Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

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district wide reform


Fourth grade teacher Emily Jarrell

Fourth grade teacher Emily Jarrell works with a student at PS 126 in New York City.

The reform carried out by Anthony Alvarado in New York City’s District 2, starting in 1987, has been hailed by educational experts as a pioneering effort at district-wide reform and a watershed in the two-decade effort to improve America’s schools. Until that time, reform had been carried out school-by-school, but reformers such as Alvarado worried that the pace of change was too slow for students and the nation. “Tony Alvarado was a turning point,” asserts Lauren Resnick, Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning. “The District 2 experiment was a turning point. It showed what could be done with serious, central leadership.”

With a district of 22,000 students, half living in poverty and one out of ten an immigrant, Alvarado had to lift the achievement levels of his district’s poorest performing students in order to improve his district’s overall performance. He was confronted with a difficult cultural mix that ranged from the wealthy upper east side of Manhattan to poor, densely populated neighborhoods of lower Manhattan in Chinatown, Hell’s Kitchen, Little Italy, Greenwich Village, and Tribeca.

Through a single-minded focus on radically improving the quality of instruction in his schools, Alvarado made change occur. He cut central staff and invested in teacher training. Searching for the best educational practices worldwide, the district leadership brought in literacy experts from New Zealand and Australia, the two English-speaking nations with the world’s highest literacy rates. They were hired to coach District 2 teachers. Alvarado also held principals accountable as instructional leaders, not building managers. He expected them to play a key role in educational improvement, working side-by-side with teachers. To drive home his point, Alvarado and his two deputies visited each school several times a year to evaluate its progress and give the principal feedback to spur further improvement. When principals didn’t deliver, he fired 20 of them.

Surprisingly, the local teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, did not try to block Alvarado’s drive to improve teaching, but rather endorsed it. The union knew Alvarado’s long track record in Manhattan’s public schools and understood that improving instruction was not a violation of the union contract. Since his years as a teacher, Alvarado had built rapport with the union; they knew his decisions were being made for sound educational reasons. So when veteran teachers balked at the new expectations put on them, the union backed Alvarado – even enabling him to move teachers out of his district.

Alvarado boosted District 2’s student achievement up from 10th to 2nd among the 32 school districts. While his successors maintained his momentum, District 2 has since dissolved and become part of the massive citywide school system under Joel Klein with 1.2 million students in 1,356 schools. As Klein pushes reform throughout the city, he has borrowed heavily from Alvarado’s strategies and has promoted several of Alvarado’s former principals to serve as instructional superintendents for a number of the city’s ten new regions. His deputy chancellor is also a graduate of Alvarado’s District 2 reforms.

Contact Information

New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007

Some Research Articles and Evaluations

“Investing in Teacher Learning: Staff Development and Instructional Improvement in Community District 2, New York City,” (1997), by Richard F. Elmore with the assistance of Deanna Burney, Prepared for the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.
District 2 in New York City used professional development as the core strategy for school improvement. This paper describes and analyzes District 2’s use of staff development to change instruction system wide. While District 2’s professional development activities may be similar to what other districts do, the authors explain that what is distinct about District 2 is the way their professional development models are organized, conceptually and managerially. (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

“Developing Principals as Instructional Leaders,” (1999), by Elaine Fink and Lauren Resnick, Learning Research and Development Center.
This report describes how principals serve as instructional leaders and not just building managers in New York City’s District 2. It is examines how the “culture of learning” among principals is developed and sustained, while at the same time maintaining a strong sense of accountability for student achievement.

“Toward Closing the Gap in Literacy Achievement,” (1999) by Mary Kay Stein, Michael Harwell and Laura D’Amico, Learning and Research and Development Center.
This study looks at literacy achievement across all elementary schools in New York City’s District 2. It then examines literacy improvement at the 13 low performing schools that were part of the district’s Focused Literacy Network. These schools received a more intense version of the support available to all schools in the district. Overall results showed improvement among all elementary schools in literacy, with greater improvement at schools in the Focused Literacy Network.

“Case Study: The Jacob Riis School (PS 126),” (1997), by D. Burney and S. Nelson-Le Gall, Learning Research and Development Center.
This is a case study of PS 126, an elementary school in New York City’s District 2 that was featured in the PBS documentary, Making Schools Work. The study was conducted in 1997 when not quite half of the students were at or above grade level in reading and math. (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

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