School Improvement Grants at Work in Miami-Dade

This entry is cross-posted on the blog.

It’s not every day I get a first-hand look at the transformation that’s taking place in our schools as dedicated school and district leaders undertake the difficult work of turning around the lowest performing schools around the country. But last week, I had the pleasure of visiting three Miami-Dade County Public Schools high schools that have begun this effort. It was a wonderful opportunity to see our School Improvement Grants (SIG) at work on the ground, and I’m excited to share with others some of the great work that is being done by the teams in Miami-Dade County.

Under our redesigned SIG program, the U.S. Department of Education has committed roughly $4 billion to help turn around the nation’s 5,000 lowest performing public schools over the next five years. Schools receive these funds in exchange for a commitment to dramatically change the culture and learning environment to make a difference for students.

In Miami-Dade County, the district created the Education Transformation Office (ETO) to support their 19 persistently low achieving schools, dubbed the “Rising 19.” The ETO offers these schools intensive, individualized support on areas ranging from operations, to curriculum and instruction, to professional development, to family engagement. As Miami-Dade’s Assistant Superintendent Nikolai Vitti explained to me the overall district plan for school turnarounds, led by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, I saw a clear theory of action emerge – one that’s above all focused around improving teaching and learning in the classroom.

But what does this model, and this district plan, actually look like in schools?

To find out, I spent some time observing classrooms, visiting common planning time sessions, and talking with school leadership at Miami Edison, Miami Southridge, and Miami Jackson Senior High Schools. Despite the fact that each high school has its own distinct personality, and its own set of challenges, I saw several common themes run through all of the schools’ turnaround efforts:

  1. A culture shift in the school to emphasize respect and high expectations for all.
    In 2009-10, Miami Edison brought in a new principal, who in turn recruited a strong new administrative leadership team. The team focused on changing the culture of the school to ensure that students of Miami Edison felt respected and supported. The team created small academies for the school, each with its own “crest” to develop school pride.  The staff also decided to reinstitute small high school milestones – some of which students hadn’t had for almost 10 years – like the homecoming dance and a school yearbook to boost student morale.The drive to turn around the school, however, isn’t just shouldered by the principal, or the leadership team – it’s a true team effort that includes all staff members.  As part of his new team, the principal, Dr. Pablo Ortiz, recruited a new custodian to the school, who was dedicated to keeping the school well maintained to reflect the learning that was happening in the school.  The custodian is now training other custodial staff at different schools!
  2. A focus on building professional learning communities.
    Another common theme I saw in the three schools was the intense focus on professional development and support for teachers. The ETO customizes professional development for its teachers based on school and student needs. Both the leadership and the teachers themselves are using the teacher evaluation system to hone in on areas for improvement, then providing direct support to teachers. This support is constant throughout the year, as Assistant Superintendent Vitti conducts classroom walkthroughs with principals on a regular basis.Teachers do lesson studies, where they work together to plan, then teach, then watch others teach, then provide feedback to each other. This way, each teacher continues to learn from one another. Professional collaboration time is built into the school day.  At Miami Southridge, a plan is underway to improve teacher attendance. All of this work underscores a philosophy that I strongly believe in: teaching is a craft, and excellence requires hard work, discipline, and constant learning.
  3. Intensive support to ensure students graduate from high school.
    All three schools offered extensive programs to make sure that every single student was on track to graduate from high school. Incoming freshmen are required to take a “freshman experience” course, where they are matched with adults, or “trust counselors,” who support their transition into high school and develop comprehensive plans to ensure that they have enough credits to graduate.
    Schools also offer Saturday programs and credit recovery programs to help students who are currently behind. Miami Edison, for example, had a simple fix to increase the number of students taking credit recovery courses. Realizing that students couldn’t get to the adult school for these courses due to transportation issues, the school staff moved the adult school instructors right to Miami Edison’s campus – a simple solution with great benefits to their students.

The schools are obviously in the early stages of their transformation efforts, but I was so encouraged to see the progress they were making, and impressed with the initial improvement made by all the schools.  This is not to say that these schools don’t have a long way to go – they still face many challenges, including their need for improvement in reading. But as indicated by the movement in their leading indicators, these schools are on the right track.

I was also impressed by the Miami-Dade district’s approach to school turnarounds. For the leaders of the ETO, it’s not about “checking the box” to make sure that the different SIG models are being implemented. Instead, the district and school leaders have created a plan that incorporates the SIG models within broader reform efforts centered on improving teaching and learning. I look forward to keeping in touch with Superintendent Carvalho, Assistant Superintendent Vitti, and the various school leaders to learn more about their schools’ progress and success stories, and sharing them with the wider community of educators around the country.