Transforming Board Leadership

By Lawrence Hardy

Remember seventh grade and how the reputation you earned -- or were stuck with -- that year tended to stay with you in eighth grade and ninth grade and beyond? The same thing can happen with school districts: They get a reputation, deserved or not, and that reputation sticks with them -- that is, until something big happens to change it.

Several years ago, Stephen Morris ran for school board in Sandoval CUSD 501 in large part to change the reputation of this small, rural district in southern Illinois. Sandoval, says Morris, the current board president, was where “troublemakers” tended to land when they couldn’t make it in other systems. It was where poverty was high and expectations for and among students low; where the idea of a good future after high school was getting a job in the zinc smelter or the coal mines -- even though the smelter shut down years ago and the mines had been closed for decades.

Today, Sandoval is still small (530 students), rural, and high-poverty, with more than 80 percent of its elementary school students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch. What’s changed -- and changed in a big way -- is its commitment to providing all of its students with an education for the 21st century.

None of this could have happened without a dedicated district staff and a determined school board that has coalesced around a single goal.

“There are certainly some diverse opinions around the table, and some diverse backgrounds around the table,” says Angie Peifer, who recently retired as an associate executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) and has worked extensively with Sandoval. “But one of the things that unites them is [the belief that] ‘we’ve got to do more for these kids.’”

Big challenge, big change

Theirs is a big challenge. For the past eight years, Sandoval High School has not made adequate yearly progress on Illinois’ Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE), which tests 11th-graders in reading, math, and science.

In 2010, it was rated among the lowest 5 percent of Illinois districts, in terms of student achievement, and was thus eligible to apply for a School Improvement Grant under the No Child Left Behind Act. That year, under new Superintendent Jennifer Garrison, the district applied for the grant but was turned down. It applied the next year, and was accepted. Now it is starting the third year of a $4 million grant, a big -- if temporary -- boost to an annual operating budget of about $5 million.

Getting the grant was one thing. Putting it to good use and setting in motion the kind of practices that can sustain themselves after that grant runs out is another. This is especially critical given Illinois’ fiscal situation, which has cost the district some $300,000 a year in state aid. Along the way, Peifer says, Sandoval has begun the all-encompassing process of transforming the district’s culture to one in which high achievement and college preparation is the norm.

On the first day of school in 2011, the district held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the high school to send a message that Sandoval was committed to changing its attitudes and expectations.

The message was: “Yes, it’s the same buildings,” Morris says. “But everything that goes on in these buildings for the next three years will not be the same, and will never be the same again.”

Rising ninth-graders got a preview of that new attitude over the summer. They were required to attend the district’s first Freshman Academy, where they learned everything from note-taking strategies to how they were expected to move from class to class.

The district picked the “transformation” model for school improvement, one of four models authorized by the U.S. Department of Education and one that required the district to change the leadership at the 150-student high school.

Such a move could be disruptive for some districts. However, Sandoval’s high school principal was retiring in a year. With a little juggling -- the high school principal went to the elementary school, and the elementary school principal moved to another administrative position -- the district was able to maintain a sense of continuity amid the changes.

Such changes do not happen without a lot of effort, especially in a small district where everyone tends to “wear many hats,” as Garrison puts it. Among the key players were the new high school principal, the grant administrator, the new grant administration team, and the school board.

Peifer, who now does consulting work for IASB, said she was awed by the resolve and dedication of the board, which voted 7-0 to pursue the transformation plan. Members backed up that commitment by adding hours of extra planning time to their already busy schedules.

“They added about six meetings a year to their meeting agenda, focusing on student learning and achievement and their role in supporting that,” Peifer says.

Achievement through governance

The first year of the grant was largely about changing the district culture to one in which postsecondary education or training was expected. “Then we really looked at researched-based statistics in reading and math,” Garrison says.

After attending a workshop on Data First, a joint program with NSBA’s Center for Public Education and state school boards associations, Sandoval board members decided they needed more intensive training on the key data surrounding student achievement. IASB provided that training over the course of several months through its Targeting Achievement through Governance program.

“We have always been a data-rich district, but information poor,” Morris says.

District staff worked to better align the curriculum with the state tests and the Common Core State Standards. When a school counselor retired, her job description was changed to concentrate less on tasks like scheduling and more on small group work with students and helping them to develop individual education plans for college or careers.

“We feel that senior year is almost too late, so we want to intervene earlier in their high school career,” Garrison says. “Our long-term goal is to eventually go all the way down to seventh grade.”

The teachers union was a partner in the plan from the beginning, as was the community as a whole. But change is always difficult, and it took time for all teachers to see the need to adjust some teaching methods, as they were encouraged to do by instructional coaches provided through the grant.

“At first, the teaching staff was reluctant,” Morris says. “It’s a little like me coming in and telling you how to do your job.”

Students embrace the changes

Eventually, everyone got on board -- including the students. The high school started a program called Zeros Not Permitted that requires all students to turn in homework for credit. Juniors were offered a voluntary, eight-week Saturday program called Hawk Flight to help them prepare for the ACT and PSAT. And study hall was abolished. “Kids were not using these study halls for what study hall was designed for,” Morris says. In its place is a targeted 15-minute period when students can seek out specific teachers for extra help.

The college-going culture is being nurtured through a close partnership with Kaskaskia College, a two-year institution about 12 miles away. With the help of the grant, the district sent more than 20 students to the college last year for free dual-enrollment classes. It’s a number that, while sounding small, is almost the size of the entire senior class.

Travis Michael, who graduated last year, was one of those students. He’s now at Kaskaskia, pursuing an associate degree in applied sciences. He is planning to continue his studies at a four-year school and is considering a career in engineering. He is the first member of his family to attend college.

“It’s different,” he says, “because everyone else graduated high school and got a job.”

About his peers who graduated last year, Michael says, “As far as I know, everyone … plans to go to college, too.”

For those high school students who do want to go directly into careers, the district offers courses in the health care field through Kaskaskia as well as a certificate in welding, which can lead to trade certification -- with additional college work. Already, Morris says, Sandoval graduates are getting welding jobs in the area because of the program.

And what about the academic results? It’s still early -- just two years into the grant -- but the results so far have been encouraging, to put it mildly. The state average for juniors taking the PSAE tests for math, science, and reading has hovered around 50 percent meeting or exceeding expectations over the past two years. Sandoval’s scores climbed from 25 percent in 2011-12, to 40 percent in 2012-13. Over the same period, district science scores climbed from 44 percent to 52 percent meeting or exceeding expectations, and reading scores from 35 percent to 64 percent.

Sandoval may be tiny, but the model it is creating -- close cooperation among key players and a lot of hard work -- offers lessons for school systems of any size.

“They go above and beyond,” Peifer says of Sandoval’s school board members and administrators. “It’s just been a privilege to work with them.”

Lawrence Hardy (lhardy@nsba.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.