Our Partnership Zone Schools: Let’s Prove What’s Possible

September 22nd, 2011

Category: News

Earlier this month, six new Partnership Zone schools were announced. The question is will we at the state and local levels make the tough calls needed to ensure that these schools fundamentally change course?  This is our collective opportunity to do something powerful in these communities—to prove that the kids in these neighborhoods can excel.  My fear is that we will follow the path of many other states and stay within our comfort zone, working hard, but not fundamentally changing the circumstances that got these schools in this position in the first place.

Around the country, district leaders are concerned about school board and union politics, making them inclined to settle for watered down plans that simply amount to the “kitchen sink” approach.  That is, spending millions of public dollars on a lot of new after school and professional development programs that simply don’t change the underlying issues. I fear this could happen in Delaware.

School turnaround is not a new problem. States and districts have struggled with low performing schools for decades.  And while we don’t know a lot about what works, we do know a bit about what doesn’t, such as states looking at their job as grant compliance. But when you write a check to a low performing school and then step away, the impact is negligible. While this is changing with the state’s new School Turnaround Unit, this was the trend in Delaware, where after doling out millions of dollars in small doses over the last decade, almost none of the dozens of schools designated as low performing became strong performers.

One of the rare exceptions is the Conrad School of Science in Red Clay. By changing its focus and staffing to target students in math and science and developing a clear and concrete plan with leadership and a committed team, Conrad was able to reverse its course, rising approximately 20 percent in proficiency since restructuring, and landing in or near the top ten in proficiency statewide in every grade. Theirs is an example of why it takes more than money alone.

Meanwhile, some would argue whether the new Partnership Zone schools in Delaware are even the right choices. For example, Marbrook Elementary in the Red Clay district was a Blue Ribbon School in 2009, so people may find it strange that only two years later they’re in trouble. But at this point, I think that while one could argue with the selection process, we should accept that all of these schools have room to improve and move forward.

So what are some of the key ingredients that will give students in these Partnership Zone schools a chance to be successful?  I’d argue for a few non-negotiables:

  1. A clear, community-based plan with concrete measures of success. The good news is that there are dozens of schools within a two hour radius with proven turnaround plans.  While the time is tight, I believe our community members should visit these schools so that they can redesign a school that is inspired and fits their needs.  The parents, community and business leaders should have a seat at the table alongside the teachers and administrators at the design stage, not be brought in once the plan is baked.
  2. A leadership team with the resources and autonomy to act on the plan.  At the end of the day, this plan will rise or fall based on who is delivering it.  Our students don’t have time for more of the counterproductive events that took place in the Christina School District last year.  Everyone involved should be comfortable and confident about buying into the plan and acting on it, in the interests of our students.
  3. Teams from within districts or contracted to them are on the hook to make sure new school leadership teams deliver. Currently, existing districts are not built to manage schools this way, so they don’t have the staff for it. This work is going to be hard so there needs to be staff dedicated to this full-time to make sure that this deep investment pays off for our children.  In the state Department of Education’s parlance, this is known as a “lead partner.”  This is someone who has the autonomy and the responsibility to get the work done. This could be built into the district or contracted out by way of a charter school or management contract, but it can’t be left up to a middle manager in the district who is already managing many more things.

The bottom line is that in Delaware, we need to show what is possible.  As the plethora of Race to the Top initiatives hit our schools this fall, I’d argue that the one thing out of all of it that the average person will actually pay attention to is whether or not these Partnership Zone schools can actually turn a corner, improving student performance.

Given the current economic landscape, if we miss this window of opportunity by taking the path of least resistance, we will let our children down in a way that is inexcusable.  So as the Red Clay, Christina, and Capital School Districts engage in their discussions over the coming weeks, I hope they do so in a way that’s not based on political feasibility, but rather by asking themselves, “What if my child was in that school? What would I change?”

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Paul Herdman




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