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The New Urban Legend

A handful of inner-city districts are paving the way for reform

Some call it the end of the beginning. Others the start of a third wave. No matter the name, however, there is a consensus that urban education is at a crossroads. For the past five years or more, urban districts around the country have stepped up their efforts in development and experimentation, and the results are often promising. But as a thousand reforms bloomed--everything from new textbooks to new schools--the time has come to ask: What's working, what isn't and what can be replicated?

"This is the natural outgrowth of seven to 10 years of investment and focus in standards and accountability," says Andrew Calkins, executive director at the nonprofit think tank Mass Insight Education. "For the first time, we can really point with confidence at schools that are not improving and compare them with schools with the exact same demographics that are succeeding. We're at a watershed moment in the history of urban education." Calkin's group is impressed enough with the gains made by some of the biggest school districts in Massachusetts that it recently launched a year-long initiative based on those lessons to design a model for district and state intervention in low-performing schools.

" We're at a watershed moment in the
history of urban education."
-Andrew Calkins, executive director, Mass Insight Education

"It's very much a different era. Standards, No Child Left Behind, the accountability movement--all have brought us to where we are now in terms of the attention to urban schools and the willingness to make changes. We know much more than we did before," says Mary Hopper, who has served as both chief academic officer and chief operational officer since San Diego Public Schools began its reform efforts in 1998.

High-Stakes Donations

It didn't happen on purpose, but urban schools have become education's great laboratory. Thanks to an unprecedented interest in public education and the unique position held by urban schools, the reform efforts in some of the largest and most challenging districts in the country may become the options for public education in districts of any type.

In the last few years, the amount invested by large foundations in K-12 public education has nearly doubled--from $620 million in 1998 to $1.23 billion in 2003, the latest year for which data is available. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone has given $1.18 billion to K-12 education in the last five years. The Milken Family Foundation has spent more than $100 million on programs to attract and reward new teachers. The Wallace Foundation committed $150 million over five years to improve school leadership. The list goes on and on. For the first time, the amount given to elementary and secondary schools by foundations is higher than that provided to universities and colleges.

These large grants are primarily for structural change in the way schools are run and how they teach students, and urban districts have garnered the majority of that support. Urban districts attract philanthropic attention because many are in need of reform--they are more likely to have poor test scores and low graduation rates--and they tend to have more students from immigrant and/or low-income households. Foundations also appreciate the ability to leverage their resources on a bigger stage.

"Our focus is on urban districts because the largest 100 serve 20 percent of the country's public school population," says Kevin Hall, the chief operating officer of the Broad Foundation, which has invested more than $170 million to dramatically improve K-12 urban public education through better governance, management and labor relations. "But we have to have a pretty dramatic transformation in public education in general to be what we need as a society. We have a big structural problem in K-12 education; it's built for the early part of the 20th century and it's not been updated since that time."

Certainly some city issues aren't applicable to smaller suburban or rural districts. But new models in administration, professional development and curriculum alignment can be applied in almost any district. The small schools movement has already moved beyond the city limits into districts throughout the country. And with No Child Left Behind's increased emphasis on measuring performance of minority groups, few districts can afford not to take a much harder look at how all of their student populations are being served.

"We send thousands of people a year to New York City to look at the schools we fund. At a college prep school in the South Bronx, almost 100 percent of the students are minorities and receive free and reduced lunches. When administrators from other schools see these kids completing a pre-AP curriculum, they have to ask themselves, 'Why can't we do this in the suburbs?' " says Tom Vander Ark, executive director of the Gates Foundation education program.

The total given to local schools by foundations may be relatively small compared to the total school budgets, but administrators will tell you the funds and attention are critical. "For us, the relationship with the [Ewing Marion] Kauffman Foundation, a local philanthropy that has given us extra funding for our reform work, really shows that someone out there cares and also holds you accountable," says Steve Gering, the deputy superintendent of teaching and learning at Kansas City (Kan.) Public Schools, which has received more than $9 million from Kauffman. "It's nowhere near the financial cost of the reform work in total. But it's enough to leverage change in how we spend our money inside the system."

New Schools ... and Old Ones

Much of the urban reform efforts over the last few years have been focused on building new small schools, whether breaking ground for an entirely new structures or splitting up existing facilities. Albany, N.Y., for example is halfway through a $185 million rebuilding effort to convert all its elementary and middle schools to smaller facilities. A referendum to be voted on next spring proposes a similar plan for one of the district's high schools. In Boston, the total number of high schools has gone from 21 in 1995 to 38 in 2005. While the total number of high school students has increased, the percent of schools with 400 or less students has increased from 28 percent in 1995 to 71 percent in 2005.

