Paul Vallas for Sale

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A veteran superintendent who has led turnaround efforts in four large U.S. districts has started a new venture that he expects will broaden his reach.

The Vallas Group, headed by Paul Vallas, former head of the Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans Recovery districts and currently interim superintendent of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Public Schools, is partnering with Dallas-based Cambium Learning Group to bring his school improvement model to more schools in the nation. With experience on projects in Haiti and Chile, Vallas may even bring the model to other countries as well.

"I’m motivated to gravitate toward those school systems that are the most troubled because that’s where I believe I can have my greatest impact, do the greatest good,” Vallas says.

The Vallas Turnaround System, the official name of the reform model, includes not just improving academic performance but also stabilizing districts by balancing their budgets and reorganizing their administrations. “We are committed to affordable change,” Vallas says. “You will be amazed at the efficiencies and cost savings you can bring to a district.” In this regard, he cites the Bridgeport district, where he says it took about 90 days to “reconstitute” the central office, which now is about 40 percent smaller. Vallas says that this will allow “more resources to go to the schools.”

Mechanics of Model

Vallas does not identify members of his “large and growing” group but says they are “prominent educators, administrators, finance and operational people” with whom he has worked. He will invite group members to join transition teams to go into a district quickly and, within a short time, as in Bridgeport, come up with academic, financial and organizational plans to transform the district.

He linked with Cambium for the infrastructure it could provide, including office space, as well as “the independence to decide which projects to take and determine what degree of involvement we would bring to these projects.”

Vallas says also that Cambium has the reputation and associations he was looking for and, like him, is interested in the results of its efforts. He will be involved personally in larger, districtwide projects that call for major reform while he continues to work in Bridgeport, at least until his contract there expires at the end of December. The contract allows him to take on other projects elsewhere.

Vernon Johnson, president of Cambium’s intervention division, Voyager Learning, says that potential turnaround targets include districts nationwide identified by federal and state education departments as being in trouble. He expects the Cambium-Vallas partnership to respond to various districts’ requests for reform proposals.

At this time, several struggling districts are interested in the Vallas model. According to Johnson, the leaders in these districts expect to announce within about a month which reform program, model or organization, such as the Cambium-Vallas partnership, will win a contract. He adds that the Vallas model is designed so that districts with tight budgets can afford it by using federal, state, local and special education funds, or “other funds they might already have.”

Mixed Results

Nationally, turnaround initiatives appear to be having mixed results. In Chicago Public Schools, where Vallas was CEO from 1995 to 2001, the lowest-performing elementary schools have been closing the gap in test scores by almost half in reading and two-thirds in math, according to “Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago,” a report issued in February by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.

In Washington state, nine districts failed to make aggressive reforms in the first year of a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program for which they will receive more than $50 million over three years, researchers from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education concluded in a report released in March, “Tinkering Toward Transformation: A Look at Federal School Improvement Grant Implementation.”

Change in 365 Days

Vallas says that his turnaround model with Cambium will be able to produce significant and sustainable results in a district within a year. What distinguishes it from other reform approaches is that it not only shows district leaders the educational strategies and programs they need to improve academic performance, says Vallas, but also how to “organize and implement the programs and prioritize their finances so that they can fund the programs and financially sustain them long term.”