High School Savior Syndrome

SaviorA new day is dawning at North High School. Under the watchful eye of an experienced and proven principal, with the unwavering support of passionate teachers and coupled to galvanized support from many residents, North High is on a fresh track towards success.

Take, for example, this descriptive article in the Denver Post that was published in August:

On the west side of the city, North High students will walk into their restructured school with dozens of new teachers and a new mission led by an ambitious principal. Late last week, teachers tacked up posters, unpacked books and set up their classrooms. … [The new principal] says there has been a change in attitude, in the appearance inside the building and in the school’s focus. “There is a sense of this is a community,” she said. “I am convinced that when students see that there are people who care about them, some commonalities, we will make it work.” [….]

“It’s important for us to show results this year,” [the DPS superintendent] said. “It’s important both to give people confidence that we are moving in the right direction and to build momentum.”

All good, except for one problem: these sentences are from August of 2007, not August of 2012. The celebrated new North High principal in the article is JoAnn Trujillo-Hays; the optimistic superintendent is Michael Bennet.

And now? Flash-forward five years, three principals, and one superintendent to the present day. Almost all of the advocates who believed that North High was on the verge of change back in 2007 have long since moved on to different futures. Ms. Trujillo-Hays runs an elementary school, Mr. Bennet walks the lofty halls of the United States Senate. Has the future’s of North’s students changed as well?

In 2006, the year before Ms. Trujillo-Hays took charge, North’s composite ACT score (an indicator of college and career readiness given to all 11th grade students in Colorado) was 15.4. Today, North’s composite ACT score stands at 15.2. An ACT score of 21 is the usual benchmark for college readiness;  a score of 15.0 is just the 16th percentile of all students nationally.

In 2012, as in years past, there are voices in the DPS administration which proclaim that North High has, under new leadership, already shown unprecedented improvement in just the past year. And indeed some metrics — particularly growth percentiles in 10th grade writing and 9th grade math — have risen dramatically. However other metrics have declined, and on balance it’s hard to see much difference in academic outcomes.

On the 2011 School Performance Framework (SPF) which comprises a variety of measurements, North High received a rating of “on watch” with 43% of possible points, and their 2011 average composite ACT score was 15.6. And on the 2012 SPF, North High received the same rating of “on watch” with 40% of possible points, and their 2012 average composite ACT score was 15.2.

The Problem with Saviors

Savior syndrome for high schools goes well beyond any single example. It is a pattern that is woven deep into many neighborhoods across Denver.

Cast back to 2007, and the excitement that shrouded Bruce Randolph school, which embraced limited autonomy under much-lauded principal Kristin Waters, added high school grades, and was praised by none other than President Obama in a State of the Union address. Ms. Waters left Bruce Randolph in 2009, after four years. And now? In 2012 just one in every five Bruce Randolph students meets basic proficiency levels, and its composite ACT score is a 16.0.

Rewind also to Manual High School, which like North has experienced multiple transformations. Manual was eventually shuttered for a year at great cost to students, reopening in 2007 under experienced principal Rob Stein (an alumnus with a doctorate in education from Harvard University) and with an entirely new student body. Mr. Stein lasted three years. And now? In 2012 less than one in every six Manual students meets basic proficiency levels, and its composite ACT is 16.1.

Or journey south, to Lincoln High School, where in 2005 new principal Antonio Esquibel began a variety of practices focusing on college readiness, as well as instituting new policies including a uniform dress code and a closed campus at lunch. Graduation rates increased — but were matched by a corresponding rise in remediation rates, meaning that more students had diplomas, but not better academic preparation. Esquibel left in 2011, promoted to administration. And now? In 2012 just one in five Lincoln students meets basic proficiency levels, and its composite ACT is 15.5.

The list here could go on and on. Fanfare, trumpets, proclamations — and chronic disappointment. Many transformed schools do indeed start to get a little better, only to either stall out, or slip back.

This is not a failure of school leadership, for there should be no question that the principals at these schools rank among the district’s very best. Shifting the trajectory of a poorly performing school – particularly at the secondary level – is quite possibly the hardest work in K-12 public education. Over and over, the lessons of turnaround schools are unforgiving, and Denver is no exception. The new principal at North High is by all accounts a remarkable, talented, and committed leader. But, as her similarly impressive predecessors at North, Bruce Randolph, Manual and Lincoln might attest, this may not be enough.

Master and Servant

While North High is not an isolated example of savior syndrome, it may be the most extreme. Fully seven times in the past 12 years DPS has announced a new principal at North. The promise of the new day always fades. The residents of Northwest have every right to be angry and distrustful with Denver Public Schools. Who could blame them. They have been told by the district, time and time again, that change is coming; that this time it will be different. That a new day dawns.

Indeed, the fractious relationship between frustrated Northwest residents and the DPS administration is reminiscent of the philosophical dialectic between master and servant: the master has authority without responsibility; the servant has responsibility without authority.