" There's no silver bullet for a strategy.
We say there's a lot of silver BBs."
-Kevin Hall, chief operating offi cer, Broad Foundation

Creating new small schools provides several intertwined advantages for districts. With a more manageably sized student population and closer connections between students and teachers, small schools have shown improvements in student achievement. Most small schools are created as a slate of choices, allowing families to choose a pedagogy and subject focus that best suits a student. And as important, creating a new school bypasses existing dynamics entirely to start with a fresh slate.

To open these new schools, more than ever, districts have been willing to shutter poorly performing schools, bolstered by data that backs up the decision and political support for the hard choices. The trend isn't widespread, but it is growing. Every year since Superintendent Arne Duncan took office at Chicago Public Schools in 2001, the district has closed schools (often over howls of protest from the teachers' union and community activists). Last year, Chicago announced Renaissance 2010, a plan to open 100 new schools in the next five years; a record 18 launched in the 2005-06 school year alone. "Ren10" will require more schools to be shut down, and the district now has policies in place on how to open--and close--a school.

"I think Chicago is the leader in this work--brave enough to close some schools and restructure others. New York is another district that is doing this," says Jeanne Nowaczewski, the director of new school development at Chicago Public Schools. "It provides us with an opportunity to bring in a high-performing school to a community."

Of course, you can't close every school. For many urban districts, the next frontier for reform is into the existing schools. "The bigger the city, the harder the challenge, the more important new school development is," says Vander Ark of the Gates Foundation, which has invested heavily in creating new small high schools. "But that can leave 70 large, struggling high schools. There are natural, logistical, political barriers to how many schools you can shut." A new comprehensive high school initiative announced in Chicago this fall is a tacit acknowledgement that the district must now turn its attention to the tens of thousands of students who will never attend a new school.

Instructional Change/Alignment

When it comes to changes to existing schools, two of the most lauded recent urban reform efforts, in San Diego and Kansas City, Kan., are similar in a number of key ways. They both began a systemic change that focused on improving instruction, with key supports for leadership and professional development ("Blueprint for Student Success" in San Diego, "First Things First" in K.C.). Few large urban districts have attempted reform on such a scale, but representatives in both San Diego and Kansas City say that a district-wide focus was crucial to their success.

Kansas City (Kan.) Public Schools allowed every school to choose from certain sets of elements of First Things First, but no school could opt out of the reform system entirely. "The framework has been consistent," says Gering. "It's a powerful thing to have the central office, the high schools, the elementary schools and the middle schools all with a core common reference."

Even without a district-wide reform, the concept of alignment--not just subject matter to the key tests, but also aligning curriculum across the district and ensuring that instructors are teaching in a consistent manner--has become increasingly recognized as a key to reforming urban districts, which tend to have many schools in a variety of types of communities. For several years, for example, Boston has required every school to produce an annual Whole School Improvement Plan with a partnership of the school administration, teachers, parents and central office support staff.

HR and Professional Development

Building human capital may not get headlines, like opening a slew of new schools or completely redesigning a district's curriculum. But veterans of urban education reform say it is one of the key behind-the-scenes factors in determining if changes succeed or fail, and one that is getting increased attention. "Leadership is so critical to transforming an organization," says Hall. The Broad Foundation's focus on training and supporting school board members, superintendents, principals and classroom teachers is built on the idea that urban reform requires smart, capable decision makers.

In San Diego, Mary Hopper cites a program for principal professional development as a key factor in the district's turnaround. "We taught our principals how to analyze instruction, how to teach instruction. Not just running the plant, but really knowing what good teaching was and how to foster it in their schools," she says. "That's how you really institutionalize the changes coming down from a big system."

Attracting dedicated, competent teachers to urban schools is always a challenge. As reform efforts shake up the status quo, some teachers decide to leave, and human resource departments become even more important. In Kansas City, the 2000 school year began with close to 100 long-term vacancies in the schools. "HR really had to step up to bring higher and higher qualified staff on board. We got creative, worked with the state on alternative certifications and created incentives to attract folks," says Gering.

"There's no silver bullet for a strategy. We say there's a lot of silver BBs. There's probably not one thing we'd say if you do this, and nothing else, everything will be fine," says Hall. "But a lot more has begun in urban education in the last five to seven years than in the previous 20."

Carl Vogel, a Chicago-based writer, covers education and public policy issues.