Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

New York City Charlotte, NC San Diego, CA

district wide reform
Across the country some districts are taking a more systemic approach to school improvement, revamping the district top-to-bottom in order to achieve reform at a larger scale. There is no magic formula; approaches vary. But the common denominator is results - lifting scores and closing achievement gaps. The strategies used in the school districts of Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, former District 2 in New York City and San Diego can teach us a lot about successful district-wide reform.


Fourth grade teacher Heidi Fernandez

Fourth grade teacher Heidi Fernandez leads a discussion at PS 126 in New York City.

Believing that teachers are the key to boosting student performance, District 2 Superintendent Anthony Alvarado, an innovator and risk-taker, set out to improve the quality of instruction throughout his area of Manhattan. By cutting central staff, he reallocated funds to invest in teacher training. He sent literacy experts and mentors to coach teachers in the classroom. He held principals accountable as instructional leaders, not building managers. When teachers and principals didn't perform, they were replaced. Surprisingly, his passion for excellence garnered the support of the teachers union. Alvarado's strategy paid off: District 2's student achievement increased from 10th to 2nd among New York City's 32 school districts during his 11-year tenure.
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Starting in 1996 in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Superintendent Eric Smith focused on meeting state standards and insuring equity among the urban and suburban schools. Smith and the district leadership replaced site-based management with a more top-down approach, establishing a district-wide curriculum along with pacing guides to keep teachers on track and on target. For its inner city, low performing schools, the district provided

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additional support and resources to level the playing field and help students meet standards. To monitor progress, the district relied heavily on data from frequent testing. When Smith left, his successor, James Pughsley continued this strategy in order to sustain the gains that had been made under Smith and insure continuity of district reform.
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The supreme test for district-wide reform is replication in a new setting. Anthony Alvarado faced that challenge in 1998 when invited to San Diego as Superintendent Alan Bersin's academic chancellor. Using a blueprint of the District 2 strategy, the Bersin-Alvarado team moved rapidly to improve instruction by reallocating funds to provide better training and mentoring for teachers, and by creating a leadership academy to train new principals in the Alvarado method. Their haste and boldness backfired. A narrow 3-2 pro-reform majority on the school board produced constant in-fighting over the reform and the local teachers union openly opposed the top-down strategy. Although the district showed improved student achievement, the Bersin-Alvarado team failed to build sufficient political support from key constituencies to sustain reform. In the school board election of 2004, opponents of the Bersin reform won control and wasted little time in dismantling reform measures and terminating Bersin's contract.
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See Also: Components of District Reform

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