The Work of School Boards

By Del Stover

School reform is possible. Low-performing schools can turn around. Student academic performance can improve, no matter what obstacles exist to learning.  

And local school leaders can make all of this happen.

ASBJ readers can draw these conclusions from this issue’s report on three school systems -- diverse in size, demographics, and affluence -- that have worked successfully to improve their students’ chances for academic success.

Their stories are at odds with the opinions often voiced by critics of public education. Rather than view local school governance as part of the solution, some policymakers -- and no small number of pundits -- are quick to dismiss the contribution of local school leaders.

Instead, they look for simple solutions to complex problems. What’s needed, some say, are smaller classes. Others champion charter schools or vouchers. Some argue that prescriptive curricula or tougher graduation requirements will do the trick. A few even question the need for school boards at all.

There’s always, it seems, an easy solution -- a silver bullet -- that will solve the challenges of public education.

You, the readers of ASBJ, know better. You understand that each school system confronts its own unique challenges. And despite all the well-meaning mandates and policy decisions of state and federal officials, the decisions of local school leaders are ulitmately what push forward school reform and raise student academic achievement.

For proof, you need look no further than the Skidmore-Tynan Independent School District, a school system of fewer than 800 students just north of Corpus Christi, Texas. There, Superintendent Brett Belmarez made few friends with his decision to replace principals working in his three schools.

It wasn’t a decision based on petty feuding or personality conflicts. It was simply a hard-nosed decision about how to best serve students -- particularly a growing population of Hispanic youth struggling to show academic success.

Belmarez couldn’t have replaced these administrators -- or pushed through other reform decisions -- without other school leaders who were determined to put students’ needs above all else. This board stood behind its superintendent, although not always without contention. As board President Keith Petrus bluntly put it: “I’ve spent most of my time on the board just fighting to let Dr. Belmarez do his job.”

Such determination ultimately shaped this success story, but it takes more than dedication, of course, to turn around schools. In Maryland’s Montgomery County Schools, academic success also took clear goals, data-driven decision-making, and an eye on accountability.

Montgomery County’s story begins with the 1999 hiring of Jerry Weast, who started his tenure “collecting every shred of data he could lay his hands on.” Following that up with an extensive community outreach effort, which sought the input and concerns of parents and community leaders, he and the school board hammered out “Our Call to Action,” a strategic plan that set the school system’s course for years to come. And school officials haven’t put that plan on a shelf to gather dust. They use it to guide their decisions -- to stay on task.

Again, the results speak for themselves: In 2010, 75 percent of kindergartners were reading at advanced levels. The number of Advanced Placement exams taken by high school students has more than tripled, 87 percent of third-graders test at proficient or advanced levels, and nearly 80 percent of high school students take at least one honors, AP, or International Baccalaureate course.

And that success has come despite a major demographic shift in the affluent suburban school system, which now has a majority-minority enrollment; 30 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Of course, some would say the real challenge in public education is found in inner-city schools. When policymakers discuss “failing schools,” they often are talking about urban institutions that serve the nation’s poorest, most segregated, and most disadvantaged students. Among all of America’s schools, these are seen as the toughest to fix.

That reality won’t change anytime soon. But again, dedicated school leadership can make all the difference. In little more than two years, Cincinnati’s superintendent and school board have seen measurable improvements at 13 of 16 academically underachieving elementary schools targeted for help. That’s not bad for an urban school system in which 68.8 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

What’s truly impressive, however, is that Cincinnati school officials don’t cite any magic bullet for their progress. What it took was hard work -- and a lot of dedication.

They still face immense challenges, but they can point to real progress, too. Principals and teachers now use student data to improve classroom instruction. Struggling students are targeted for extra help. In 2009, only 12 percent of students at Roll Hill Academy passed Ohio’s standardized tests. Within a year, the figure had jumped to 58 percent.

That is success -- led by local school leaders.

Del Stover, Senior Editor