What role should the district central office really play in school improvement? — Lesson Four From Revisiting the Turnaround Challenge

This is the fourth of seven blog posts that will highlight the key points in Mi’s recent report, Revisiting the Turnaround Challenge. The report examined the outcomes of three “turnaround zones” implemented by urban public school districts in partnership with Mi between 2012-2019. Our goal was to learn from our past work to help school and district leaders and State Education Agency staff accelerate pandemic recovery in low-performing schools and begin the difficult task of reinventing public education to better serve systemically marginalized students.

The Turnaround Challenge hypothesized that clustering or grouping schools by a common characteristic would improve networking and resource allocation. Our study found that the benefits of clustering appeared to be more related to a district’s decision to establish a Zone Office outside of the district’s central hierarchy, which buffered schools from competing district demands and actively took work off school leaders’ plates so they had the time and space to focus on their priorities. 

Since the release of The Turnaround Challenge, Mi has worked with partners to offer streamlined central office support to low-performing schools – both within and outside of a zone strategy. We believe that when districts are organized in ways to best support schools, schools can then focus on what matters most for their students, accelerate student learning, and increase equitable access to the opportunities that prepare students for post-graduate next steps. 

A new zone network isn’t the only way to streamline and improve central office support. For example, district leaders in the Harrisburg School District in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, are strategically creating and redesigning their way of operating so that schools can better design and create the learning conditions that their students need to succeed. The district partnered with Mi to: conduct a district diagnostic to support the development of its initial comprehensive plan, support plan implementation, and conduct a follow-up diagnostic three years later to inform a revised comprehensive plan. 

Since the initial diagnostic in 2019, the district has made significant progress to strengthen and streamline support to schools, including cultivation of: 

  • qualified and engaged district leaders who create systems, structures, and processes to support district operations, and build trust with school-level staff; 
  • structures that support cross-departmental collaboration; 
  • structures and processes to ensure clear and streamlined communication within and from the district office to school staff, particularly school leaders; 
  • structures and greater access for school leaders to the superintendent;  
  • school improvement plans with goals specific to each school’s needs; and 
  • a clear school-level budgeting process that engages school leaders. 

The district’s recovery plan now focuses on the systems, structures, and supports that schools need to improve school learning conditions, and school leaders and staff are starting to see the impact of the progress made in the district office. Stakeholders report improved collaboration between the district office and schools to improve standards-based instructional practice. School staff report more easily accessing appropriate district leaders and improved communication with staff, families, and the community. The district has also hired a Director of Schools who supports principal development and school priorities, and school leaders report they have sufficient control over the financial resources their school needs to be successful. These early outcomes of organized district support for schools are a positive sign about the Harrisburg School District’s improvement process. 

When district central offices provide collaborative and streamlined support to the schools they serve, schools can focus more on improving how they support student success. Effective central office support is a critical aspect of a school improvement strategy. 

Click here to read the next blog post in this series.

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