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A Tale of Three Districts with Very Different Economies, Demographics and Education Programs

By Virginia “Ginni” Davis - August 25, 2011

(Editor’s Note: During her career as a district office administrator, Virginia Davis served in three school districts with markedly different economic conditions, parent demographics, and educational programs – as well as different levels of support from the community. EdBrief invited Davis to share some observations about meeting student needs in the context of these divergent settings.)

My career in public education recently concluded after serving as Associate Superintendent in three very different districts.

One district is in a small Sacramento valley town surrounded by farm fields, with a high percentage of Latino students and families with commuting parents.

Another district is in a middle- sized town that grew up around a public university and is close to the State capital with a majority of educated, middle income families.

The third school district is in the center of Silicon Valley with a high-profile private university, a majority of Asian students and high income families.

The public's confidence and satisfaction in each of these districts is directly correlated to the affluence of the communities and schools. Opinions are based on test scores, college acceptances, sports team wins, music awards, and other factors that are important but are not correlated to the actual learning experiences of every student in every classroom. There is ample research that underlines the importance of having skillful instructional principals to lead schools and highly educated, experienced and collaborative teachers to educate students. Wonderful educators can be found in each of the three districts, as well as educators who are ineffective in their current positions. And that is what really makes the difference for every child in every classroom.

Parents in the small valley town are often not English speakers and work during the day or out of town so that parent participation is less visible. School principals and teachers are infrequently questioned about their rules, instruction, or assessment scores.  Parents want their children to do well and to graduate from the high school with career or higher education options, but trust the schools to counsel their students into college preparation courses and to prepare their children for their future. Parcel and bond tax measures are difficult to pass, and are typically lower funding amounts than neighboring districts. Donations to the schools are as generous as the community can afford. Sometimes, lower income districts with minority populations that have lower achievement scores are able to obtain federal and State additional funding as well as foundation grants for specific initiatives like increasing parent participation."

The middle-size university town includes many parents who are well-educated professionals, with the time and flexibility to volunteer in classrooms, raise support for parcel taxes, and advise principals and teachers on the best ways to run schools. They expect their children to go to college, but feel they have to ambitiously advocate for their children to help them prepare for their futures. The community donates substantial dollars to the district to attempt to maintain support staff, smaller class sizes, and sports and music programs in spite of the funding reductions from the state. This yearly reduction of state funding has had a negative impact on class sizes, support staff and specialists, and technology personnel support. Parents heavily subsidize music and sports programs, school libraries, technology, and field trips. The district is one of the last in the State to segregate their 'gifted students' based on an assessment given in the third grade. The results of this one-time exam then track students into expanding GATE strands of special classrooms that siphon off children for the remainder of their elementary years and into special placements at the junior high schools. Parents anguish in anticipation of this exam and the sorting and selecting that ensues afterwards.

In the highly affluent district, many of the parents are lawyers, professors, and business administrators who are taking time from their careers to raise their children. These parents are very involved in the schools and classrooms with confidence that graduating from this district will be a guarantee for the academic future success of their children. Parent donations and fundraising drives deliver millions of dollars to the district.  Additionally, due to the district’s status as a basic aid district, they benefit from property tax revenues that fund each child at a higher level than revenue limit districts. There is no separation of students for special gifted classrooms as every classroom is considered to be enriched. However, the district has been designated as significantly disproportionate in the numbers of minority students placed in special education compared to the percentages of minority students in the general population. The achievement gap between white and Asian students compared to the Hispanic and African American students actually shows that minority students' scores decline the longer they remain in this district. But the numbers of minority students relative to the large number of extremely high achieving non-minority students leads to a reluctance to change teaching practices. And clearly, the expectation that minority students who struggle should then be referred for special education is a disservice to these children.

Unfortunately, greater funding for districts does not guarantee success for every student. On the contrary, the need to address what is crucial for student learning while making wise budget reductions can help focus a district, including the leaders, teachers, and a community. Further, districts where students do not have enriched home environments are much more aware of the need for educators to improve in order to meet the needs of their students. Wealthier districts exhibit apathy among the adults towards their mission to make every student successful. Satisfaction with the status quo, to not make waves, to not improve on what is working for the majority of students in the wealthy districts leads to organizational resistance to change even when there is clear data that ten or fifteen percent of the students are not academically successful or socially thriving.  Principals and teachers take pride in their exceptional student scores, attributing this success to the school system rather than understanding the impact of the parents and home environment as the real basis for student achievement.

