Children in Utah's low-performing schools are raising their scores, and with continued support from the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE), they are reaching new heights with record-breaking gains in achievement.
At the University of Virginia Darden School of Business PLE pairs Darden experts with school systems to institute new practices and increase student success. The approach requires work with educators at every level - from state and district administrators to school principals and teachers.
Positive Turnaround Through Collaboration
"In the state of Utah, a number of districts had persistently low-achieving schools," said Karl Wilson, state director of Title 1 and federal programs at the Utah State Office of Education. "We have seen these schools implement the principles that were developed through PLE, and they have achieved 20, 30 and 40 percent gains in areas such as reading, language arts and mathematics."
Prior to the new school year, state and district school leaders from Salt Lake City received lessons in leadership that broadened their professional toolkits during a two-week Executive Education residency at the Darden School. Their experience is now a part of Darden's many top global Executive Education offerings taught by some of the world's most highly acclaimed faculty.
"We offer the nation's only turnaround program that focuses on establishing system-wide changes and building transformative leadership," said William Robinson, interim executive director of PLE. This is the second year that Robinson has worked with the Salt Lake City group in PLE's three-year program. He looks forward to seeing the group take their next bold steps toward a successful turnaround process.
When the Salt Lake City cohort finished the PLE residency and returned home, several of them made school site visits to ensure that their teachers were prepared to help every child learn and succeed this academic year.
"I have two cohorts. One is a set of schools that have been a part of this for one year, and they have their own individual program to work toward this year. And we have a new set of schools that are developing their priorities for us as a district," said Patrick Garcia, associate superintendent for Salt Lake City School District and district shepherd. "We must realize how we can support the common goals as well as the individual goals of our schools and move forward with our district priorities as well.
A Systemic Approach
"Educators are like parents. They want what's best for their kids. However, its not enough to have a series of good teachers in the classroom," added Barbara Kuehl, director of academic services in Salt Lake City's school district, who attended the PLE July residency with colleagues Wilson and Garcia. "We need to build effective systems around those good teachers. That's where leadership comes in."
Kuehl also cited Darden's focus on involving all stakeholders in the process of implementing change, a task that is familiar to Dorothy Cosgrove, the recently retired Salt Lake City School District associate superintendent. Before leaving the district, Cosgrove was among the first group of leaders to implement changes developed in partnership with PLE.
"We needed to intervene quickly and do things differently," said Cosgrove. "We sought quick wins by becoming data-driven, suspending beliefs and assumptions about children's learning abilities, and regularly assessing the children's mastery of what was taught."
Cosgrove added that the PLE is the most impactful intervention she has ever seen and referred to Darden leaders' abilities to listen and build confidence.
"Now, the group will go after the harder goals," she said. "They will further establish the 'Salt Lake Way' and take changes in the curriculum and the way success is measured into all of the district's schools."
"Our theory is that teachers and students are working in broken systems and leaders can transform those systems by re-envisioning and rethinking the design of the system, and having district and school leaders work together to ignite change," Robinson said.
Commitment to Improvement
Since its inception in 2003, PLE has helped to turn around failing schools across 16 states, including Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Its goal is to work as a true partner in helping school systems optimize classroom performance. If a school district wants to work with PLE, they must first make sure they are ready. According to Robinson, districts should be prepared to take ownership of the system changes needed to create positive results.
"They need to be willing to commit to dramatic growth, to make difficult changes to establish conditions for growth, and be able to demonstrate publicly to their stakeholders that dramatic success and growth are possible," he said.
The Salt Lake City school system experienced growth in all four initial partnership schools during its first year with the PLE. Going forward, it must sustain its positive improvements so that all involved - especially students - continues to get high marks.
"This experience has really been top notch. It has given me confidence in terms of understanding what it is that we want to go about doing and I'm just really geared up and ready to go after it," Garcia added.
About the Darden School of Business
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business is one of the world's leading business schools, offering MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. The unique Darden experience combines the case study method, top-ranked faculty whose research advances global managerial practice and business education, and a tight-knit learning environment to develop responsible and complete leaders who are ready to make an impact.
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