School system leaders can draw lessons from small pandemic learning communities to better support their students’ well-being and learning.
Reflecting on the Portfolio Strategy and School Improvement in San Antonio
A 15-minute drive from the Alamo, Ira C. Ogden Elementary School is in its first year of an ambitious turnaround effort. At the beginning of March, as part of CRPE’s 15th Portfolio Network Meeting, I toured the school with a group of educators and advocates. The school is a partnership between the San Antonio Independent School District and the Relay Graduate School of Education to build a pre-K through 8th grade personalized learning academy, aided in part by Texas’ Senate Bill 1882, on a campus that has long struggled. District-employed master teachers, only six of whom taught at the school the previous year, are paired one-to-one with Relay’s teaching fellows working to gain their teaching certificate. Students have Chromebooks for blended learning, attend school for extended days, and benefit from extra instructional support afforded by the teaching fellows.
Tim Saintsing, who oversees the partnership for Relay, explained the larger aims of building a teacher pipeline and turnaround network of schools in San Antonio. He acknowledged that Ogden faces some heavy lifts: helping students catch up academically, giving them the skills to confidently and independently navigate high school or college, and sustaining the work as the partnership grows. As Principal Ixchell Gonzalez guided us through the halls, she demonstrated a truly impressive command of each classroom’s specific lessons and objectives. When 6th graders transitioned in an orderly way between classrooms, she noted with pride the change in school culture from the year before. We saw Relay professors coach teaching fellows as they practiced lessons with each other that they would later deliver to students. It was clear that adults and students alike were engaged in a tremendous level of effort.
Ogden is just one school, but it encapsulates how the portfolio strategy—by developing autonomous, cohesive campuses that leverage partnerships and system supports—could help the lowest-performing schools in cities everywhere become places that transform lives for children and their families. In San Antonio, district officials, charter leaders, nonprofit and civic stewards, and parent advocates from nearly 20 cities joined CRPE to reflect on school improvement in detail.
Principal Ixchell Gonzalez speaks to educators on a tour of Ira C. Ogden Elementary School in San Antonio.
CRPE plays a dual role in the Portfolio Network—researching, distilling, and informing the field about the policies and practices employed by cities under the portfolio strategy while offering strategic guidance and facilitating problem-solving and cross-sector engagement. At this meeting, we let practitioner voices drive the conversation. The result was fruitful and inspiring, but sobering: the discussions reinforced just how much we don’t know about school improvement on a systemwide basis. Cities have made progress, but most still have far to go. The discussions raised significant systemic challenges that must be the focus of any community pursuing school improvement:
- First, turning around persistently struggling schools is perhaps the hardest work of portfolio management. Participants discussed five improvement strategies—staff reconstitution, innovation zones, charter conversion, school closure, and contracting for new models, much like Ogden—but few cities expressed complete confidence or clarity on which strategy they will use in their local context, or even which they are currently using. Some participants worried that without clarity the efforts will become muddled or burdened by a lack of urgency. Researchers and practitioners have much to learn about which tactics are most effective and how much disruption to students and staff should be tolerated.
- Second, to really drive and sustain the work of school improvement, cities recognized that they must do a better job of bridging the gap between policymakers and powerbrokers on one side and parents, teachers, and community members on the other. Parent advocates spoke of a desire to collaborate around “co-creation” of school programs and services. District leaders wanted public and parent engagement but wondered how or if they were best suited to facilitate it. Charter school leaders wanted to have impact beyond their walls, and nonprofit and community leaders wanted to support schools, but these groups wondered who sets the citywide vision. To push efforts forward, cities will need to find the right balance, to build buy-in and consensus on priorities while empowering school leaders to execute the work with timeliness and fidelity.
- Third, as much as school improvement is about academics, cities recognized the immense challenges that children and families face. Every child can learn and education is the best anti-poverty tool we have. But when students face hunger, gun violence, or the threat of their parent’s (or even their own) deportation, what is the role of educators to mitigate these stressors? Participants pointed to things schools are already doing, like providing up to three meals a day or colocating free health care services on campus. But conversations on social justice can make people uncomfortable. Should educators and education advocates remain silent in debates on the policies to better support children?
The challenges faced by cities are profound, but the problems are not unsolvable. The wisdom, talent, and commitment on display at this meeting would be the envy of any other field. While policy and political debates are often derided as divisive, these discussions illustrated how the free exchange of ideas is powerful, and that people from many different backgrounds and views can recognize they share a determined, common purpose. We look ahead to new research projects and new opportunities to build connections between cities to help deliver on the promise of a great education for every student and to push learning to new heights.
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