In my anecdotal experience and in reflecting on where my district level efforts made the most difference for students, it is clear that the lowest income district was where the district management team made the most impact.  The principals and teachers in this smaller district were unaccustomed to centralized support.  They were incredibly grateful for efforts made to receive grants or donation funding that made huge differences in what could be offered to students.  It was far easier to develop a common purpose and true collaboration among the principals and teachers when these combined efforts created immediate and dramatic positive surges in student assessment scores.  The district leadership modeled and actively engaged in professional learning side by side with the teachers, celebrating together when student gains were made.

Schools have changed since 1973 when I began teaching. Or, actually, many schools have not changed, but the students who come to our schools now live in a very different world. Technology and virtual learning (in forms that are taken for granted today) were unknown back then. The definition of family or assumptions about what makes a family are now very different. The mandates from the federal and state government regarding standards, curriculum, and assessments were minimal when I taught.  Principals rarely walked into classrooms other than for two formal hour-long observations during the year to evaluate new teachers.

As the administrative portion of my career as a school principal and then district level administrator evolved over two decades, my understanding of the importance of strong instructional leaders became much more acute.  Education should not be described as pockets of success with random acts of improvement. Blaming the children brought to our schools by their parents is unfair and unproductive when it is the duty of the adults who work in the system to change to meet the needs of their students. Superintendents, other district level administrators, and site principals must thoroughly understand and be able to model that every student requires teaching designed to allow each student to excel. High expectations for each and every student coupled with inclusive practices where students are not isolated into special classes for gifted, English learners, or special education are now well-known as ‘best practices’.  This co- teaching among specialists, general and special education teachers to support each other in inclusively teaching students has become the focus for professional learning in many districts.

Teachers rightly feel overwhelmed with the increasing numbers of students who have a wide range of educational needs. Teachers must be able to have consistent, intensive support from the leaders in their district in order to address their daily work. Principals should be expected to provide instructional feedback in every classroom throughout the year. In addition, teachers who truly collaborate and form small learning groups, should be provided with time to observe one another using feedback protocols. Research shows this practice most effectively enhances teacher learning and expertise. Lower income districts, with skillful leaders, capitalize on the urgency of raising assessment scores to provide these learning environments for the adults that translates into the most effective learning environments for their students.

Much has been written about the predictability of school success depending upon quality preschool experiences for young children which predetermines their kindergarten experience as positive or a struggle. A few teachers overtly group the “non preschoolers” in the first week of school as needing retention therefore not expecting much from them during their first round of kindergarten.

And on the other end of the public school journey, some secondary counselors discourage or do not consider registering “certain” students in college entry courses. The parents of these students often do not understand that the high grades their children bring home will not qualify them for college admission as the classes are not in the college-ready track. The cultural lenses and adult presuppositions about students are crucial ingredients for student success or failure. These adult behaviors were observed in all of my former districts, but thankfully was not the predominant practice.

Capability for changing how to educate our youth in this century, combining virtual learning with opportunities to engage and to communicate with educators and among peers, will improve education for students. Moving toward specialists who collaborate closely with one another to teach every child, providing inclusive instruction will align the mission of districts to actual practice. Expecting secondary teachers to closely collaborate within and outside of their departments to engage their students in their learning, while not expecting elementary teachers to be content specialists in every content area will make a huge difference in student outcomes.

Students learn and thrive in each of these three districts regardless of the wealth of the district. It is wonderful to be able to offer the variety of activities, classes, and extra curricular opportunities that the wealthier districts offer. In a more perfect world, all districts would be able to provide more equivalent experiences for the children in our state, not dependent upon the income of the parents. But, bottom line, it is each teacher, with each student, in each classroom, with each principal, that is the critical component in education. A job in education still has to be one of the most intrinsically rewarding careers possible. It certainly was for me.