The Benwood Initiative - Hamilton County Schools (Transformation Model)
In the late 1990s, 9 of Hamilton County’s elementary schools were ranked among the 20 lowest-performing schools in Tennessee. In 2001, the Benwood Foundation and the Public Education Foundation formed a partnership with Hamilton County schools to turn around these schools, and the Benwood Initiative was launched. Though one original Benwood school closed in the early years, the remaining 8 saw great improvements in their scores: the percentage of third graders passing the state reading exam jumped from 53% in 2003 to 78% in 2009. In the same year, 69% of third graders scored proficient or advanced in mathematics, up from 50% in 2003. In 2007, the Benwood Initiative expanded to include 8 additional schools, bringing the total number of Benwood schools to 16.
U.S. Department of Education (ED): What was the transition plan once it was decided that Benwood, PEF, and Hamilton County would partner to turn around these 9 elementary schools?
Dan Challener, President of the Public Education Fund (DC): PEF has had a longstanding relationship with the district, and the decision to reconstitute these schools was made by the district, because the data was just devastating.
We announced the opportunity [for foundation grants to turn around the schools] in January of 2001. We worked with these schools individually, holding focus groups and interviews with everyone – teachers who had lots of experience and little experience, principals, parents, and even a group of fifth graders, to understand what was happening in the schools. First, you have to listen.
Then we met with the district and the foundation, to establish goals for the schools. We wanted the goals to be simple and measurable, for example, 3rd graders should be reading at or above grade level.
A key part of our success was the fact that we encouraged each school to develop its own plan for reform. I think sometimes the district or the non-profit wants to hand a solution or a program to schools, and many times it’s a clumsy fit. So we said to the schools, here’s what the data says. Here’s what the district goals are for you. How will you get there? Each school had $100,000 in grant money, and they built a budget for that.
To help them in their planning, we held learning forums for 6 Tuesday nights in a row in the Spring, offering best practices on how to best use Title 1 funding, how to incorporate family engagement, things like that. We brought in successful principal and teacher teams from across the country to talk to our school staff. We also knew these schools had huge issues with teacher capacity from just looking at our data. So we asked schools to consider how they were going to develop this capacity.
ED: What were the biggest challenges to implementing your strategy?
DC: First, there was a belief system in our community that this work can’t be done. One of the stories I’ve told too many times is that when the editor of the local newspaper called me about the Benwood Initiative, he told me reactions were split, and some people thought it was a waste of money – one person even said that it would have been better if they lit the money on fire since it’ll provide some heat and light! But the belief has to be there for reforms to work.
Second, the fundamental issue is capacity. This is really hard in our state – actually it’s hard in most states, but in our state in particular. Over the years, we raised the standards, and things just got harder for students. We needed to be more about helping teachers teach all children to that level, and build capacity.
ED: How did you handle staffing at the Benwood schools?
DC: In May of 2001, each school submitted a plan for how they were going to reform their school. The next year, the district determined that 6 of the 9 principals in those schools were going to be removed. That was very hard.
Teachers had to reapply for their jobs, and the selection was driven by principals, and was done in partnership with teacher unions. This was a tough decision made by the superintendent of the district, after a lot of thought and consideration.
ED: What is your process for recruiting highly effective teachers to your schools? How do you continue to build their capacity?
DC: There is actually a misperception out there, that success in turning around our schools is about recruiting effective teachers. It’s not.
Even after the reconstitution of our schools, it was very hard recruit effective teachers, because it’s hard to get experienced teachers to come into into failing urban schools. So our theory of action is this: it’s about building capacity. It’s about finding teachers who want to make a difference in the lives of children, and providing the support they need to be successful.
So we invested in lots of different kinds of professional development, like school coaches and model teachers, to help coach teachers in their craft. We do summer work and afterschool work, and we have 8 professional development days in the calendar. We try to be thoughtful about what we ask people to do, and we work very hard to make training sessions as helpful as possible. The district has been extraordinarily supportive to allow professional development meetings to happen during the day.
