By all accounts Christopher Steinhauser, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District - a position the locally grown school reformer has held since 2002 - is the right person for the job.
Long Beach is 25 miles south of Los Angeles and has 500,000 residents and 91 public schools housing 91,000 pupils, but prides itself on its smalltown feel. "Ninety percent of the people here have gone through the public school system, and their kids have done the same," explains school board president Felton Williams. "You can walk into any social event and talk to the people who run the city."
Steinhauser, who himself attended the city's public schools and California State University at Long Beach and has worked for the district in various capacities over the past 27 years, fits right in. "I understand the culture of this community really well," he says.
"He's been in Long Beach for so long that he probably thinks of us as his family," adds teacher Kendra Dacquisto, who started working for Steinhauser when he became the principal of her school, Signal Hill Elementary, in the early 1990s.
But Steinhauser has also shown that he understands what it takes to turn around struggling schools and to elevate student achievement, so much so that LBUSD has garnered national attention.
In 2003 the district won the vaunted Broad Prize - $500,000 in college scholarships for graduating seniors - as the nation's best urban school system. And last spring LBUSD was named one of four road finalists (New York City won the grand prize) and earned another $125,000 in scholarships, as well as high praise. "Long Beach hasn't rested on its laurels," proclaimed philanthropist Eli Broad, who started the educational foundation and its annual contest.
Most importantly, the district's leadership and its teachers refuse to allow the poor economic situation of many of its students to hinder their ability to hit performance goals.
"The instruction in Long Beach's classrooms is some of the best I've ever seen," says educational researcher Megan Tupa of Massachusetts-based SchoolWorks, which evaluated LBUSD for the Broad Foundation's 2007 prize.
"Under Superintendent Steinhauser's leadership, Long Beach is showing the country what urban schools can accomplish," adds Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, who represents the city.
Miracle on Walnut Avenue
It was at Signal Hill Elementary - the site of Steinhauser's first and only principalship - that he forged some of his signature approaches to school improvement. Named to the job three days before the 1990-1991 academic year, he found a school with serious discipline problems and the second-lowest academic performance rates of any elementary school in the district.
By December, Steinhauser had launched seven new programs, from requiring students to wear uniforms and work on conflict resolution to introducing teachers to a shared decision-making model and recruiting parents to the PTA, which grew from 10 to 110 volunteers. He also transferred in his two children from the top-performing elementary school in the district.
On the academic front, Steinhauser introduced a Reading Recovery program, championed one-on-one tutoring, and says he "spent a ton of money on math manipulatives." Over his three-year stay, Signal Hill was able to raise $2 million in grants to keep the new programs running.
"He made clear the direction for the school, and in a very nice way told some teachers, 'You might be more comfortable at another school,'" recalls Dacquisto, who adds that Steinhauser took a hands-on approach. "He was a teacher who led by example. I remember him coming into my classroom to do demonstrations."
Dacquisto also notes that Steinhauser was years ahead of his time when it came to using student performance data. "The data always drove our instruction," she says. "He would bring data to staff meetings, and we'd reflect on what was working and what wasn't."
"You'll hear from teachers I've worked with that I 'pushed, pushed, pushed' and then 'supported, supported, supported,'" Steinhauser says. "Some will say I've pushed too hard, but why shouldn't we have high standards for all kids?" He also admits that he had to learn when not to push too hard. "I knew that we'd reached the limit when the staff came to me and said, 'Chris, you're full of ideas, but let us get them under our belt.'"
Signal Hill's turnaround became known as the "miracle on Walnut Avenue," as it became the eighth-highest performing school of the more than 50 in the district and even developed a waiting list of transfer students.
"The miracle was that we transformed the school into a place where teachers and kids wanted to be," Steinhauser observes.
"It became alive," adds Dacquisto. "Everyone was here for a purpose, and the purpose was for the kids. It was all very motivating and positive."
"As a teacher, I saw the opportunity to work with 80 or 100 kids. As a principal, I had the opportunity to work with more. And I saw a wonderful opportunity as a district administrator to enhance the lives of even more people," Steinhauser reveals.
He pursued that track as the director of special project services and then deputy superintendent, where he had the unusual responsibility of directly supervising 19 problem schools.
"The superintendent knew that one of my strengths was working with schools and identifying action plans to help get them out of trouble, so I wore two hats," he explains. "At the same time I was honing my skills as a district administrator."
Assuming the superintendency in the only school district Steinhauser had ever known was a different matter. "In many ways, you have a shorter honeymoon," he admits. "You absolutely know firsthand where all the problems are."
Besides driving the district's AP initiatives and retention policies, Steinhauser encourages pilot programs. One locally devised math curriculum, MAP2D, has become the staple in Long Beach's elementary schools. In addition to paying the usual amount of attention to math facts and problem solving, the curriculum requires students to work collaboratively, give mathematical presentations, and keep a math log for math problems, vocabulary, and rules.
"It was designed by one teacher and got great results," says Steinhauser. "Now it's in 45 schools. When we share the results with parent and teacher groups, they buy in." Similarly, the district's safe and civil schools initiative-which started in 15 schools and combines discipline, intervention and support-has proliferated.
Congresswoman Sanchez singles out the district's dictionary program, which puts the books in the hands of all thirdgraders. "For many of them, English isn't their fi rst language," she says. "A dictionary at home helps them and their parents develop a larger English language."
"They're asking people to continue to be creative and to think outside the box," says Tupa. "There's this commitment to ongoing innovation."
The Long Beach Way
Steinhauser takes his cue from what administrators, teachers and community members have long dubbed the "Long Beach Way." "We talk about it all the time," he says. "We do what's best for the kids. We try to keep things simple but as rigorous as possible. And we include all people in the process."
