Can you see the wealth around you?
Owls rarely go hungry. It's not because we're the swiftest, but because we excel at seeing. What I've seen are pockets of prosperity in many districts. As less money from Sacramento comes your way, perhaps your ability to spot pockets of prosperity in your own backyard may help you survive and thrive.
The following suggestions are admittedly modest ones. I don't imagine they can offset the funds you are likely to lose, but paying too much attention to what you are losing and too little attention to what you still have can lead you to neglect the value of the many precious resources in hand. Here are some ideas about underutilized resources that could help your cause.
In the years of the dot-com crash, our local recreation center director saw his janitorial staff cut unbearably far. Not shy about pushing a broom, he started sweeping the gym when he realized he had two dozen able-bodied kids shooting fall-away jump shots. He hung up a sign that evening that read: "Gym privileges restricted to those who volunteer for clean-up duty." This message was well received by the kids, who got to work pushing brooms and mopping floors.
Why can't your students do some of the work at your schools? Certainly, modest clean-up work is a suitable assignment. It's even more suitable if parents are volunteering on weekends to paint, clean, and repair school buildings and help with landscaping Your students can also tutor younger students. This is not uncommon in K-8 schools, and the benefits to the tutor are well documented in research.
Some schools have gone farther, asking students to guide their own instruction by learning online. One exemplar is Joel Rose and his School of One in New York City. He spoke at the EdSource conference in Irvine in April, and his presentation is available on the conference web site in slide and video format. Two schools in the New York City school district use this math program. Students guide their own instruction using the best computer curriculum available with the help of tutors who specialize in particular subjects. Teachers roam the room, which holds about 130 students at a time. Each period is longer than usual, and the students advance at their own pace. Daily short assessments that are embedded in the curriculum let them know when they're ready for the next degree of difficulty. The key: fewer teachers are needed, so the cost-benefit is high. Recent research has documented that students in this School of One program make gains at a rate two times higher than comparable students, further boosting the cost-benefit of this approach.
Do you know what your teachers teach best? If you have elementary teachers who are three times as effective teaching math as their next best subject, why don't you give them the freedom to teach math all day long? And do you know which students your teachers are most effective teaching? If you have a teacher who shines with higher performing students, can you enable him to teach only those students? John Schacter is working with districts to help them learn where their teachers shine, and the results have been astounding. He is working here in California with the College Ready Promise schools in Los Angeles, and he has presented recently at the ASCD conference in San Francisco on his successes.
UNDERUTILIZED COMMUNITY ASSETS
In the months following the April 2000 dot-com crash, school libraries in Los Angeles USD suffered closures and cutbacks. The city library system responded quickly and elevated the public schools to be a high-priority client. They changed their acquisition plans, their library staffing, and more, aiming to fill as much of the gap as possible. Are you turning to your city library system now, as school libraries feel the squeeze?
If you're left wondering how to fund your afterschool programs, perhaps it's time to sit down with your town's parks and recreation department. They may be able to provide services you're forced to drop. If your program seems special, ask them if they'd modify what they do to better fit your requirements.
Looking for tutoring support for students? Some towns have arts organizations that are ready, willing, and able to support youth. San Francisco is lucky to have the remarkable Dave Eggers' tutoring program that helps students on a one-to-one basis, working from a storefront that doubles as a pirate store. It also takes calls for help from teachers. Even if your town doesn't have big-name writers like Dave Eggers, you're sure to have seniors with skills who would love to share them with students. You never know until you ask.
Enrollment-boosting efforts can have a huge impact on your district's financial health. The bad news of the financial downturn may be motivating parents to give up on your schools. Are you taking your survival story to your public? Are you opening your schools' doors to invite visitors to see evidence that learning is happening? Schools that have tour schedules are winning new enrollments. Many private and charter schools advertise, and they welcome parents to come on a tour. Does your district run school fairs? You should. It's a welcoming gesture that will show your public you care, that your doors and arms are open. Win over just six families with two or three children each and you've boosted your coffers by about $100,000. (That's just the first year.) Fairs and tours may also help you persuade parents from exiting. The cost is low and the benefits high. San Francisco's school fair draws 7,000 parents in six hours. What might yours draw?
Are you really putting the technology you already own to work fully? Consider communication software. Do you have an automated telephone system in place? It can be programmed to generate outbound phone messages to your parents in the language they prefer. You could mail less and phone more, saving money in the process. You can also use the automated system to notify parents when their children don't show up for school, and you might see an increase in attendance, which could bring you a funding boost.
Do you use computerized adaptive testing? These assessments adapt the rigor of their questions to the level of competence of the individual test taker. By doing so, you can get a higher-quality assessment result in less time. Test results that are more exact mean your teachers can teach more efficiently, saving time and improving their placement decisions considerably. With the next generation assessments of the Common Core State Standards due to replace STAR tests within three years, there will be fewer Scantron forms and more testing with computers. Getting started now would help your district get prepared for either the PARCC or Smarter Balance consortium ahead.
Do you have licensed computer-based curriculum to supplement your core offerings? The quality of curriculum has improved as the field has matured. Some districts are relying on computer-based curriculum for Response to Intervention and others are relying on it for GATE classes. New offerings for autistic students are showing much promise.
RANDY WARD'S ADVICE: STOP FIGHTING, OPEN YOUR EYES
In these frugal times, consider Randy Ward's story. When he arrived in Oakland after leaving Compton Unified School District as state administrator, he had just spent years returning the beleaguered Compton district to its core function: education. The community had mistaken it for a full-employment agency, he told me at a CSBA conference. That, he said, was one poor district, abandoned by Los Angeles County to fend for itself.
When he arrived at the Oakland Unified School District as state administrator, the recently demoted board members told Randy that he ought to turn to voters to approve a parcel tax measure. He told them no for two reasons: (1) Oakland hadn't yet proved it could make good use of the resources it had been given, and it needed two years to do that; and (2) Oakland's leaders were so busy fighting with themselves that they couldn't see the riches all around themUC Berkeley, the cultural resources of the Bay Area, community identity, and pride.
Oakland is not a typical California city, but is it possible that we Californians, like Oakland's leaders, have been unable to see the wealth right around us? Perhaps Randy Ward's advice is worth considering in your own backyard.
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