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A Board's Culture Shift

Local boards of education hold great power in digesting data, holding teachers accountable, and believing in student achievement.

A few "old school" teachers left the BCLUW School District in Iowa in the past few years, less than enamored with the new accountability piece the district created. The district even held off buying some textbooks.

This was part of the price of a culture shift that left BCLUW School District in a lead position to improve student achievement. And the local Board of Education was and is behind it.

Although the federal government has its mandates behind No Child Left Behind and state education departments are checking district plans to ensure they are following the law and other state standards, local school boards are even more important now in shaping student achievement in districts, officials at the National School Board Association say.

"There is great importance in the school boards' role in not only setting policy but also setting academic achievement goals for districts, setting up accountability systems, aligning financial resources with the goals for the district, and ensuring there are high quality assessments and academic programs," says Anne Bryant, NSBA executive director.

"I think local boards play a critical role, a pivotal role, in the governance of schools," adds Carl Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "They articulate the needs of the community to the school and they articulate the needs of the school to the community. ... Their job is to ask the tough questions and make decisions that will create conditions in the school that will make effective teaching and learning possible."

"The balancing act is the tough part. We can't
just judge a program on its merits."
-Tricia Johnson, vice president, Anne Arundel County School Board

Some states mandate training for school board members to get them familiar with policies and laws, but some states just have voluntary programs.

The original Lighthouse Research on School Board Leadership for Student Achievement study conducted in Iowa from 1998-2000 found that contrary to some belief, the school board has a direct influence on what happens in the classroom. The more faith that members have that students of any economic or social background can learn at their highest potential, and the more they can communicate with administration, and the more they hold teachers accountable, the better off students will be.

Board members need a "can-do" attitude that all students can learn; they must establish clarity on district-wide needs; and they must set high expectations and define clear indicators of success, according to Mary Delagardelle, Lighthouse project director for Iowa Association of School Boards.

"They have to be real partners, they have to want it bad enough to problem solve the issues, to create the conditions for success and meet the expectations," Delagardelle says. "If there are limits on that, then we're compromising what we want."

And it requires using data. Board members must ask, Is it reasonable for us to assume changes in achievement given this data? And what are we doing to create change?

Delagardelle adds that boards must influence policies that directly impact student learning, such as policies around professional development. And boards must develop a strong leadership continuum district-wide.

The current Lighthouse study is a five-year federally funded project underway through 2007, using five pilot districts in Iowa. BCLUW, among the five pilots, has a strong board dedicated to sacrificing to gain something else, according to Superintendent Michael Ashton. Change starts with a belief in the underdog students and with board members wanting to learn the educational process, wanting to pick apart data, and working shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers, Ashton says. When 25 percent of students, most of whom happen to be poor, are not reading and writing on grade level, and administrators and board members stop "making excuses" for them and start to "put names to the kids' faces and humanize them" things can change, he says.

The "unwritten rule" of years past was that staff only gave board members minimal information they needed because it was assumed board members did not know how to use data, Ashton says. "I think what has happened is that they [board members] understand those things and they are very interested in doing what's right for kids," he says.

BCLUW School Board President Shane Tiernan talks about a culture shift. The Lighthouse project "really required a major shift in the culture in how we do business," he says.

"There was resistance. They were used to doing their own thing and not wanting to do the work," he says about some of the teachers. But, he adds, "I'm pretty confident this is the way to go because we're seeing an improvement in the culture of the district. We're seeing more ownership taken by the teaching staff and we're seeing kids, at the first grade level, give us unsolicited feedback" on new programs, he says.

Refocusing Goals

Refocusing the way the school leadership and the board work together paved the way for better teaching for at least one district.

Superintendent Sandra Schroeder of Madison Community Unit School District in Illinois came in two-and-a-half years ago facing dismal academics and an unhealthy district climate, with all four schools on the No Child Left Behind watch list.

So Schroeder led a culture change and essentially shook things up. New principals were hired, buildings were reconfigured, and retirement incentives were offered. The buildings were reconfigured to create a true middle school of grades 6-8 and a high school of grades 9-12. The board says it believes in collaboration and wants the district to work as a team. "Even at times of teacher resistance, the board has stood firm and said no more excuses for failing to meet state standards," she says. Accountability is the big message.

