Over the past year, new superintendents have been appointed in urban school districts across the country, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, Newark, Providence, and others. As these new leaders prepare to begin their work for the upcoming school year, we spoke with Angela Romans, co-director of District & Systems Transformation at AISR, who offers them some key advice:
Tip #1: Build on what’s been done before, both within the district and with your community
Teachers and principals are often victims of initiative churn. Because the average tenure for urban superintendents is around three years, there’s this notion of, “Well, good work is happening, but now something else is going to come in, and we’ll have to start all over.” For those trying actively to make change and improve schools for children and families, this churn is like not letting seeds grow – when you plant new initiatives, they need time to grow. It’s important not to immediately throw out work that’s already happened, but to give it time. Sustainable change takes time, and so it would be better to have a three-to-five-year plan as opposed to a zero-to-two-year plan, for evaluating initiatives, understanding their impact, identifying their bright spots.
When a new superintendent or district leader comes in, they often want to do community engagement, so they go out and ask the community what they want. And community members respond, “I just told the last person all of this, and nothing happened.” So, before you go out to talk to people, it’s important to take the time to really absorb and understand what has already been done—read those reports that are sitting on the shelf and listen to your director of family and community engagement who is doing this work, because they can tell you the efforts that have already happened, what worked, and what didn’t. Instead of asking community members, “What do you want?” lead with, “This is what I understand to be the important values and goals from the community, from what you have said in the past. Is this correct? How can we work on this together?” This approach honors previous efforts, and it honors the community members who continue to come out to those engagement conversations, even if it means sharing the same things over and over, because they want real change for their kids.
Tip #2: Foster true partnerships
Many districts continue to look at community partners narrowly, as service providers rather than as true partners. A real partnership is where districts and community partners agree: “We are working together to improve outcomes for students and families. We have agendas that we can co-construct. We have potential goals and performance measures. We can decide jointly how we’re going to measure the impact of our work.”
At AISR, we believe in a strong education ecosystem – a “smart education system” – that is collectively responsible for the outcomes for children and families. Schools and districts should work with partners to develop shared goals, even though it’s a harder process than simply creating a service contract and plopping it down in front of the partner. They should ask, “What do we want to see as outcomes? How do we want to work together?” This begins to build a culture of partnership, of shared ownership and responsibility for children and families. And that really requires sitting down and having honest, open conversations. In our scan of the Los Angeles educational ecosystem, we found an example of this kind of equal partnership at the school level in Promesa Boyle Heights, a collaborative of community members, schools, and community organizations working together to improve outcomes for students and families in their neighborhood.
Tip #3: Focus on equity and excellence
Many districts decide that they’re just going to focus on excellence – “Let’s just raise standards for all kids and make sure we have high expectations,” which is certainly important. But you can’t have excellence without equity. You can’t get to excellence without really thinking about the needs of your most underserved students and having the tough conversations across the district about what it will take to effectively serve all students and families, potentially focusing resources in a differentiated way to really double down on the support for the students and families and communities that need it most.
For example, we’ve seen in AISR’s PASSAGE (Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity) project that reducing school suspensions in general, without looking at racial disparities and figuring out real strategies to reduce those racial disparities in school discipline, doesn’t solve the problem of exclusionary school discipline practices. In Chicago, district efforts reduced suspensions and expulsions significantly, but when they disaggregated their data, they found that racial disparities were not reduced, and in some places were exacerbated – black and brown kids in Chicago are being suspended at a much higher rate than white kids across the system. So that gets at the idea of excellence without equity – when you’re really trying to create an equitable system, you need to move beyond simply trying to reduce the number of suspensions; we need to ask what is it about the culture in our schools and districts that creates these persistent disparities, where teachers and principals are more likely to suspend black and brown kids, beginning as young as pre-K and kindergarten.