When Superintendent Wanda Bamberg of the Aldine (Texas) Independent School District walked on stage last fall in New York City to accept her district’s award in the Broad Prize for Urban Education, she was not thrilled. “I was disappointed we didn’t win the main prize,” she recalls, noting the district has been among the five Broad Prize finalists for three years. And the district was named as yet another finalist for 2009.
But Bamberg is proud of the 2008 winner, Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District, and is thankful her district’s students received $250,000 in scholarship money—the amount presented to each of the four finalists. “We’re happy to be a finalist and have the opportunity for the children,” says Bamberg, a 27-year veteran of the district.
This is Bamberg at her best. She is a firecracker of sorts who talks much and expects much from her staff members and teachers and her students, who are mostly at-risk, black and Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged.
“She’s the Energizer bunny,” says Priscilla Ridgway, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “She’s very enthusiastic and very passionate about what she does.”
While she doesn’t consider herself an Energizer bunny, she does acknowledge her busy schedule that includes meetings, projects, and sometimes school sporting events.
Despite the odds against many of them, the students have done well under Bamberg’s leadership, as evident by the district Web site’s tagline, “Producing the Nation’s Best.”
In just one example of success, Bamberg, who was the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for six years before she became superintendent in June 2007, steered the district toward narrowing the achievement gap among low-income middle school students in math compared to their non-low-income counterparts statewide. In 2007, Aldine outperformed other Texas districts serving students with similar income levels in reading and math at all grade levels. And in the same year, Aldine’s black, Hispanic and low-income students were more proficient than their state counterparts in reading and math at all grade levels.
“If we don’t do certain things [in terms of setting high goals of students and creating stellar programs], our kids don’t go to college,” she says, explaining that some students are raising their own children, or are holding jobs to support their families, or are in and out of jail. Out of 61,527 students, nearly 70 percent are at-risk and 84 percent are economically disadvantaged. Eighty percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
The four-year graduation rate is 68.8 percent, another district challenge. “We have many students who come to us without a lot of formal schooling and who do not speak English,” she says. “Many times they require another year to complete their diploma requirements, but NCLB does not include them. The state completion rate does.”
Roots of Hard Work
Bamberg is used to high expectations regardless of the circumstances. She was born and raised in Alabama, with three siblings and a mother who was a homemaker and a father who worked at the South Central Bell telephone company. “They both taught us to be able to make it on our own no matter what,” she recalls. “They had high expectations with grades and our work ethic ? and whenever I have made decisions, I’ve always thought about what my parents would expect me to do. ‘Was I doing the right thing?’”
She attended the University of Alabama, earning a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in education, and eventually earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Sam Houston State University in Texas.
In 1977, Bamberg started teaching middle and high school English in the Tuscaloosa County (Ala.) School District. Then she heard about Aldine ISD, which had been paying starting teachers more than she was getting paid with five years of experience and a master’s degree. The city of Houston was also “a growing and exciting city compared to Tuscaloosa,” Bamberg says. So in 1982, she joined Aldine, teaching middle school English and reading. She moved her way up from program director of middle school language arts to director of curriculum and instruction for the district. In 1998, she served as the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction and in 2001 she served as the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction before becoming superintendent.
She is married to a cartoonist and marketing professional and has one son, who will head to college this fall. And while she usually spends most of her time working, she enjoys reading fiction and self-help books and spending time with family and friends.
Aligning the Curriculum
When Bamberg started leading the district in curriculum and instruction in the mid-1990s, “some of the most dramatic” moves included aligning the curriculum with state standards. “Mobility is a key issue in Aldine,” Bamberg says. About 84 percent of residents are economically disadvantaged, and students of poverty move around a lot as their families take advantage of apartment rates, she says. So when they move across town and attend another school in the district, they start their new history class at the same point in the curriculum where they left off at their former school. “They all follow the same general scope and sequence,” Bamberg says. “And we did a lot of professional development to get it aligned.”
Teachers and district-level program directors of curriculum and instruction have also created scope-and-sequence documents in every subject area in K12, which serve as roadmaps for what and when teachers teach certain concepts. The documents align with the state standards, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), which are organized by six-week benchmarks that define what standards should be addressed during that period.
Aldine’s teachers also use state-adopted textbooks and teacher-developed materials for the curriculum and can select their own materials that will best meet their students’ needs.
Bamberg was part of a team that was instrumental in getting teachers and district staff to share their additional resources during common planning time and through the district’s electronic curriculum management system, called TRIAND, which provides Web-based lesson planning for teachers. The very best lessons, vetted by the curriculum and instruction department, come from classroom successes in Aldine that have yielded high student achievement on common assessments. According to the 2008 TAKS results in reading, math, science, social studies and writing, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students at Aldine performed better than their counterparts across the state. For example, in the 2008 TAKS results in math, 82 percent of economically disadvantaged students at Aldine met standards, compared to only 74 percent statewide, and 84 percent of Hispanic students met standards, compared to 75 percent statewide.
