The Annenberg Institute for School Reform is trying something new in Randolph, Mass. By incorporating two of the institute's focuses - district redesign and leadership and community organizing and engagement - the institute hopes to significantly improve educational outcomes in the district, said Richard Gray '85, the director of community organizing and engagement at Annenberg.
The Annenberg Institute aims to "improve practices and policies for student populations that are underserved, where public education is not performing as it should," Gray said.
Randolph in particular is classified as a level-four school district based on its poor academic performance, said Monica Roberts, the director of family and community relations in Randolph. When a school reaches level-five status, the state comes in to take over the school system. The district does not have sufficient in-school or out-of-school support for its students, Roberts said. There are gaps in quality when it comes to English language learners, special education and racial and ethnic groups, she added. The district administrators hope to make improvements to the schools at an accelerated pace with the help of the institute.
The goal of the institute's work in Randolph is to identify specific needs in the school district and then to implement concrete policy and practice changes, Gray said. To identify those needs, the key will be including input from individuals at the district, community and classroom levels. Annenberg aims to take into account the "voice of stakeholders who are often closest to the education process," such as teachers and parents, Gray said, noting that there is a "perceived lack of power on the part of people in communities."
The emphasis on community involvement is a way to "put 'public' back into 'public schools' in an authentic way," Roberts said. Ultimately, the goal is to make community involvement sustainable and a part of the framework of improvement, Roberts said. There is a fundamental shift that should be happening, from asking permission for change to demanding more from the district, she added.
Out of Annenberg's three main areas of work - district redesign and leadership, community organizing and engagement and research and policy- the first two will be included in the plan to improve Randolph's needs as a school district, Gray said. In the institute's previous projects, the district and community efforts were not implemented simultaneously, he said.
This double approach demonstrates their "willingness to try something new with us and for us," Roberts said.
This is not the first time Annenberg has worked with Randolph. In 2011, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation gave seven planning grants to various districts in New England, including Randolph. The purpose of the grants was to foster improvements in student-centered learning in the districts, Gray said. Annenberg worked with Randolph and other districts to garner community input during the process.
Roberts said the Annenberg staff understands Randolph's community. In "helping us think strategically" during the Nellie Mae process, Annenberg "went above and beyond working with not just the district but also the community," Roberts said.
Though Randolph did not receive an implementation grant after the initial planning grant, it renewed its relationship with Annenberg this year to plan new policy changes while creating a "public learning community," Gray said. The district continues to have a student-based focus, including academic, emotional and social support, Roberts said. The institute is currently working with the district to pinpoint specific policies that will be implemented at the beginning of the next school year.
Annenberg has previously worked in school districts across New England, from Maine to Rhode Island. Central Falls also received an initial planning grant by Nellie Mae.
Central Falls High School was identified as a persistently low achieving school in 2010 by the Rhode Island Department of Education and had to choose from four interventions: turnaround, restart, school closure or transformation, said Elsa Dure '09 MA'10, a research associate at Annenberg whose work is focused in the district. They chose the transformation approach, hoping to increase math proficiency, maintain reading achievement, improve the school climate and increase the graduation rate.
Annenberg partnered with the Education Alliance at Brown to document the implementation of the high school's transformation, Dure said. It also facilitated stakeholder meetings, said Frances Gallo, superintendent of schools in Central Falls. The institute's work in Central Falls has since focused on data collection to evaluate the transformation, providing feedback based on quantitative data and information from focus groups and interviews with teachers and administrators. Though Central Falls did not receive a second Nellie Mae grant, the district has been able to find other grant options to fund its improvement efforts.
One effect of Annenberg's feedback has been improving communication between administrators and staff at the high school. A majority of teachers felt that the school administration had poor communication skills when it came to informing faculty. As a result, the district has updated their website, written to faculty on a weekly basis, posted their meeting calendar and made meetings open to both students and faculty, Gallo said.
Some strategies implemented for improving the learning environment in Central Falls include extended learning opportunities like internship components and "P.M. school," which students can attend in the afternoon and evening to make up for credits they miss during the day, Dure said.
The transformation initiative is a one-year process, but improvements are already apparent, Dure said. Gallo pointed to a preliminary report in September that showed improvement in communication strategies.
Annenberg has become a familiar presence in Central Falls, Gallo said, adding that "the more familiar they are, the more trust is developed." Gallo said the trust in Annenberg by the faculty and administrators is "exquisite," facilitating the speed with which changes can be made.