American School Board Journal, October 2018, by Nora K. Carr
When Georgia’s Fulton County Schools formed its Achievement Zone, the district hoped to improve a cluster of 10 struggling schools characterized by poverty and low achievement. Now, three years later, strategies forged in the Achievement Zone are transforming the entire district, thanks to the school board’s willingness to take the calculated risks necessary.
“By embracing the diverse needs of the students and continuing to push for improved academic achievement, we’re gaining momentum,” says Linda Bryant, president of the Fulton school board. “Improving teaching and learning is what drives every decision we make.”
A challenging mix of urban poverty, wealth, working- class neighborhoods, and suburban affluence that bookend Atlanta, Fulton is a microcosm of the demographic shifts and public education challenges—and opportunities—
playing out across the U.S.
The district’s 96,000 students are 42 percent black, 29 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian and 3 percent multiracial/other. About 46.5 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. About 8.7 percent are English learners, including many first-generation immigrants who represent more than 60 world languages.
Historically, as is true nationally, test scores in Fulton often mirrored the socioeconomic status of each school’s students, with a few exceptions that proved difficult to bring to scale. Fulton has some of the highest-performing schools in the state. The district also has some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Breaking that stranglehold was the focus of the district’s partnership with the University of Virginia (UVA).
“Failing schools are not recent anomalies. They represent generational challenges,” says Jeff Rose, who was named Fulton superintendent in 2016. “We’ve taken what we’ve learned in the Achievement Zone and developed a strategic support model that is based on the level of achievement and the needs of kids at each school.”
ART AND SCIENCE OF SCHOOL TURNAROUNDS
Applying leadership lessons gleaned from successful turnarounds in business, government, and education, UVA’s Partnership for Leaders in Education focuses on building the capacity of principals and district administrators to transform chronically underperforming schools.
By focusing on small changes daily, school teams build momentum and grow more confident—important considerations in a profession characterized by widespread morale issues nationally. The change desired isn’t incremental, however.
UVA’s systemic approach to creating rapid and sustainable school turnarounds blends expertise and research from the Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education. Its evidence-based focus on building internal capacity in partner schools works. More than half of all partner schools in 12 states have seen double-digit gains in student achievement in two years or less.
Fulton experienced similar results, with most of its original 10 Achievement Zone schools posting gains in academic achievement at multiple grade levels and in multiple subjects since its inception in 2015. The hard-won gains in performance in many of the district’s toughest schools are inspiring hope among parents and community members, reinvigorating educators, and changing perceptions about what makes a good school.
Fulton has organized the work in the Achievement Zone around three areas: talent development, culture and climate, and teaching and learning. Teachers who take on more responsibility and get better results can earn higher pay, as do principals willing to tackle the leadership challenges associated with struggling schools.
“We work really hard at being great on purpose, to make it intentional,” says Jovita Wallace, principal at Brookview Elementary School, where 80 percent of the students who started the school year weren’t enrolled in the spring when state testing began during Wallace’s first year on the job.
Extensive outreach to parents and community partnerships has whittled the churn to about 60 percent—still significant, but a major gain in stabilizing schooling for many of the district’s most vulnerable children. “We work really hard at creating a culture of respect and a culture of accountability.”
At Brookview, partnerships are helping bridge the opportunity gaps that help create and exacerbate achievement gaps. When private funding paid for a trip to Red Lobster for students and parents, it was eye-opening to Brookview staff to learn that many had never experienced having a meal served to them in a restaurant before.
“UVA really taught us how to find our priorities by finding the ‘why’ behind the data,” says Wallace. “The protocols are simple to use and help us focus, very intently, on a problem of practice that needs to be solved. We keep asking why until we get to the root cause of the problem, which is usually something we can fix ourselves. The process started with the Achievement Zone, and now it’s grown to the entire district.”