District authority shuffles school leaders and educational models, largely without consequence to the centralized administrators who make decisions. Responsibility for students lies primarily with families and teachers, who try their best to navigate these changes with little to no say over major decisions about the school.

Nowhere was this dysfunctional master and servant relationship more clearly demonstrated than in DPS’s dictate last June to form a “shareholder working group” to consider alternative locations for a new charter high school in Northwest. And as is all-to-typical, DPS prematurely celebrated the group’s formation as a promising model for future community partnerships — well in advance of any sign of positive results.

In appointing the working group, the district maintained its authority over the final decision while also absolving itself of responsibility for a choice that had no easy answer. The stakeholder group of Northwest residents accepted responsibility. In their servitude the group toiled for almost five months, engaged in hard and frank dialogue, and determined several potential options — but lacked the authority to enact any of them.

Predictably enough, the continued separation of authority and responsibility meant that none of these options came to pass, and the district quickly came under hard criticism that the outcome of the working group was predetermined. This critique is wrong in that the attempt was both well-intentioned and genuine. But it also holds a ember of truth, for the way in which the attempt was made — the roles, structure, and process — always made any other result improbable.

And that same small glowing truth is at the core of the district’s dismal record of high school transformations. Everyone has good intentions, and there are a lot of smart people involved. And yet the inherited and repetitive structure, and the division between authority and responsibility, leads to the same unfortunate result. The master and servant pattern plays out again.

Another Way for High Schools?

Residents of Northwest Denver are, once again and despite the multiple disappointments of the past, hopeful about the future of North High. That is to their vast credit, and is testimony to the unflinching resolve of the human spirit.

However, hope is not a viable strategy. Saviors are not a viable strategy. Incremental change in a turnaround school is not a viable strategy. If North High fails to learn from its past it will be doomed to repeat it — to continue the long pattern that haunts Denver’s reconstituted high schools. It is simply not enough for North — or any high school — to replace the devoted and capable leaders of 2007 with devoted and capable leaders in 2012. If North is to break the enduring legacy of repeated failure, its change must be both deep and fundamental.

The historical pattern of master and servant is etched deeply into the fiber of high school neighborhoods. The greatest danger now is that local stakeholders will remain so intent on shaking their fists in rage at the district that they will fail to notice there may be another way. For there is another option, one that will give North’s stakeholders – the teachers, leaders, and residents who every day walk its halls and the streets of its neighborhood — combined authority and responsibility.

The best chance for success at North and other high schools may be for these stakeholders to forge an agreement with DPS that would: establish a group of local residents to act as the governing body of the school (including the power to select future principals); increase autonomy so school leadership can better allocate resources and dollars as they see fit; preserve the school’s historic neighborhood enrollment boundary; allow teachers to select and mold an individualized academic program without bureaucratic constraint; and sever the centralized authority of the district.

Such an agreement in our public school system has both a name and an established practice. A contractual agreement where an independent group of citizens assume both authority and responsibility for a school is a charter. If high schools, including North, are serious about fundamental change — if they want to break the savior syndrome that has plagued them over far too many years — their best chance may lie in becoming a charter school.

A small measure of independence for Denver’s high schools has been tried before, primarily under the 2008 Innovation Schools Act. But autonomy as an Innovation School is badly limited: authority continues to reside with the district, plenty of controversy ensues and in the end there is very little difference in how schools are run. Unlike many high schools, North has a committed and skilled group of local advocates, and they break new ground by negotiating for true independence under a charter contract.

In the current climate, the term “charter school” has become a political construct so loaded with emotional baggage that many people are unable to see it simply for what it is: a contract that bestows both authority and responsibility upon a single group of individuals. This contract allows a school to waive both district and union regulations — but it does not mandate which ones: North could likely preserve every aspect of its current arrangement it wants, and sever those it does not. However a charter does mandate a chance in governance, and shifts primary oversight and authority of the school from the district to private citizens. It would give the stakeholders of North what they say they crave: responsibility joined to authority.

The emotional baggage over charter schools means it is likely that the same people who gnash their teeth for freedom from the district oversight and extol the virtues of independent governance are likely to reject this option. Instead, they need to consider it carefully. North is one of several schools where, if high school advocates decide instead to continue on their current path, they must also try not fall into the historical pattern that litters previous school transformations: the ongoing refrain that the district “made us fail.” They is another way.

Many people will likely offer explanations for why North High stakeholders should reject the opportunities in a charter contract – objections likely to be grounded not in reason, but in emotion. The emotional baggage here is considerable, but it should not carry the day. Establishing a charter would be a courageous and transformative act, for instead of being tethered to the patterns of the past, the unified combination of authority and responsibility offers North the best chance to finally have the dawn of a new day expand into a bright present. And the students deserve a new day indeed.

This entry was posted in Charter Schools, Facilities, Politics, School Performance and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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