Five essential lessons for creating high-quality new schools

Bringing long-term positive change to the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) and reversing the district's decades-long slide means not only beefing up test scores but also closing poorly performing schools while opening innovative new ones that will give the district the edge in pushing change.

That's why the new Office of New Schools, created with a $1.65 million grant from the Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation, is so important. The office, charged with opening new schools and ensuring their success, represents the board of education's huge stake in this new direction.

This public-private partnership in educational reform will be watched closely in Ohio and beyond. The good news for CMSD leaders, however, is that this is not uncharted territory. There are lessons to be learned from Chicago, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, and other cities where high-quality schools have been successfully opened and operated. There also are lessons to be learned on what works, and what doesn't, from the charter experience right here in Ohio.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has sponsored nine charter schools since the summer of 2005 and we expect to sponsor two new schools in 2008 (the state's first KIPP school and a Building Excellent Schools school, both in Columbus). We've learned many lessons, beginning with the tremendous challenge of successfully educating acutely disadvantaged children. While we certainly have not figured it all out, here are five lessons that the CMSD Office of New Schools should consider:

  1. Dare to be different. Embrace innovation and stick by it. CMSD stepped off in the right direction when it started single-gender schools last year and stood by them despite the protests of some parents who didn't like the change. There are other areas of school operations such as instituting longer school days and an extended school year that new and existing schools should embrace, even if such changes are unpopular. Many high-quality urban schools have already made the switch to more class time. These schools utilize the extra hours to help all students succeed academically. But such changes simply can't be decreed. Teachers have to embrace the importance of longer hours and they have to be rewarded for doing so. KIPP, for example, pays teachers 20 percent to 30 percent more than the district average but expects its teachers to work 50 percent more hours. 
  2. The bureaucracy must adjust. The district bureaucracy needs to embrace being different by, for example, ensuring that buses are available to take children to school earlier and home later, sometimes hours after schools normally close. Children also need to be transported on Saturdays and over the summer. District business as usual has not worked in the past and will not work in the future.
  3. Be highly selective in who is allowed to open new schools. Opening and running a successful school is hard work fraught with peril. The budget is always tight. There is always worry about whether students will show up, and finding and hiring great teachers is never easy. New schools should be opened only by 1) organizations with a track record of success or 2) prospective operators that can bring significant money, credibility, and expertise to the enterprise. Ideally, you'd have both, but saying ‘no' to a new school idea, or at least asking for far more detail before saying ‘yes,' is far less costly than opening a school that is troubled from the start (see here).
  4. Seek out the best and brightest to work in these schools. It makes no sense to open new schools that then draw their leaders and teachers from existing local schools. The single most important factor for student achievement is effective teaching. For new schools to deliver and sustain results they need teachers and principals committed to doing things differently and going the extra mile. New schools should seek new talent. To help fill the talent pipeline the district should reach out to national groups like Teach for America, the New Teachers Project, and New Leaders for New Schools. 
  5. Embrace accountability and transparency. New schools should be held to the highest academic standards and their performance should be clear to all. The best way to do this is by issuing a comprehensive annual performance report. This achievement report should be widely heralded by the district and widely reported by the media. Performance should be celebrated and mediocrity exposed.

The long-suffering Cleveland Municipal School District is to be applauded for embracing a new reform strategy. This effort needs to succeed and one way to up the odds of success is to learn from others.

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