The work of turning around schools is daunting, and in many ways represents one of America’s greatest educational challenges, but it’s also deeply rewarding. “You feel the family walking in the door,” says Shondra Evans, an extended impact teacher at Woodland Middle School. In addition to leading her own classroom, Evan also works with students and colleagues in English/language arts as part of the district’s “Opportunity Culture” initiative. “Everyone in the school is accountable for everyone’s learning.”
Parents whose children attend Achievement Zone schools feel the difference, and more are fighting to stay in “their” schools even when housing instability and poverty force unexpected moves.
“The teachers all help each other out, all staff members are always warm and nice, and the principal has an open-door policy for parents,” says Beverly Cain, a Brookview parent. She says the differences are stark in the opportunities now being afforded to her youngest child that weren’t available when her older child attended the same school. Cain is working with Wallace to restart the school’s Parent Teacher Association and parent volunteer program.
Sustaining significant growth in learning and life outcomes is becoming business as usual in FCS. In 2017, all but one Achievement Zone school showed gains in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards for proficiency in grade four English/language arts. Most Achievement Zone schools also posted gains in the third, fourth, and sixth grades in all tested subjects. Several schools posted double-digit gains.
“This what we do: We grow students,” says Jason Stamper, principal of Woodland Middle School, which earned recognition recently as one of the state’s top-performing Title I schools. Being located in a high-poverty area marked by housing instability, rent increases, or special discounts can drive families at Woodland and other Achievement Zone schools from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from school to school, as they seek ways to reduce housing costs. As a result, about 65 percent of Woodland’s students move in and out of the school each year.
Despite these challenges, Woodland showed gains last year in the percentage of students scoring in the “proficient” or “distinguished” range on end-of-year tests in English/language arts and mathematics in sixth grade as well as gains in eighth-grade mathematics, science, and social studies.
The focus on culture and climate is driving down the school’s referral and suspension rates, as school personnel learn how to engage students more effectively and build better relationships with students and their families, according to Stamper, who gives his cellphone number to every parent. Understanding the students and neighborhoods they serve is key, Stamper says.
IMPROVING INSTRUCTION DRIVES PLANNING
Based on its experiences in driving sustainable improvement in its Achievement Zone schools, the district now packages its supervision and support into three different levels, based on a combination of research-based factors, with improving student achievement at the top of the list.
Driven by the Fulton school board’s belief in academic achievement for all students, Rose started the planning process with a sketch on a napkin that showed how he wanted to align a school support strategy to the academic needs of the students. The school board has since provided feedback and embraced a support model as a centerpiece of the district’s 2022 strategic plan.
“We spent a lot of time and energy figuring out what to hold tight and what to loosen up on,” says Rose. “In some cases, our schools needed less autonomy and more support. In other cases, they needed us to cut the ‘red tape’ so they could move more quickly. “
APPROACH YIELDS RESULTS
The unified approach is working; Fulton’s 2017 results are impressive. The district posted its highest score ever—78.0—on Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), besting the state average.
The CCRPI uses a variety of measures, including test scores, financial efficiency, and school climate ratings, and cohort graduation rate data by subgroup, among others. Seventy-four out of 108 schools, or 68 percent, showed gains on the CCRPI.
The district also reduced the number of state-identified, “chronically failing schools” from 14 to eight, while it reduced the overall number of F schools on the state’s school grading system from 28 to 18. In 2017, 26 of 28 F schools achieved gains on the CCRPI, while 38 schools improved by at least a letter grade.
“There are so many levels of support now, you’re really guaranteed success if you take advantage of the opportunities provided for students and teachers,” says Monica Roberts, a model teacher at Woodland. Model teachers in Fulton serve as instructional improvement coaches and classroom teachers.
The systems and structures put in place to encourage feedback and sharing at the school and districts level help build teacher confidence, reduce fear and embarrassment, and encourage more risk taking, according to Roberts. “We’re constantly sharing ideas—about what worked, what didn’t, why and how we can improve—not just in our zone, but Fulton County-wide,” she says.
Originally posted on American School Board Journal.