A District Leadership Team was developed, comprised of 25 parents, students, community members, board members, teachers and administrators, as an advisory board to the superintendent and the board. The DLT focuses on district goals that are established through annual board retreats and meets monthly for two hours.

Board members agree that student achievement is first and foremost. "The board was part of a process of developing curriculum, having standards aligned and part of the process was making sure students were on task and making the best use of school time and class time and having teachers assist with the management of students," she says.

"I had a supportive board president and for me that was huge," she adds. Each building has a school improvement plan that aligns with the district improvement plan that also ties in with the board's goals,

"That's where the board must have the courage
to say, this is what's right for children."
-Steve Ballowe, Superintendent, Gainesville (Ga.) City School System

"so everything is working in the same direction at the same time," Schroeder says. One building is now off the "watch list" and progress is being made in the other three buildings.

Asking Questions, Seeking Community Input

And working in the same direction means asking tough questions.

In Anne Arundel County in Maryland, the school superintendent wants to extend the International Baccalaureate degree program to a third high school in the district, which has 12 high schools of 126 schools.

Despite the program's rigorous work, the county school board steps back and asks: What impact would this have? There's an expense to train teachers and get the qualified IB facility, so for that money per pupil, what would be sacrificed along the way? Where is the district going with the program?

"We want to be well-informed of the expansion," says Tricia Johnson, vice president of the Anne Arundel County School Board.

The superintendent proposed the IB extension last year, but money wasn't available. "The program itself is wonderful and it's marvelous avenue to kids who want good rigor," she says. "But the balancing act is the tough part. We can't just judge a program on its merits."

She bubbles with enthusiasm over the district's AVID program, or Advancement Via Individual Development, and its success, reaching thousands of at-risk students who in part learn to study better and garner better organizational skills. "You get the biggest bang for your buck" with AVID, she explains.

But the board still seeks community input on issues. "We get letters and e-mails. We go to schools and ask people" what they want, she says.

To understand the issue, Johnson explains that the high school where the IB program would start is part of the state's Realignment of Military Bases program, and 10,000 new people are moving in the area as military bases are shutting down. The migration is creating a huge school build-up trend. And being situated near the National Security Agency, trained professionals working there want their children in the district to learn more advanced math and science. "Right now, what I'm hearing, is that they [community members] want more math and science than they do IB," she says. But others disagree.

The issue was tabled in October.

Maryland as a whole offers Web-based school board meetings, so community members in every district can see meeting agendas online two weeks prior to a meeting.

And every year, Maryland holds "What Counts"--a forum that invites the public from a particular community to comment on educational topics, such as, is reading, writing and arithmetic all you want in school?

Johnson adds that the "control" of education still sits with "the kids of this county and what they need." "They need a good, rigorous educational environment. And making sure they're prepared for the next level. Mediocre isn't good enough," she says.

Circle of Talk

And community input is everything in Tulsa, Okla., where citizens and board members have learned to sit and discuss issues--talking with each other instead of talking at one another.

The board's primary focus should be: how to deliver the best product. "All of that is lost in this sometimes very heated, accusation-tossing forum," explains Tulsa's former board member Paul Thomas.

So a year ago, Tulsa Public Schools started Tulsa Talks, part of the Study Circles Resource Center, a Connecticut-based national and nonprofit organization that helps communities solve problems by bringing people together to talk. "A lot of school boards are starting to realize that instead of working in a vacuum they would benefit by tapping into the public and benefiting from the public," says Carrie Boron, deputy communication director for Study Circles.

So now, Tulsa and the nearby Union School District work together. Union School District is more wealthy than Tulsa, but is now beginning to see more urban ills. Each Tulsa Talks circle has up to 12 people, including business people and a facilitator to manage the discussions and move the conversation from person to person, to discuss school issues and build relationships. They eventually present recommendations to improve the district to the superintendent.

"We as citizens forget to engage each other in meaningful dialogue," Thomas says. "How do you sit and disagree with someone and have a conversation? I think that's critical. If we don't learn from one another and enter a dialogue, there will be hell to pay if you're not working together as a team."

In part to make change, Thomas and the board reached out to the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, comprised of various faiths, and formed a local chapter of The National Conference for Community and Justice, called the Oklahoma Conference for Community and Justice, which is designed to bring diverse groups of people together and fight prejudice. And with various other community partnerships, the community gets a sense of ownership, a sense that they are part of the district and its decisions. "Even if you have very effective community engagement, if the school board does not support the change and does not support the internal changes to accept this kind of interplay, then nothing gets done," Thomas says.

