A turnaround initiative in Louisiana becomes an opportunity to make equity a priority across the school district.
“If this was my child, this would not be happening. If this was your child, this would not be happening. This is happening because it is an inner-city child at a school that is economically disadvantaged and 100% African-American.” These powerful words from a principal supervisor in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, succinctly express the moral imperative to confront uncomfortable truths about our public schools. As numerous scholars have argued, schools often perpetuate social inequalities across racial, cultural, linguistic, and economic lines (e.g., Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Collins, 2009). That is, the U.S. educational system produces very different opportunities for differing student populations (Deming, 1986), and it has done so for generations (MacLeod, 1987).
Hoping to disrupt these long-standing patterns of injustice, many school system leaders look to culturally responsive teaching (Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis, 2016), detracking, the provision of wraparound services, and other means of bringing about immediate improvements for underserved children (Theoharis, 2007, 2010). But while such efforts can be immensely valuable, they only touch the surface of problems that are deeply rooted in K-12 education (DeMatthews & Mawhinney, 2014). Institutionalized racism and other biases have been so pervasive in our schools, for such a long time (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Tate, 1997), that it will take nothing short of a truly comprehensive, districtwide strategy to address them (Hitt & Meyers, 2018). The problem, though, is that district leaders have few concrete examples of what it might look like to design and implement such a whole-system equity agenda.
The story of Caddo Parish Schools’ (CPS) turnaround initiative is unique for a number of reasons, of which we highlight three (see Meyers, in press, for the research that undergirds this piece). First, CPS leadership came to understand that school-level improvements could only be sustained and expanded if the district as a whole made a strong commitment to pursuing equity. Second, while CPS leaders were willing to disrupt business as usual in the district — sometimes changing principals, teachers, and staff — they never rushed into simplistic and/or turnkey solutions (e.g., fire the principal!), choosing instead to pursue continuous improvement, with an emphasis on building their capacity over time to deliver on a shared vision. Third, this vision wasn’t limited to individual schools, administrators, or staff but served as a common reference point for the entire district and its community members, with everybody committed to a single plan for improving what was one of the lowest-performing districts in the state.
Shifting hearts and minds
Those of us in leadership positions at CPS — the superintendent, chief academic officer, principal supervisors, and others — shared a strong commitment to providing students in our lowest-performing schools with equitable educational opportunities. But our challenge was to cultivate a sense of broader, systemwide urgency around this work.
We began with the school board, which comprised six Black and six White members (though Black students made up roughly two-thirds of district enrollment). We did not have to convince these board members that our schools provided unequal resources and opportunities — mounds of existing data made that painfully obvious. Yet, board members continued to suggest that the principals and teachers in those schools simply needed to work harder or that parents should become more active in their children’s lives. Thus, we did have to get those who were traditionally shielded from these inequities to feel the pain of those who experienced them every day.
To help school board members connect with the plight of students whose backgrounds were very different from their own, we made a point of starting every meeting of the executive council with a discussion of life in our least advantaged schools, with an emphasis on helping board members to see the concrete implications of specific decisions they had made or were contemplating. For example, when 12 woefully underperforming teachers were reassigned from traditionally “good” schools to traditionally “bad” schools, district leaders pointed out that none of the board members would want their children to be in those teachers’ classes. District leaders also escorted board members through the lower-performing schools — visits that were the first for some members — to show them the conspicuous differences in learning opportunities between schools. Perhaps most important, we allowed ourselves to make direct emotional appeals to the board members, pulling at their heartstrings whenever we could. Typically, meetings of district executive councils are low-key and businesslike, but we chose not to keep our emotions in check, freely making comments such as the one from the principal leader that opened this article. One senior district official even stormed out of a meeting, exclaiming, “We’re all going straight to hell” when school board members attempted to evade initial conversations about equity due to their initial lack of awareness of systemic differences.
