The Special Administrative Board (SAB) overseeing St. Louis Public Schools has approved a school improvement plan intended to serve as a blueprint for earning back full accreditation for the district.
The plan developed by Superintendent Kelvin Adams divides schools into four tiers based on academic performance and lays out the five overarching goals listed below.
- Align classroom instruction with new "Common Core" standards and build a stronger support system for struggling middle- and high-school students.
- Monitor student data systematically and then make sure that information makes its way into classroom instruction.
- Identify effective styles of instruction and provide regular and constructive feedback to educators.
- Ensure that schools are welcoming places and better engage families.
- Make sure that all students are prepared for kindergarten.
It tightens central office oversight and funnels $6.4 million toward the 18 lowest performing schools in a tier called the Superintendent Zone. The money will pay for a collection of initiatives aimed at increasing student success, including added social workers, focused tutoring and teacher training. The plan will also explore a model in which partnerships with outside groups like the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, United Way and Big Brothers Big Sisters help provide added services to at-risk students at one or more schools.
“So, unlike other plans where we try to tackle the entire district, every school that’s doing well, every school that’s doing poorly, and we don’t necessarily concentrate our resources,” Adams said. “I think it’s a little different because we’re concentrating our resources to the greatest need. I think that’s really it.”
It includes an added emphasis on developing students’ social and emotional skills. And even though the SAB approved the plan, board member Richard Gaines reiterated that portions will continue to be evaluated, especially when it comes to partnerships with outside groups to provide student support.
“So that we are certain that they comport with the way and the direction of this school system over the next two years,” Gaines said.
Adams also said that he’ll go back to the board to approve a policy that standardizes the type of data collection and formatting the distict provides to external partners.
“We have to ask organizations to adapt to what we have and make what we have work in their situation,” said SAB President Rick Sullivan.
If one of the 18 low performing schools fails to make academic strides next school year, the district could bring in a nonprofit operator to take over operations during the 2015-16 school year. That provision has dominated the public debate and drew criticism during public hearings.
“And we heard you loud and clear," Adams said. "We are going to be mindful that we go back to the table and have conversations with the community if this occurs and when this might occur.”
Adams has said the intention is not to give away schools, nor would an outside operator have control of a school for an indefinite period of time. Rather, Adams has said that it’s critical to leave all options on the table when it comes to ramping up classroom performance in the district's lowest performing schools.
Other large districts in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago have experimented with bringing in outside groups to refurbish academic performance in chronically low performing schools.
“It’s not the only option that these city school districts use,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. “But it is one, particularly when a district has trouble turning around a chronically low performing school on its own.”
The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit is planning to study whether or not bringing in outside turnaround groups can move the academic needle. So far, Casserly said outcomes are all over the map.
“It’s not always effective,” Casserly said. “In general, I’d say the odds are a little better than average that it would produce a better result than is current the case. But, it’s not a slam dunk either way.”
Specific reasons for how or why the strategy works or flat lines remain unclear, and Casserly said it often depends on selecting the right outside operator and strategy for an individual school.
“We’re not always sure what the circumstances are that produce results,” Casserly said. “When it doesn’t produce a result, we’re not always sure why.”
Adams has repeatedly pointed to the Apollo 20 program in Houston as a prime example of where the strategy has moved the academic needle. The project is the brainchild of Harvard Economist Roland Fryer, who concluded in a paper published last December that the approach was working.
“All statistical approaches lead to the same basic conclusions,” Fryer wrote, “Injecting best practices from charter schools into low performing traditional public schools can significantly increase student achievement."
The Houston Education Research Consortium, a partnership between Rice University and the Houston Independent School District, reviewed Fryer’s conclusions and conducted its own analysis of student performance. Ruth López Turley worked on the paper and said it may be overly optimistic to assume Apollo 20 can sustain academic improvement over time.
“There were several components to the program,” López Turley said. “The main component that seemed to be driving the gains was the high dosage tutoring.”
Apollo 20 includes intense tutoring focused on math, and students saw a large academic improvement in that subject area. Adams' plan calls for similar tutoring efforts in schools with a history of low academic performance.
While Apollo 20 students saw early success when they participated in intense tutoring, the progress dropped off in the second year. López Turley said that uptick and decline may be the result of a classic problem facing a range of schools -- hiring and retaining qualified educators.
“They were able to really bring in all these qualified tutors for the first year,” López Turley said. “But they had trouble keeping them for the second year.”