This past fall, they were in the fourth round of Tulsa Talks and had not yet implemented any suggestions because they were still gathering information, says Ruth Ann Fate, Tulsa board member. "We have a tremendous business community" dedicated to public schools, she says. "We want to know what the community says. What is the community saying that we need to do and what we're not doing?"

Four years ago, the Georgia School Boards Association brought in people across the state, including mayors, legislators, business people, superintendents, and school board members, and created a statewide strategic plan. The message was: "Boards and superintendents should not be adversaries," says Jeannine (Sis) Henry, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association. They discovered the Study Circles approach and several districts took on a new model, including the Gainesville City Schools, which the state and dozens of districts are using as their own model.

"I think the board has to embrace the process and they have to listen to the community," Henry says. "If the board models that and says 'we are sincere' that's the most important thing a board can do."

A few years ago, when Gainesville Superintendent Steve Ballowe arrived in the district, less than 10 percent of the third and fifth grade students were meeting state standards on reading, writing and math. Now, nearly 98 percent are meeting those standards. And the district has seen a doubling of the Hispanic student population and has 75 percent of students on free- and reduced-price lunches.

The Gainesville Model for Achievement and Accountability includes four phases: Creating a culture of success, where the board and superintendent agree that children are the focus and creating a culture of high expectations for children with no excuses is the first phase, and the second phase involves a School Board and Superintendent Performance Accountability Plan which offers a cycle for achievement and accountability, performance objectives, reports to the board and an evaluation process. The other two phases involve a four-step model to improve student achievement and a program evaluation.

In the evaluation process, the superintendent and board evaluate each objective. Accountability reports exist for each school, teacher and child. Gainesville allows parents to chose the elementary or middle school of their choice. The district tests students every nine weeks on different standards they should learn and publicizes those results for parents on the Web. "We do it in real time," Ballowe says. "That's where the board has to have the courage to stand up and say, 'This is what's right for children.' "

While so much of curriculum is mandated by state standards and federal legislation, the board is responsible for "helping the community put their stamp on education," adds Angela Peifer, senior director of board development for the Illinois Association of School Boards. There is a sort of "swap," she says.

"Boards sit in trust for their community in terms of governing the school district. Their community provides for them what are arguably the two most important resources: children and tax dollars," Peifer says. "In return for the community's children and tax dollars, the board promises a quality education and the community's aspirations in a fiscally responsible way."

Using Numbers

When the school board from Sioux Center Community School District and the school board from a neighboring district recently gathered to exchange ideas, says Matt Ludwig, the study's site coordinator and principal of the Sioux Center Middle School, he was impressed with the level at which his board members spoke and used data. One Sioux Center board member in particular pulled out data and told the neighboring district, 'This is where we were before and this is where we are now.' "We've seen them more ready to use data to make decisions about students and instruction," Ludwig says. "That's been really nice."

In the BCLUW and GMG school districts in Iowa, school boards want to do more than approve bus bids and milk bids, according to Ashton, who is superintendent of both districts.

Tiernan says the BCLUW board set parameters, set a single focus on improving reading comprehension, and let the staff know "this is where we want to go with student achievement." The District Leadership Team, comprised of staff members, researched various reading initiatives and came back recommending Thinking Maps, a graphic organizational tool for kids to help organize their thoughts.

The leadership team meets with the board twice a year to share student data. What are the scores showing? Are students comprehending more now?

Some resistance surfaced, but the board has been sensitive to helping teachers and asking, What do you need to make this happen? Do you need additional professional development?

To make it happen, non-critical purchases were deferred, like textbooks, and some teachers left, not liking the accountability piece, Tiernan says.

"There was this unwritten rule that you only give board members enough information that they need, there was a sense they wouldn't understand student data and percentile ranks. I think what has happened is that they understand those things and they are very interested in doing what's right for kids," Ashton says. "We make all our decision making now from student data." Over three years, reading scores grew.

"It's important for them [board members] to understand what teachers are doing to provide resources, in terms of time, support and money, and from the teachers' standpoint, it's impressive to teachers that the board spends time to learn this," Ashton says. "Far too long, management has basically dictated to teachers and whomever, saying, 'We don't care how you do it--just get better.' There is a real sense that board members are colleagues with the teachers."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.