School Examinations

by BRIAN L. BENZEL & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & n important transformation is underway. The result? Student achievement in Spokane Public Schools has never been greater. Our schools are helping young people reach a level of performance many would not think possible. Spokane Public Schools' teachers, administrators and support staff are demonstrating to our nation how to break the long-standing connection between poverty and low performance that exists in America.

In 2001, prior to Congress passing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, our school board set a bold goal that 90 percent of students would reach the state's high standards in reading and mathematics. We know that setting high expectations for all of us yields better results than settling for average performance. While we will not fully reach this goal in 2007, several schools are meeting it and most schools are exceeding their expectations.

We have made substantial progress thanks to the work of our students, parents, community and especially our staff -- and despite significant funding challenges. So what have we accomplished?

First we examined nearly everything in our teaching and learning system. We knew the importance of aligning the written, taught and tested curriculum and focusing on high standards for what students should know and be able to accomplish. We turned the talents of our principals toward our core teaching and learning mission. This initial investment in principals as instructional leaders supports our knowledge of how powerful teaching can accomplish advanced student learning. Regular classroom visits began and we used the experiences of our teachers and principals to develop the daily curriculum used to teach the skills all students must possess in their future.

We also worked with the Spokane Education Association to make investments in teachers by expanding their existing teaching skills. We revamped our professional development system to add a teacher mentor program, daily assistance from instructional coaches, and a specific time each week for teachers to work together on instructional strategies and use assessment data to improve teaching and student achievement.

Still, student accomplishments in reading and writing far surpassed those in mathematics. So we evaluated the materials we use to teach students arithmetic and mathematical thinking skills and eliminated practices that steered many students toward math courses that were not aligned with standards; then we eliminated these courses. Students are now guided into more rigorous math courses in grades 6 through 10. Additionally, the school board added a third year of mathematics to our high school graduation requirements. Finally, we have begun to coordinate with many in higher education to clarify what students need to know beyond basic math standards so they will be prepared for their career and academic pathways after graduation.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e are also grappling with questions surrounding the differential performance of many of our students. Why are students of color and students living in poverty often performing poorly, and what can we do about it in the 180-day school year? To start, we are intentionally examining biases and privileges that are embedded in our school systems. We are thinking about how to serve the specific needs of our students rather than doing just what we have always done in the past. We are creating a culture shift among educators and an awareness of the personal impact we can have on breaking cycles of low achievement associated with our biases and perceptions.

To support our teaching and learning focus, we developed a 25-year, long-range facilities-improvement plan to update or replace the district's oldest buildings. In March 2003, voters approved our plan. Even though enrollment is dropping, we must have regular investment in our schools or we will end up with a backlog of facility work that we won't be able to finance in the future. In the spring of 2008, we will start a community conversation about the schools to be renovated in the next six-year phase of the plan, leading to a 2009 bond issue election.

Our ability to maintain our focus on student achievement and expand it while managing unfunded mandates is a significant accomplishment. Due to the work of a disciplined school board, a strong management team, dedicated staff and the support of our parents and community, we've continued to improve academic achievement in the face of state and federal laws that cost more money to implement than we receive to do the job. Local levies provide about 15 percent of our overall funding, but this systemic under-funding of laws is eroding our ability to provide the locally funded enhancements we've long come to rely upon. Clear purpose and a willingness to engage our community in tough discussions are helping us preserve important programs and services.

We've done this work in the public arena, transparently, with considerable public input. We've been up-front with the community about the funding issues we're experiencing and the academic issues we face. This transparency is viewed with suspicion by some. Others may too quickly judge us as we explore ideas, incorrectly assuming that just talking about them is the actual decision. Evidence demonstrates that many tough reductions have been avoided or altered as a result of clear public dialogue about priorities.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t has been a personal and professional privilege for me to have served the community of Spokane as superintendent of schools. The district has moved forward over the past six years, but our work is not done and the challenges have not been eliminated. We will continue to face resource issues and difficult transitions from traditions we've known but that have not produced the results our world now needs. Spokane Public Schools is solidly positioned to continue the journey from good to great.

Brian L. Benzel, Ph.D, is retiring from his position as the superintendent of Spokane Public Schools.