With almost all state plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) now approved by the U.S. Department of Education, the question related to school improvement isn’t so much what works to help low-performing schools, but how to implement strategies in the most effective way, a panel of speakers said Tuesday on the second day of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ summit in Los Angeles.
Under ESSA, states are required to set aside 7% of their federal funds for school improvement, which Monique Chism, of the American Institutes For Research, suggested they distribute on a competitive basis. “Competition is a great way to leverage a theory of action around change,” she said.
While the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program was not found to be successful on a national level, Chism noted that at state and district levels, there were improvements. One lesson learned was the importance of leadership. “Strategic leadership matters, not just leadership,” she said, defining this as having competencies in areas such as supporting and mentoring teachers, community engagement, and increasing opportunities and access for students.
She added that with limited funds, it’s best for leaders to concentrate on teacher quality. “If you ever have to focus on one thing, focus on teachers,” she said.
Massachusetts was one state in which SIG funds were effective, former commissioner David P. Driscoll told the lawmakers. He showed a video of Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston, which was one step from state takeover before taking a “strategic approach” to improving achievement. The methods included block scheduling along with training for teachers on how to use the additional time, home visits and social-emotional learning programs.
State leaders, he said, had to give schools the flexibility to balance the “practicality” of what was happening in their local schools with assurances that school leaders were using what they know from research. Driscoll acknowledged that achievement gaps in the state have not improved, which he attributed to no longer having money to target students with the greatest needs.
At Artesia High School outside Los Angeles, Principal Sergio Garcia said he initially faced resistance from parents because he was telling students they were going to go to college. That had not been the expectation for students from Artesia High, which he described as an urban school in a suburban part of the metro area.
There was a gang problem and “it was not a great place to be,” added Will Napier, who chairs the special education department and is also the teachers union representative at the school. The fact that he and Garcia were together on the panel, he said, is symbolic of how the union and the district leaders work together “on almost everything.”
Students have open access to advanced courses, and those who are behind on credits are now staying at the school for a fifth year in order to graduate instead of going to a continuation school.
“We provided them a safe place,” Garcia said.
The school also works to recognize students who are doing well to create some “positive peer pressure,” Napier said, adding that the principal has also worked to give all teachers the technology they need for instruction.
“Now we have openings and people are fighting for positions,” Garcia said. The most telling data point for him, he added, was that even though parents’ educational level is still relatively low, student performance has continued to grow.
“We can change their futures,” he said. “This is proof that we can change people’s lives.”
'Intentional about expanding the learning'
Dance teams from Bell Gardens Intermediate School in the Montebello Unified School District, part of After-School All-Stars, kicked off a lunch session on after-school programs.
Their performances provided state legislators with an example of how California is working to expand access to and improve the quality of after-school programs, from the elementary grades through high school.
“We’re intentional about expanding the learning that takes place during the school day,” said Michael Funk, with the California Department of Education. He added that “working with the legislature has been the key strategy” in increasing the funding for after-school programs as well as distributing it to more schools with higher needs.
Under a ballot initiative passed over a decade ago, the state spends roughly $600 million a year on after-school programs. While those funds are allocated to districts based on percentages of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the school districts with the “best grant writers” tended to be the ones receiving federal 21st Century Community Learning Center funds. In 2016, however, the state passed a bill ensuring that more rural districts have access to those funds, Funk explained.
The state has also, he said, worked to move away from a compliance approach toward after-school programs and more toward improving quality and providing coaching if programs are struggling. In addition, the Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in the state, Funk said, mark the “first time in my career that the school day and expanded learning programs are talking about quality in the same way.”
With schools heavily focused on preparing students for careers, policymakers should not ignore the role of after-school programs, said Bill Fennessy, the director of high school programs for Think Together, a nonprofit working with school districts in eight California counties.
“The opportunity to develop those soft skills is a huge potential for after-school,” he said, adding that the project-based and work-based learning provided in programs for high school students give youth the skills that will help them in future employment.
While other activities and negative influences, such as gangs, compete for older students’ time during the after-school hours, Fennessy said programs can be more successful if they ask students about their interests. He added that strong collaboration between after-school directors and principals is necessary for an effective program.
A legislator from North Carolina asked how to better attract boys into after-school programs, adding that girls were more likely to participate in his area. Funk reiterated Fennessy’s comments about involving students in deciding what to offer. He added that California’s after-school programs also represent the demographics of the schools they serve and that the state has been intentional about hiring program staff members that reflect racial and ethnic makeup of the communities in which they are located.