Superintendents Managing Dilemmas: The Case of Small High Schools

Parents’ mixed messages often confuse children. “Go outside to the yard,” the mother of an energetic 8 year-old says with a loving smile, “you’re driving me crazy.”

District school boards and superintendents also send mixed messages to teachers and principals. Innovate in the classroom, officials tell teachers. Make site-based budget, hiring, and instructional decisions, district officials tell principals. Yet at the same time that these very same officials want principals and teachers to innovate and be autonomous, they also want low-income students to perform well on tests and each school to comply with district and state standards. The tensions that arise from these contradictions are enough to drive practitioners to drink.

Consider small high schools. Although the romance has soured recently, small high schools have been the darling of Gates Foundation to the tune of $2 billion over the last decade. Even with Gates grants, tensions inexorably arose between some superintendents and their small high schools over autonomy to hire staff and spend money. District officials expected these newly-formed schools to increase student test scores and graduate larger numbers of low-income minority students who then enroll in college—all within a couple of years. Be Free to Innovate But Increase Student Scores. Talk about mixed messages!

How can superintendents negotiate these inevitable tensions over small high schools and be consistent in their message to practitioners? One superintendent in Mapleton (CO), a small urban district north of Denver, has learned to manage this common dilemma.

With school board and key stakeholders’ support, Charlotte Ciancio, a rookie superintendent appointed in 2001, designed a reform with her executive team in this largely Latino and low-income district of just over 5,000 student that promised to reverse the downward spiral of student test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase graduates entering college. Between 2004-2007, district officials converted Skyview High School into seven small high schools on the main campus and elsewhere in the district. After visiting projects around the country, they imported whole school models such as New Tech High, Expeditionary Learning Schools, and Big Picture schools plus home-grown versions of Coalition of Essential Schools. The imports came with coaches and professional development opportunities funded by each of the model developers and the Gates Foundation. District officials largely hired mostly outsiders as principals and these principals, they were called “directors,” hired many new teachers (the local union endorsed the small high school reform) as veterans retired or left because these major changes were too much for them.

As implementation unfolded, state test scores showed further declines (e.g., Anglos tested 7 percent proficiency in math while Latinos tested 4 percent). The Superintendent realized that the imported models and their developers would have to pay far more attention to state curriculum standards and tests or the district would be put on probation. The tension between school-site autonomy and doing something about low test scores in reading and math (Colorado tested students every year through the 10th grade) reached a peak by the third year of implementation.

The superintendent and executive team then hit upon a collaborative process that could reconcile each model’s core principles, site-based autonomy, and attention to test scores: Staff Support Teams (SST). These SSTs do monthly walk-throughs of small high schools classrooms, meet with the school-based team of director, teachers, and other staff and debrief each visit to determine the consistency between what the school is doing, the climate in the school, and what it says it wants to do.

Together, the SST and school team figure out how the district office can help on problems that have cropped up during visit including getting additional resources. Together, they work out ways that staff can integrate state standards into the curriculum, improve classroom work, and respond to out-of-state model developers’ advice. SSTs negotiate important changes in curriculum and instruction. In some cases these adaptations have been adopted by the model’s out-of-state developers. Both formally and informally, SSTs maintain consistency between district and school policies as well as become a crucial mechanism for sustaining the model’s core principles while adapting to changing circumstances.

SSTs, however, are not miracle cures. The teams are school-smart district officials but not extra-terrestial super-stars. They have created a climate of trust with directors and staffs. They work closely with the school team on each visit to bring more consistency between district expectations, school decisions, and what happens daily in classrooms. In negotiating more internal consistency through specific actions by both district officials and school teams, they reduce mixed messages to teachers and students.

Thus, through these SSTs, district officials end up managing a crucial dilemma that, without attention and action, often has killed important reforms in districts.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

2 responses to “Superintendents Managing Dilemmas: The Case of Small High Schools

  1. Is there any evidence from Mapleton that the SST’s are working?

    • larrycuban

      According to those we interviewed at the sites (both teachers and administrators) and what we directly observed on two site visits, SSTs “are working” insofar as increased cooperation between school and district office and decreased gap between each model’s goals and school practices. If by “working” you mean improved student outcomes, I (nor other researchers) have no grip on determining that now.

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