Nation’s 6th Largest School District Looks at DMPS
This article is one in a series of reports on how support from the Wallace Foundation is making a difference at Des Moines Public Schools. In June 2014, DMPS was awarded a substantial grant by the Wallace Foundation to improve teaching and learning by improving the work of principals and their supervisors. DMPS is one of six urban school districts from across the country selected to participate in the initiative.
When Des Moines Public Schools received a prestigious Wallace Grant in 2014 to fuel an extreme makeover in supervision of building principals so did Broward County Schools in Florida. Last week Broward County hosted a national summit on principal supervisors. Two of the presenters were DMPS Chief of Schools Matt Smith and Executive Director of Secondary Schools Tim Schott.
Michael Casserly is the Executive Director of the Council of Great City Schools. He told the Broward summit that “Des Moines Public Schools is the most aligned and impressive urban district with their hierarchical models.” He would know. He and a team of CGCS officials were just here for a checkup and to compare/contrast DMPS with other districts they’ve visited.
Nicholas Pelzer of the Wallace Foundation told attendees at Broward that DMPS is the exemplar of how to begin the cultural shift to principals as instructional leaders as opposed to mere building managers.
So no wonder Broward County officials are here this week for an up close look at the DMPS way of doing things.
Wednesday morning small teams of DMPS and Broward officials fanned out across the district and all instructional levels for site visits like the ones we reported on when Prince Georges County Maryland, another Wallace district, was here last month.
Broward County has more than a quarter million students and over 300 schools. Like Prince George’s County, it is one of the nation’s largest public school districts, the 6th largest in fact. If DMPS doesn’t match up in terms of size with the districts it’s been hanging out with lately it does mirror them demographically. That’s the key apples to apples aspect that links them.
At 8:20 AM a bell rang and the doors opened at Brubaker Elementary. Kids came running with violin cases and ball caps and backpacks. Right behind them were Smith and Michelle Lettington; an Elementary Services Director for DMPS, joined by Veda Hudge; Broward’s Director of Service Quality, and Myra Burden, their Director of Technology Planning & Policy.
The foursome huddled up with principal Mark Adams in his office for some background before they visited any classrooms.
Brubaker is the district’s largest elementary school. Adams is in his first year as principal but he was on the administrative team at Brubaker prior to that. So immersed is he in his efforts to improve instructional efficiency and student achievement there that he told his guests “I actually dreamed a schedule solution the other night.” He wants to make every one of the limited minutes in the school day count.
Hudge and Burden had questions for him about challenges common to educators everywhere; things like staff turnover, delivery of technology to students and delivery of professional development to teachers. There was a connection when Hudge likened PD to learning to line dance and getting comfortable enough with the basic steps to bust a personal move or two.
“We had an ‘AHA! moment’ in January,” Adams said, “when our staff reached that point. And it came from them; it was their organic discovery.” His sees his role as principal as striking “the balance between support and accountability…Matt (Smith) always tells us that our job boils down to three things: lead, support and monitor progress.”
It was time to hit the classrooms and as if to signal that, Adams literally rolled up his sleeves.
First stop was Chelsea Clark and her band of 5th graders in Room 209 who were sharpening their understanding of the distinction between a written story’s main point and its theme. The visitors not only observed but also had the opportunity to talk candidly with students about their understanding of standards referenced grading (SRG) and where they peg themselves on that achievement metric.
Afterwards Adams and Lettington, his supervisor, sat down for some immediate reflection and feedback on the lesson they’d just observed. Hudge and Burden were impressed. “I like the way you are pulling the points out of him instead of just telling him what you saw,” Burden said when Adams was briefly pulled away by his concern for an upset student.
The back and forth between grant districts like what’s been happening with DMPS, Prince George’s County and Broward County throughout this year isn’t required by the Wallace Foundation as a condition of continued funding. “But they encourage it,” said Hudge. Which makes sense. As important as collaboration is between colleagues on grade-level teams within a particular school it is equally so between urban districts across the country facing the same challenges.
Whether they’re among the biggest or simply determined to be one of the best.