Eventually, these relentless efforts to engage and motivate the school board paid off, as members — who gradually became more personally aware of the everyday realities of life in struggling schools — agreed to support a districtwide turnaround initiative. Having been pushed to connect on an emotional level to the students and teachers they met, they came to understand the importance of providing educational opportunities that addressed differing learners’ needs, across the district. This resulted in unanimous approval of reallocating talent and resources in a way that marked a significant shift from equality — a belief that each school and student would receive an equal “piece of the pie ”— to equity — a belief that those who have less should receive more.
District change strategies
Often, when district leaders adopt a new initiative, the public sees little outward sign that they’ve debated its merits or weighed competing options. In this case, though, a number of examples highlighted the general apathy that had pervaded the district and revealed the need to act: school buildings that structurally resembled dilapidated prisons, extreme teacher turnover to the point where some students had not had a certified teacher in years, and exceedingly high levels of student suspensions and expulsions. Everybody in the district — including staff, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students — could see for themselves just how passionately the CPS leaders argued their case for addressing these issues, and just how effectively they responded to board members’ questions and doubts. Because the debate was carried out in the open, it became clear to all stakeholders just how committed the executive council was to its overall equity agenda and how carefully it had designed the four interconnected change strategies that contributed to it:
Create necessary structures
The first strategy enacted by CPS was to create a transformation zone (TZ) in advance of the 2014-15 academic year. Of the approximately 70 schools in the district, the TZ consisted of 10 schools that the state had identified for takeover. CPS determined that these 10 schools had similar leadership, climate, and instructional challenges, including disproportionate rates of student discipline and use of long-term substitute teachers, weak instructional leaders, and crumbling facilities. The schools had been allowed to be the landing spot in the teacher and leader “dance of the lemons”; in fact, 12 teachers the new district leadership identified as underperforming had recently been reassigned to one of the schools.
District leaders were consistently visible in schools and communities where their predecessors had not been in years.
From its creation, the TZ essentially operated as a district within the district. In the past, the district had operated more as a system of schools than as a school system. Thus, establishing a smaller unit within the district to manage, lead, mentor, and collaborate was a logical way to reduce system bureaucracy and school isolation. Direct lines of communication between the schools and their district point person on the CPS executive council allowed for consistent dialogue about vision, expectations (both district to schools and school leaders to district), resources, and other critical issues.
Put talent in place to lead the work
With the advent of the new format, CPS leaders determined that TZ leaders would need autonomy to make bold decisions they believed to be in the best interest of the schools, passion for students and their communities, and competencies to drive change regardless of experience. They subsequently established new positions as needed to accomplish that work. Namely, they established a district shepherd role, which is similar to a principal-supervisor-plus concept, and turnaround specialists. The district shepherd had to be incredibly passionate, compassionate, and enthusiastic while understanding how to effectively lead a school and interact with district cabinet members. The combination of responsibilities — working directly with and being responsive to school principals, managing school turnaround specialists, and sitting on the district’s executive committee with direct report to the superintendent and chief academic officer — added layers of complexity not typical for the traditional principal-supervisor role. The district shepherd split days between coaching and mentoring principals in schools and advocating for TZ schools at the district central office. In addition, he spent considerable personal energy developing community bonds and seeking philanthropic donations to support programs for students.
The district shepherd was supported by multiple turnaround specialists who also had experience as successful principals of previously low-performing schools. They spent most of their time in the TZ schools supporting principals and increasing instructional leadership capacities. Specifically, turnaround specialists spent significant time in the schools, observing instruction across the schools and principal-teacher meetings. Based on their observations, turnaround specialists provided direct coaching to principals and coordinated teacher professional development with various district personnel to be responsive to school and teacher development needs. Moreover, CPS reevaluated the principals of the TZ schools — changing them in many — to focus less on credentials (e.g., a resume) and more on competencies (e.g., Can this person bring about change?). Traditional principal hires for an untraditional effort would have been counterproductive. Instead, a number of first-time principals were hired because of their ability to demonstrate a mind-set focused on changing systems and norms to prioritize students over adults.