Steinhauser has paid special attention to the achievement gap among students. "He cares deeply about kids, and he holds them all accountable," says Williams.
Between 2003 and 2006, Long Beach narrowed the differences between the district's white students and their 45,000 Hispanic and 15,000 black peers in elementary school reading and math. In 2006, the last year counted for the 2007 Broad prize, the district's Hispanic, black and low-income students-as well as the entire student population-outperformed all other urban California districts in reading and math at all K12 levels.
Steinhauser cites a refrain that he heard from parents almost 10 years ago, when he was the deputy superintendent: "They wanted consistent standards across the district, and we are much better today than we were years ago." He has embarked on a mission to not leave any child behind, from his expanded commitment to college preparation in high school to an aggressive retention program for underachieving students at the elementary level.
"Our standards are high, and we expect all students to go on to college," says Steinhauser, who adds that the goal is central to the strategic plan adopted two years ago. "We've had a massive explosion in AP students, with more kids going to college than ever before."
Serious about Retention
On the other end of the spectrum, the district retains over 1,000 kindergarten through fifth-grade students annually who do not meet key benchmarks in reading and math. "We try to provide very different structures," Steinhauser points out, among them an eight-week block of allday literacy classes, extended school days and years, and extra teachers in the classroom. "We've looked at the kids who are retained and they do quite well," he says.
So well, in fact, that the district is planning to increase the number of students left back.
Dacquisto, who teaches kindergarten, has seen the benefi ts fi rsthand. "I've had a couple of kindergartners retained who might have been passed on in other districts," she says. "If I'd sent them on, I think they'd always be at the bottom of the barrel. They needed that extra year to grow and blossom."
Steinhauser is as strict with entire schools. Sixteen of the 91 schools in the district are currently on No Child Left Behind's "needs improvement" list, and even though that percentage rates as the second smallest of any urban district in California, Steinhauser is still concerned.
"People know that I'm not going to give up on things, and when I work with schools that are struggling, I make it clear that not doing anything is not an option," he explains. But they do have options as to how they can improve, in keeping with Steinhauser's largely decentralized approach.
Williams notes that although individual schools "have a lot of authority" to institute changes, they get Steinhauser's message. "They have to be on course to raise student achievement. They understand the importance of getting scores up and getting students to learn."
Tupa, the district's SchoolWorks evaluator, sees the district's approach to piloting as part of a larger strategy. "They want everyone to be part of the improvement," she states. "It creates ownership on the teacher level, the principal level and the central office level."
Along those lines, Steinhauser formed a budget committee six years ago to decide on multimillion-dollar operating cuts, which proceeded, he emphasizes, without many layoffs-and without acrimony.
"When you bring all these stakeholders together and make the final cuts, it's not as painful," he points out. "Every recommendation we made-from 1 to 99-came out of the committee in that order, so we didn't have large protests at board meetings."
In fact, most observers agree that Steinhauser's longstanding familiarity with the Long Beach system has encouraged and enhanced communication. "It's not uncommon for a parent, student, or employee to drop into the office and say, 'Can I talk to you?'" he notes.
"I could right now go over to the central office if I had a problem and he would see me. He was that way as a principal," agrees Signal Hill's Dacquisto, who adds that Steinhauser has retained other qualities from those days.
"When I was a young teacher, he would always leave a nice little note on my desk after he had visited my class," she remembers. "As superintendent, he thanks us for being dedicated and hard-working. He lets us know that he appreciates us."
Steinhauser describes himself as a "stay-at-home superintendent," a selfimage that has become more diffi cult to maintain as word of LBUSD's successes have spread. Besides traveling to Washington to accept last year's Broad prize, he has recently given presentations at the Education Trust and the Council of Great City Schools national conferences.
LBUSD has also been fielding plenty of inquiries from other districts around the country. "We're an extremely diverse district," says Williams, "and people want to know how we do it."
If kids are first according to the Long Beach mantra, teachers come in a close second, and Steinhauser has sustained and expanded a professional development program long considered ahead of the pack.
"It's comprehensive and highly focused," says Tupa. "And it's ongoing and embedded. It's not just, 'Attend this teacher training.'"
Many of the district's new teachers arrive with a head start, Tupa notes: "A large number of people from the central offices teach at the local state universities, and they actually train teachers in the Long Beach program. Some teachers start to learn the Long Beach Way even before they're hired by the district."
The new teachers receive ongoing professional development, including an introductory, five-day summer institute covering core practices and more advanced training over their first three years, with an emphasis on instructional techniques. Along the way, they stay in contact with a teacher-coach who has helped train them, continues to observe them, and demonstrates lessons in their classroom.
"Part of the training asks teachers to constantly refl ect on their practices, not just as part of a formal evaluation," Tupa continues. "It's part of an ongoing community discussion about how instruction can be brought to the next level."
That comes as no surprise to Williams, now in his fourth year as president. "We pump a lot of money into teacher training and education, and we do a good job of writing lots of grants and getting them funded." In the current academic year alone the district has spent $7 million on teacher training and education.
More experienced teachers get a full plate of continuing education as well, as the district rolls out new initiatives or expands pilot programs. For instance, this spring's professional development catalog stretched almost 50 pages, covering everything from instructing students in academic vocabulary, to identifying gifted and talented students, to teaching nonviolent communication.
Teachers can also avail themselves of more than a dozen Baldridge training seminars, based on the management theories and practices of business leader Malcolm Baldridge, including data analysis and quality classroom training. "It's a great program for setting goals and acting on them," Steinhauser observes.
Above everything else, Steinhauser keeps his ultimate goals for the district in check. "If I were to die tomorrow, people would agree on one thing-that I was here for the kids."
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.