LeAnn Buntrock has driven all over the southwestern United States this spring to explore why schools are failing there – including those on the remote Apache reservation of White Mountain in Whiteriver, Arizona.
Buntrock, the executive director of the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE), says, “There have been some long days” traveling the school districts which stretch from the tiny town of Whiteriver to the big city of Las Vegas.
The reservation, which has no cell phone service and is several thousand feet above sea level, is home to five schools that are chronically underperforming. “Too many kids are not reading, writing or doing math at their grade level,” says Buntrock.
That’s where the PLE program comes in. It uses Darden’s method of teaching leadership to its business students to teach leadership to school principals, superintendents and other district leaders of school districts with underperforming schools. Better schools are the result.
So far Buntrock has tackled 49 school districts and about 160 individual schools across the country. The most recent additions are these school districts in the Southwest — Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Colorado is expected to join by the fall.
Buntrock has learned a lot since the PLE program started two years ago. “I do absolutely believe that instead of approaching schools individually, you have to approach districts. You need to address the systemic issues that contribute to failure.”
In expanding the program into the five southwest states, the PLE will work with the Southwest Comprehensive Center to better schools by improving accountability, getting more state support and improving recruitment of high-quality principals and teachers. “We’re going to be working with Paul Koehler and representatives from each of the five states,’’ says Buntrock. “The consortium will be to helping districts improve performances.”
Using Koehler’s Center — of which he is the director — will allow the “pooling of resources,” says Buntrock, which includes “doing common assessments, sharing data collection and finding talented leadership.”
“These states are largely rural. They can share information and ideas,” she says. “I think everybody’s excited about this. Nobody else is doing it.”
Educators from the southwest states will be visiting Darden this summer to learn more about leadership, enhance their collaborative efforts and develop action plans. The difference this time compared to past PLE efforts is that Buntrock and her staff have already visited the districts, learned their strengths and weaknesses and made recommendations for improving school conditions that are already being put in place.
PLE emphasizes the need for a strong principal – a turnaround principal – who can lead faltering schools. But Buntrock said district leaders also need to be strong – holding people accountable while helping, not hindering, good principals and teachers in the trenches.
Overall, the PLE program has been working. “On average, we’re seeing right around a 30 to 40 percent rise in student achievement,” says Buntrock. “That’s not bad, but we’d certainly like to see it shoot up even more.”
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