Assessments are aligned as well. Through a data warehouse system, teachers can specifically pinpoint which problems on formative tests tripped certain students so that they can reteach those skills. The district keeps tabs on students in middle and high school math and science with tests every three and six weeks, respectively. And teachers of the same subject, such as seventh-grade math, will sit together, review the data together, and plan how to help students overcome certain math problems. An assistant principal or skill specialist will also answer teachers’ questions. “It’s ongoing monitoring that makes the difference,” Bamberg says.
After this system was put in place, test scores rose dramatically. “When we ensured that all teachers taught the curriculum and teachers began to use curriculum assessment ? reading and math scores improved,” she says. For example, 56 percent of black seventh-graders met math standards on the 2006 TAKS, compared to 75 percent meeting such standards in 2008. Limited English proficient students also rose to the occasion, with only 40 percent meeting reading standards in 2006 compared to 63 percent meeting standards in 2008. And economically disadvantaged students improved as well, with 68 percent meeting standards in 2006 compared to 80 percent meeting them in 2008.
If a problem or challenge surfaces, administrators usually discover that something is not aligned in the curriculum, says Bamberg. “Every teacher knows what to teach, when to teach, and the best way to teach, and the assessment matches all that,” she adds.
District staff members also use common assessments to make programmatic decisions regarding budget allocations, professional development, curriculum and student learning. And district staff can see where the greatest test results are. For example, the principal and his staff at one elementary school shifted from a commercial literacy program—because students were not gaining comprehension skills—to guided reading. And regular assessments help staff make changes to help certain learners. Using weekly assessments, which area superintendents and program directors review, the district redesigned an intervention when the results did not show improvement in math for black students.
Checks and Balances
Such instruction requires leadership. Bamberg worked with the curriculum team—three program directors in the office of curriculum and instruction for each of the areas of math, English, science and history. The directors manage the six-week curriculum benchmarks, districtwide curriculum review, common assessments and professional development. The process helps teachers meet the changing needs of students. For example, program directors for math and science have developed three-week assessments to help teachers monitor student progress. In algebra, the program directors for math developed week-by-week lessons that teachers learned in weekly professional development sessions. Then the building principal monitored the lesson delivery each week and reviewed student progress. Teachers used the student data to reteach students or modify instructional plans.
At the building level, principals are key instructional leaders who observe instruction and support teachers. And content specialists, such as high school department chairs, support teachers through modeling and guiding their planning.
Ridgway says that she and Bamberg started working together a few years ago, when Ridgway was the director of research and evaluation. They both agreed that assessment and instruction were to go hand-in-hand. “She is very, very knowledgeable about instruction and curriculum,” Ridgway says about Bamberg. “She is a leader with vision, and she depends on others to help her carry out that vision. She lets you do your job, and at the same time there is accountability and constant communication. The communication is tremendous, and with her open-door policy you can at any time see her.”
A challenge now for the district is to ensure none of the high school policies are barriers for graduation, which hovers around 69 percent, Ridgway adds. So they are reviewing high school grading and classification policies, credits, course work, schedules and homework policies. “We want our decision to be based on what’s good for kids and what promotes learning,” Ridgway says. “And she has certainly given us guidance on that.”
Bamberg also counts on her assistant superintendent of finance, Keith Clark, to keep her up-to-date on investments and cash flow. “We’ve been very conservative in how we monitor our spending,” she says. “School districts are hurting now, and we’re hurting, but it’s taking a little bit longer [for the recession] to catch up with us.”
Clark has known Bamberg in different capacities over 15 years in the district and says that she has been a true leader who discusses all issues with her administrators and listens to others’ opinions before making final decisions. She also comprehends financial issues quickly. “She’s doing an excellent job,” Clark says. “She listens to us; she values us. And I like working for her.”
As for the Broad Prize, Clark says, the instruction drives success in that award and as the finance point person, he simply ensures the “resources are there and ready to use” to make sure instruction is top quality. He says that sometimes programs have to be reduced because money is tight, but Bamberg and he work to make sure nothing is cut out entirely. “When it comes to student programs, it’s usually about modifying existing programs, not ending a program,” he says.
The Softer Side
Bamberg makes time in her schedule to acknowledge the hard work of her staff and administrators. Last September, when the district was walloped with Hurricane Ike, the district’s buildings suffered water damage and lost power, and most of the food in the cafeteria freezers spoiled. Debris littered the grounds, and students missed nine days of school. Bamberg hosted an appreciation luncheon for maintenance and district workers to help get them back on their feet. “We consider ourselves very lucky,” she says.
She also aims to visit all of the district’s 71 school campuses. “One of the things I enjoy doing is going out and seeing classrooms and teachers, and even though I’m only visiting a fourth-grade class, for example, for a few minutes I do get a feel for the students we’re serving,” she says. “The kids are engaged, responding ? and you see how hard they are working.”
Bamberg is proud to have representatives from other districts visit Aldine ISD, given Aldine’s placement in the Broad Prize finalist position for three years. And the compliments from others don’t just revolve around the students, Bamberg says, but also how the buildings are so clean, well maintained and well run. “That makes me so proud,” she says.
Angela Pascopella is senior editor.