are established in partnership with IPS. these schools are established in partnership with IPS.  Importantly, founding school leaders are provided significant support in the design and launch of their schools, often with two-year runways that include deep community engagement processes.  The Mind Trust, an education nonprofit, often partners to support these schools, as well as provides leadership in Indy’s overall school improvement.  

INS schools are run under a five year performance agreement between IPS and independent nonprofit boards. Unlike charter schools, the INS schools operate in district buildings, a significant financial advantage. Schools can apply to join the Innovation Network through a voluntary conversion of either from a traditional public school or a charter, as a new school, or through the restart of a failing district school. 

INS schools are granted control over a number of key elements of the school, including staffing and staff compensation, curricular content, instructional approach, and the school calendar. Teachers in INS schools are not automatically covered by the IPS collective bargaining agreement, although are entitled to organize under Indiana labor law. To date, none have chosen to do so.

Funding is determined by an IPS student-based budgeting model. INS schools receive Title I and IDEA funding directly.

Moderated by Curtis Valentine, deputy director of the Reinventing Schools Project, the Indianapolis panel included Patrick Jones from the Mind Trust, Miriama Shaheed-Carson, founder and principal of the dual language Global Prep Academy and Michael O’Connor, IPS Board President. The Mind Trust plays a pivotal role as it recruits effective educators, launches new high-quality schools and provides support to communities seeking to spur innovation in local public education.

Although the Innovation Network is relatively new, Indy’s theory of change has been playing out and evolving for almost 20 years.  The INS schools have shown considerable progress, particularly as many failing schools were placed in the network as a turnaround effort. Details about the INS schools can be found in the February, 2019 semi-annual report.


Springfield: Empowerment Zone Partnership

Springfield’s Empowerment Zone is a partnership among the Springfield Public Schools, the Springfield Education Association, and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The Springfield initiative was established in response to the threat of state takeover under Massachusetts’ receivership law. The middle schools that were brought into the Zone were among the lowest performing schools in the state. Just as Indianapolis’ Innovation Zone schools are awarded greater autonomy, the SEZP schools also have greater autonomy over staffing, curricula, scheduling and budgeting. This freedom occurs within the context of a streamlined teachers’ contract that sets the terms for a longer school day and year, including higher pay, and establishes a new governance model in which teacher leader teams play a formal role.

The Empowerment Zone Board is responsible for establishing the structure of new and existing schools, and for making hiring and firing decisions among the SEZP schools’ principals. The board has not been reluctant to use this power—only 3 of the original principals are still in place after three years. Although the original schools began with the existing teaching staff, new SEZP school principals are allowed to select their own teams. Results are mixed, with some schools improving significantly while others not yet showing growth.

Moderated by Osborne, the panel included Matt Brunell, SEZP co-executive director; Colleen O’Connor, principal of Chestnut Middle School; Freddy Hurst, teacher at Chestnut, and Sarah Robb of Empower Schools, a nonprofit that seeks to design and launch Empowerment Zones across the country. 

The role of labor unions in 21st century schools

George Parker

In the final panel of the day, the Chamber’s Adrian Hale moderated a panel with Brad Jupp, senior advisor to Sen. Michael Bennet and former union leader in the Denver Public Schools; Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers from 2008-16; and George Parker, president of the Washington D.C. Teachers’ Union. He led the union during the tenures of former Rochester Superintendent Cliff Janey and Michelle Rhee, the first D.C. superintendent under mayoral control. Unfortunately, my notes fail to do justice to the inspiring and wide-ranging discussion of the role of teachers and teachers’ unions in school reform. That said, one of the most profound takeaways was that, across the country, unions are leading and supporting school improvement work, and they can be effective in representing their members while putting kids first.  

What’s the takeaway for Rochester?

In addition to 15-minute bursts of table discussion throughout the day, the workshop concluded with a structured conversation about the desirability to implementing these approaches in Rochester. There was overwhelming support for incubating and launching innovation schools, with the kind of autonomy and accountability seen in Indy’s INS schools and the empowerment zone in Springfield.  Several participants also viewed decentralized, student-based budgeting and a unified student enrollment system (combining district and charter enrollment) as key to supporting these frameworks.  

One thought on “Lessons from other cities: School quality as an equity strategy

  1. Unfortunately, I could not attend. So, thanks so much for this wonderful overview.

    But, let me recommend a funny YouTube video on school incompetence. It is called, ALTERNATIVE MATH, and it is only 8 minutes long. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh3Yz3PiXZw&t=164s )

    It shows how school people refuse to reason things out. It shows how they jump to conclusions, without considering the truth. So, please check out ALTERNATIVE MATH on YouTube and share it with school teachers and staff.

    Perhaps, there is some hope for Rochester Schools, with or without charter schools.
    As Voltaire put it, “Common sense is not so common.” Thank You.

    Harry S. Pearle, Ph.D. http://www.SavingSchools.org

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