Change the culture across levels
Central office leadership recognized that the community housed divergent beliefs that had to be addressed. As noted above, the school board was equally divided racially, and the White members did not naturally recognize the structural biases in their system that perpetuated a racial divide. Thus, continued equal distribution of resources initially appeared to them to be the most moral choice. They did consider that trying to improve a lower-performing school might be more challenging work and should be compensated as such. On the other hand, Black parents and community members had experienced so much systemic inequity that their hopes had faded. Few parents attended parent-teacher association meetings or school events.
The district adopted a straightforward policy guideline: Push resources first to the kids who need them most.
In response, district leaders were consistently visible in schools and communities where their predecessors had not been in years. To work on changing the hearts of people around the community, CPS conducted bus tours for parents, school board members, religious leaders, philanthropists, and others who were interested in getting involved. Volunteers were enlisted to improve the facilities, including cleaning and painting the buildings and planting trees. Parents were invited to play games and engage with their children in fun activities. In the high schools, early college programs that were common elsewhere in the district were established. Moreover, district leaders emphasized to school principals that school climate efforts preceded academic improvement, and disciplinary incidents subsequently decreased across the schools by 60% to 80%. Principals developed regular activity nights such as “dominoes with dads” and gave out their personal cell phone numbers to parents with whom they had in-home visits. Externally facing efforts sought to turn the TZ schools into beacons of hope and community, while, internally, leaders made strategic decisions to change how students interacted and engaged in learning before ramping up instructional rigor. Students were taught behavioral expectations, communication strategies, and other skills not traditionally part of the school day through activities such as Ron Clark Academy’s Amazing Shake Competition — a competition emphasizing manners, discipline, respect and professional conduct. As attendance increased and disciplinary incidents decreased, teaching and learning opportunities flourished.
Provide supports to the students most in need
The district adopted a straightforward policy guideline: Push resources first to the kids who need them most. The TZ schools had been identified by the state for takeover. All of the schools enrolled a student body that was at least 95% Black and impoverished. Furthermore, the schools were all located within a geographical donut where population was decreasing, houses were increasingly shuttered, and property taxes were bottoming out. As a result of the system’s failure and threat of takeover, district leaders contracted with the Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia to develop district personnel and school principals’ system leadership knowledge and skills over two and a half years.
Moreover, any new cutting-edge programs, supports, resources, or assistance, such as The System for Teacher and Student Advancement (formerly known as the Teacher Advancement Program [TAP]), that might have traditionally been adopted first in schools in wealthier neighborhoods were instead sent to TZ schools, as long as the content aligned with school academic goals. In addition, new positions such as the turnaround specialists were created to work solely with principals and teachers of TZ schools. Teachers in TZ schools were put at the front of the line for instructional and other professional development opportunities developed and supported by district personnel on instructional leadership, teacher pedagogical content knowledge, and other areas of need identified by the district shepherd, turnaround specialists, or school principals. District protocol included going directly to a TZ school to provide professional development or assistance on demand, whereas other schools in the district would come to the central office for trainings, workshops, and activities. Because of the prioritization of TZ schools, teachers and leaders at other schools in the district began keeping tabs on the supports and trainings going in TZ schools in anticipation of receiving similar opportunities later.
A district driven by social justice
The work of CPS underscores how districtwide reform can promote equitable educational opportunities. The case suggests that intentional systemic changes that expand opportunity for students can be realized by thinking about structures, operations, resources, supports, and talents in different ways. Since the beginning of the initiative, seven of the 10 schools reduced suspension rates, although the state average increased. Seven of the 10 schools also had gains in student growth scores, although the state average decreased. The state has retracted its threat to take over the TZ schools. We are hopeful that many of these changes can be sustained, although we know that there is always a temptation to return to old habits when new ones are not yet entrenched. Nonetheless, the story of CPS suggests that the inertia under which so many school districts reproduce and systematize social structures can be successfully challenged with foresight, strategy, and passion.
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Citation: Meyers, C.V., Goree, L., & Burton, K. (2019). Leading with a commitment to equity. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 47-51.