One of the reasons why we are optimistic about our work is that we “grew” our own teachers. There was an effort to recruit experienced teachers using bonuses and things like that, but we had very little success. Instead, we created buzz with good professional development and creating an environment of teachers who want to make a difference. And once teachers heard about that, we had more applications than ever! What teachers want is good leadership, professional learning, and colleagues with a similar vision.
We used to survey incoming teachers and their reasons for choosing Benwood. Invariably, the top three reasons were the leadership team, the principal, and professional development. We’re rated highest in the district in terms of professional learning and that attracts teachers. So again, it’s a capacity issue, not a recruitment issue.
ED: What is the day-to-day role of PEF in Benwood schools? What do you envision the role of PEF to be in the long term?
DC: PEF works on professional development for principals and teachers, as well as data analysis of our schools. We have a staff person who leads monthly principal development meetings, something that’s been happening for 9 years. We just started a regular meeting for assistant principals, and we hold monthly training meetings with new teachers. We also have a fundamental fiscal role in the schools, since the Benwood Foundation entrusts us to administer the money that schools get for turnaround.
We started the Benwood Initiative in 2001, and have a commitment through 2012. We’ve identified best practices, so when we get through the end of 2012, we can give our best assessment of the practices that are most important, those that work. Of course, many of our principles have already spread throughout the district, but we want to communicate them widely.
Most are best practices that would work in every school. Our principal meetings, for example, are a low cost strategy that can continue for a very long time, and it can be taken over by districts or principals. The same goes for best practices in instruction. We do a lot of work with networks of people, and bring in teachers and principals from different schools, to learn together.
ED: Your success was based on partnerships between PEF, Benwood, the school district. How are you partnering with parents, family, and other community organizations?
DC: We’ve created a new position funded through Title 1, called the family engagement specialist or family partnership specialist. The purpose of the position is to interact with, and be the liaison, between the teachers and families. Our specialists get out into the community, and they focus on helping parents understand the process of learning, and they also help teachers understand what they need to know about the families they’re working with. There’s been a shift in the way we look at parent engagement – it’s really not about getting the parents to the schools for events, bringing them in for basketball games. Instead, it’s about helping parents understand what good learning is, and what they can do to support their child’s learning.
ED: What advice do you have for principals or organizations embarking on the important work of turning around a school?
DC: A few things. First, we think the use of data and value added assessments to be clear about your goals is important. We were very clear about goals in the beginning – goals must be measurable, and they must be public. You need to use data to create your goals and drill down on where you are making progress. So many people think data is about identifying the weak end, but if it’s done right, it can capture your best practices. I mean, you have the most phenomenal teachers out there, and no one is aware of how good they are. The key is to make everyone aware of what best practices looks like, and it’s so needed, because teaching usually such a private practice.
For example, we looked at last year’s results for literacy at Red Bank Elementary for 4th graders, and they were just incredible! So we went to watch what was happening, and had other schools go and visit their grade level meetings, and also classrooms. It’s not that this is the only answer, but it is one answer.
Second, and I’ve said this multiple times, but it’s about capacity. If districts are looking at this grant money and thinking, what can I buy, how can I incentivize superstars to come to my schools – it’s going to be a waste of money. You have to build the capacity of the folks you do have of the people in the classroom. By building knowledge, you’re building in sustainability. All of our grade level teachers meet 3 times a week to improve their craft, and we have our principal and assistant principal meetings – these things won’t go away once the funding goes away.
Third, just keep trying things. We don’t have a “model.” We keep refining, thinking, asking where are we in getting the results, and what should we do if we’re not? For example, we now have lead teachers [to coach teachers], but before, we had model classrooms, and before that, national consultants. We have a lot of things [in our schools] that we didn’t have before. And we keep trying, because while we’ve seen tremendous progress, we’re still not there.