Here at Bellwether, we’re all about innovative, provocative, and forward-looking ideas to address different aspects of the education world. One area we’ve always cared about is ensuring healthy food for kids — our 16 for 2016 collection included pieces on local, quality food for school lunches, for example.
Last month I saw a tweet that Ms. Linda Moore’s famous Kindergarten tea parties had resumed at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes School Brookland* campus. In an instant I was transported back to our interview with Moore, who founded and named the school after her mother. We captured her voice in our Eight Cities project. To be honest, I felt a little left out that I didn’t get to attend either her school or one of her tea parties. In all the cities we visited to research stories of dramatic educational gains, we interviewed many inspirational school leaders and educators, but Moore was one of my favorites. Leaders like her are the foundation that enables change — after all, systemic reform means nothing if kids don’t have a good school to attend.
On an almost-balmy March day last year, my colleague Tanya Paperny and I climbed the daunting hill leading to the Stokes Brookland campus. It is a modern, high-ceilinged former seminary housing over 300 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade students. We both broke a sweat by the time we entered a small conference room, yet it was nothing compared to the warmth we felt when Moore (known to her students as Ms. Moore) entered the room.
Our conversation was less an interview, and more a travelogue of the journey she embarked on two decades ago, when she made the decision to start a dual-language school for students in her D.C. neighborhood. Moore recognized that “having schools that were founded by local people makes a difference to the people in our city.” Indeed, part of Washington D.C.’s secret sauce is the large percentage of charter schools opened by local residents, a contrast from cities like Camden, where transformation came with help from national charter networks. Moore’s idea to teach students in either French and English or Spanish and English seemed almost crazy at the time; thankfully, she persevered.
While our eightcities.org site is named for the places we profiled and their ability to get more students into better schools faster, it is really about the people who believe every child can learn and succeed. (We hope our site’s use of original photo portraiture made this obvious.) I got to meet people like Jamar McKneely in New Orleans, Chief Executive Officer at InspireNOLA charter schools. While two of their schools are “A” rated, McKneely pledges that they “will not stop until all our schools have reached their highest potential.” In Denver, Allegra “Happy” Haynes inspired us with her career-long commitment to the city and its students. Early in her Denver Public Schools career, she was tasked with telling parents how the system was failing them and their kids. Today, as the district continues to improve, Haynes believes a key lever was empowering “schools to be the real unit of change.” Supporting and improving school leadership is central to driving student achievement gains. Continue reading
Over a year ago, I began an ambitious project to tell the stories of cities that implemented citywide school improvement strategies and saw student achievement increase — and to share these stories as lessons for other system leaders. The result was Eight Cities, a beautiful and information-rich website that does just that. It was a rare project that put my team in the fortunate position of listening to some of the brightest, most committed, and humble education professionals in the country. It’s difficult not to learn a lot under such circumstances.
While each one of our eight stories provides a deep dive into different cities, there were a lot of macro lessons that emerged. Here are ten that I think are particularly salient for state leaders, mayors, superintendents, board members, charter leaders, and funders interested in exploring a similar approach:
1. Language matters. One of our first challenges was choosing a term that simultaneously described a complex citywide education reform strategy with many local nuances without creating a target for people who wanted to reduce it to a single word. What should we call these systems of public schools which shared central beliefs and strategic pillars and saw schools as the unit of change? These were widely referred to as “portfolio districts” until 2017, when the term was weaponized by opponents who took issue with the approach. The Texas Education Agency has adopted the term “Systems of Great Schools.” While I occasionally use “portfolio” as shorthand, I prefer the term “dynamic systems of schools” because it describes the core mechanism of systemic improvement: high-performing or high-potential schools replacing schools that have failed generations of students. But this phrase hasn’t caught on. After much discussion, the Eight Cities team decided to avoid labels and simply tell the stories we encountered. Whatever term is used, the reality is that language matters in rhetorical and political battles but rarely in the day-to-day work of students and parents.
2. There’s no one best way to implement a dynamic system of public schools. Washington D.C. and Newark have dual public education systems comprised of traditional district schools and charter schools, yet D.C. is under mayoral control and Newark was under state control but is now governed by an elected school board. Camden has 15,000 students and a neighborhood charter takeover model with relaxed accountability. New York City has 1.1 million students and moved quickly to give autonomy to all its schools and hold them accountable, while phasing out large failing high schools to make room for new small schools of choice. Denver Public Schools saw consistent leadership from an elected school board and single superintendent for a decade. Continue reading
Five years ago, on a public school playground in San Jose, California, I joined a school full of students and teachers as they joyfully launched their day, an experience which ended up catapulting me into the elementary and secondary education world in an unforgettable way.
I was visiting a Rocketship Public Schools campus, where they begin every morning with what is known as “launch,” a combination of workout, celebration, information-sharing, and exhilarating warm up for the school day ahead. (Disclosure: Rocketship Public Schools, a national charter management organization, is a Bellwether client.)
The students assembled into loosely organized classroom groups, many first stopping to greet, hug, or high-five their school leaders and teachers. Launch that day began with general announcements followed by recognition of teachers and students for various achievements. Next, everyone on the playground moved into a choreographed dance and vocal warm up to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” The students loved flexing their biceps and roaring at one another, and especially enjoyed shout-singing, “‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar.” Concluding with laughter and applause, the students and their teachers launched into the school day with energy and enthusiasm.
I remarked to my Bellwether colleagues that this was the way we should all begin our day: focused on important details, recognizing positive achievements, and getting our adrenaline pumping for the work ahead. I also asked a question that lingered with me: How do we allow some schools to take promising students like these, with a deep hunger to learn and unbridled desire to achieve, and fail them somewhere between the time they enter public education but before they reach the finish line? It was a question I couldn’t shake.
That morning, I witnessed Rocketship’s signature “launch” while working part-time as a contractor for Bellwether Education Partners. At the time, I was pursuing a Ph.D. in history, and while I always enjoyed working with young people, I thought teaching and mentoring at the college level was where I could have the most impact. But the launch experience lingered in my memory even as we completed our project. It followed me back to my dissertation work, and I eventually succumbed to its pull.
Less than a year later, I deferred my dissertation and jumped into the work of Bellwether full-time, with its mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students, many akin to the students I saw at launch that morning.
My career shift was an unexpected bonus of participating in that project. Rocketship has continued to replicate this school tradition as their network of schools has expanded. (I should note that across the country, many schools of varying types do similar morning routines to start their day.) Today Rocketship has 19 schools in four regions. In Washington, D.C. Rocketship Legacy Prep recently posted the highest score ever for a pre-K through eighth grade school on the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s School Quality Report. (They planned to open a second school in DC’s Ward 5 but were not able to, citing a facility/permitting issue.)
While Rocketship has its share of critics, its current students seem to be enthusiastic about attending school. A colleague of mine recently witnessed this at Rocketship Legacy Prep. He was walking toward the school behind two kids who were maybe 7 or 8 years old — young enough that their backpacks seemed enormous, wider than their shoulders. As they approached the school, one said, “It’s three minutes to launch! We can’t be late!” They looked at each other before breaking into a run, backpacks bouncing in rhythm with their pounding feet.
So many students don’t attend schools worth running toward. I hope those two young learners made it to school on time, sang and danced during launch, and continued to hunger for education in a way will carry them through the years to come. And I hope that those of us in the education space continue to push for enough great public schools to keep students everywhere fueled and focused.
Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.
The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.
What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?
Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.
In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.
You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?
Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.
JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.
This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading