There is no one-size-fits-all solution for improving under-performing schools, according to a report issued yesterday by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. To achieve lasting improvement, district leaders must engage a school’s surrounding community and address the unique, underlying challenges in students’ neighborhoods, homes and lives.
That’s the conclusion policy researcher Michael Diedrich, author of the SPFT report, reached after a deep analysis of efforts to turn around one under-performing school in the St. Paul district, Frogtown’s Maxfield Elementary.
Diedrich discussed his report, “Capacity, Context and Community: Learning from School Improvement Policy at Maxfield Elementary,” at the East Side Freedom Library yesterday with teachers, union activists and two labor-endorsed candidates for school board, Zuki Ellis and Steve Marchese.
The panel also included Maxfield Elementary teacher Caitlin Reid, who began teaching at the school shortly before it received a three-year federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) to address “widespread misbehavior” resulting from “layers of dysfunction” inside and outside the building, according to Diedrich’s report.
The additional funding from 2010 to 2013 allowed Maxfield to add teachers and support professionals, invest in technology and extend students’ learning time. “Incidents of misbehavior dropped, and the responses to the remaining incidents were more thorough and constructive,” Diedrich’s report said.
With more support staff, students received more individual or small-group attention for everything from reinforcing a lesson to addressing misbehavior. But when the three-year grant ran out, Reid said, many of those support professionals disappeared.
“We saw a lot of cuts early on after the SIG,” she said. “The biggest cuts that affected us were some of the staff who did math and reading support.”
Now behavior issues are on the rise at Maxfield again, and the school has been designated a “priority school” under the Minnesota Measurements Rating system. The SIG, Diedrich said, “didn’t work very well for producing long-term change” at Maxfield.
Why not? And what can the district learn from ongoing attempts to turn Maxfield around? Panelists laid out three key responses during their discussion yesterday.
• Underlying factors behind a school’s performance matter, and policymakers who ignore those unique factors will most likely fail.
“We don’t want another cookie-cutter solution because it’s not going to work,” Reid said. “We’re not the same as every other school” that is under-performing.
Ellis said she hopes to change the St. Paul Public Schools’ approach if elected to the board. Rather than handing down policy directives without seeking input from “any parent or any teacher in that building,” Ellis said she would engage teachers, parents and community stakeholders “more thoughtfully and effectively,” asking them, “What do you need and how can we support that?”
• Engaging parents and involving the school’s community are critical to improving student performance.
“Public schools are meant to serve their communities,” Diedrich said. “One of the best ways we do that is by involving the community in making our school better.”
Reid said several Maxfield teachers have visited students’ homes as part of the union’s Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, and it’s led to greater parental investment in Maxfield’s programming. “We’re building that community of parents and teachers working together to address issues,” she said. “For me, it’s been career changing.”
• There are no quick fixes for under-performing schools, and sweeping, new policy directives every three or four years make it hard to tell what’s working and what’s not.
“That shifting of gears every three years, it’s hard on the staff, it’s hard on the kids, it’s hard on the communities,” Marchese said, adding that the school board should be “setting standards for what is expected across the system,” but giving school stakeholders flexibility in crafting – and sticking with – a plan to meet those standards.
Diedrich added: “Being able to have investment at the district level that supports you in building what works for your community is very, very meaningful. Just saying, ‘Now everybody gets an iPad!’ – that is the kind of thing that ends up being ephemeral.”