Tag Archives: eightcities

If Cities Want Robust School Choice, They Need Robust Public Transit

More and more cities are becoming “high-choice” districts that provide students with many school options beyond the one assigned to their zip code. In places like DC, New York, and New Orleans, families can choose from a diverse array of school types, including traditional district, charter, and private schools.

But providing a wide range of school options for families also presents a related challenge: how to get kids to and from schools that are across town, rather than across the street.

School transportation plays a critical — and often overlooked — role in high-choice districts. Students in these places may experience longer commutes, but families may not have the resources or capacity to transport students across town on their own, making access to school choice inequitable. And for districts, providing the level of transportation service needed to support myriad school options can be an untenably expensive and logistically complicated proposition.

As a result, many high-choice districts, including several of those profiled in Bellwether’s Eight Cities project, leverage existing municipal public transit as part of their school transportation strategy. For example, in Washington, DC, the district does not provide any yellow bus service for general education students, with limited exceptions for certain student populations. Instead, public, charter, and private school students ages 5-21 who are DC residents can ride for free on Metrobus, DC Circulator, and Metrorail within the city through the “Kids Ride Free” program. Students can use their public transit passes as many times as they want and at all hours of the day.

New York City uses a combination of yellow bus service and public transit to provide transportation for public, charter, and private school students. Students are eligible for either yellow bus service or free public transit passes if they live a half mile or more from their school. The district provides yellow bus service for some students in grades K-6, as well as students enrolled in public schools of choice that live within the same borough as their school. All NYC students who live a half mile or more from their school are eligible for free public transit passes. Student MetroCards can be used on subways and buses for three trips and three transfers each school day, enough to travel to school, to an after-school activity, and then back home. Continue reading

Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist. Continue reading

What Is a School District Chief Innovation Officer? A Q&A With Margo Roen and David Saenz

Through innovation, organizations can adapt and improve their operations, but in large, complex school districts, who actually defines and pushes innovative efforts forward? 

School districts across the country are increasingly appointing a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) or similar role to drive transformation in their school systems. What do these leaders actually do? What should superintendents consider before adding a CIO to their leadership team? 

In order to answer these questions, I reached out to Margo Roen, the Principal of Innovative Systems & Schools at Education First, and David Saenz, Senior Officer in Fort Worth (TX) Independent School District’s Office of Innovation and Transformation. (Fort Worth Independent School District is part of Texas’ System of Great Schools Network, which Margo supports, and is a current Bellwether client.)

headshots of Margo Roen, Education First, and David Saenz, Forth Worth Independent School District

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What is a Chief Innovation Officer? What are the main responsibilities and skills?

Margo Roen: CIOs (or comparable roles) are fundamentally focused on creating more high-quality, best-fit schools for the students they serve, but this can look really different across districts depending on local needs.

CIO’s typically: 1) oversee an annual cycle for using data to assess their district’s strengths and gaps; 2) actively look for options to fill those gaps through internal capacity-building or external partnerships; and 3) formalize these strategic partnerships through performance contracts that clearly lay out expectations, autonomies, and supports for partners. 

David Saenz: The work of a CIO is all about change management. They need the ability to manage various projects at once while also being able to communicate effectively with internal and external partners and stakeholders. A CIO needs to have a working knowledge of most of the major areas of a school district: school management, school finance, personnel management, operations, and grant development.

A diverse array of districts have created CIO roles in the last decade or so. How has the role evolved, if at all, since then? Continue reading

Lightfoot Seeks to Change the Chicago Board of Education from Appointed to Elected. Does it Matter?

For most of Chicago’s history, a school board appointed by the mayor has overseen the city’s schools. Then, in the late 1980s, it shifted to an elected board only to revert back to an appointive system in 1995. Now, Chicago’s new mayor Lori Lightfoot wants an elected school board overseeing the Windy City’s schools, but first she had to appoint one while a change to state law is hammered out. Are you following?

While these machinations in the third largest district in the nation might be confusing, the proposed change in governance may not matter.

According to a 2016 Pew Charitable Trust report: “There is no consensus among researchers about whether any particular form of school governance—including state takeovers, mayoral control, or elected local boards—leads to better student performance or fiscal management.”

But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from trying. Centralizing and decentralizing education governance is a popular American pastime. Continue reading

What the Providence Public School District Can Learn from Newark

 

The word “hope” may appear on the Rhode Island state flag, but it’s in short supply in Providence Public Schools. A recent report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University reveals that students are exposed to “an exceptionally low level of academic instruction” and in some cases, they have to attend school in dangerous buildings with lead paint and asbestos. At fault are byzantine rules and convoluted governance arrangements, the authors argue. Piecemeal reform efforts have not been enough to overcome ossified institutions, leaving unsafe buildings, low-quality instruction, and sub-par teachers shuffling between schools in a “dance of the lemons.”

The situation in Providence is dire, but it’s an important moment to make real, lasting changes as the spotlight is aimed on their dysfunction. Leaders in Providence — and Rhode Island at large — must focus on systemic change to provide students with safe learning environments and high-quality, rigorous instruction. Reforming an entire school system is a tall order, but other districts with similar challenges show that change is possible. One such example is just 191 miles down I-95: Newark, New Jersey.

Newark’s school system was in serious distress in ways that mirror Providence today: high poverty, dysfunctional bureaucracy, crumbling school buildings, and abysmal student outcomes. A voluminous report detailing the crisis in Newark’s public schools ultimately led to a state takeover in 1995.

Under state management, Newark’s school system was governed by the New Jersey Continue reading