ExtraOrdinary Districts – ordinary school districts that get extraordinary results. In season two we travel to two rural districts (Lane, Oklahoma, and Seaford, Delaware) and one suburban district (Valley Stream 30, New York) to talk with thoughtful educators about the hard work they have put in to develop systems and ways of operating to continuously improve the learning of students.
This season we are also pairing each district episode with an episode with a panel of experts breaking down the big takeaways.
You can listen below or subscribe to ExtraOrdinary Districts on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts
To kick off Season 2 of ExtraOrdinary Districts, we brought together an all-star panel to discuss school district improvement. Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Harvard University’s Ronald F. Ferguson, and University of Michigan’s Nell Duke.
The panel, moderated by ExtraOrdinary District creator Karin Chenoweth, had a wide-ranging discussion that went from the need for carefully designed early reading instruction to the moral imperative of equity. Jackson described the need to be “relentless” in giving students the opportunity to learn rather than trying to “fix” students.
A small, kindergarten-through-8th-grade district in rural Oklahoma, Lane was identified by Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, as one of the few districts in the country that “grow” its students almost six academic years in five calendar years (Chicago, profiled in Season 1, is another). Since he identified it, Lane has improved its absolute achievement considerably.
When Karin Chenoweth visited she heard from teachers and administrators that its improvement process started when its former superintendent visited a nearby high-performing high-poverty district and realized that he hadn’t understood how important early learning and early reading instruction is. He began sending teachers to learn from nearby Cottonwood and they upped their reading instruction game. Today, years later, the two districts, both located in the Choctaw Nation, continue to learn from each other.
Hear directly from teachers and administrators in both Lane and Cottonwood as they talk about what they have learned from each other and how improvement takes place.
Seaford, Delaware, was the “Nylon Capital of the World” until DuPont closed its plant. Today it has twice the rate of poverty as the rest of the state. For years, three of its four elementary schools were among the lowest performing in the state. But Sean Reardon identified it as a district where African American students were learning at a faster rate than white students. That turned out to be a harbinger of enormous improvement, ushered in by superintendent Dave Perrington who assembled a team of administrators committed to equity and excellence.
They brought a new approach to reading instruction and to the use of data to drive improvement. Karin Chenoweth brings you the voices of Perrington, principals, teachers, and the researcher who developed their reading program, Bookworms. Where once Seaford was one of the lowest performing districts in Delaware, it now matches its performance, and its third-graders are way outperforming the state. In a diverse district that serves African American and white students and the children of relatively new immigrants from Haiti and Central America, the schools are forging a path to excellence.
To talk about the progress Seaford has made in the last few years (episode #4) Ed Trust brought together Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, author Richard Kahlenberg, and Sharon Brittingham, a Seaford native who is a former principal and today coaches principals throughout Delaware. Moderated by podcast creator Karin Chenoweth, they had a wide-ranging discussion about reading instruction, school and district leadership, racial and economic integration, and equity and how they all work together to improve schools and districts.
Valley Stream 30 is just over the Nassau County line from Queens, New York, and has attracted a diverse population of African Americans, Hispanics, and relatively new immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is in many ways a classic “white flight” district. Twenty years ago, 40 percent of the elementary school district was white. Today, only 5 percent.
Superintendent Nicholas Stirling says that the fact that the district “celebrates” its diversity and sees it as a strength has allowed it to build the systems that support excellence and continual improvement. One of the things its diversity forces educators to think about is the wide diversity of background knowledge students bring to lessons.
So, for example, when teachers taught about Jackie Robinson, they realized that some of their students didn’t know anything about baseball. Podcast creator Karin Chenoweth brings you the voice of principals talking about how they responded, as well as the superintendent, teachers, principals, parents, and others reflecting on why Valley Stream 30 was identified by Sean Reardon as the district where African American students perform above the national average for all students.
Listeners will hear how, in addition to their careful attention to instruction, Valley Stream 30 educators have built system after system to support the learning of the adults in the system.
To talk about the lessons we can learn from Valley Stream 30 (episode #6), Ed Trust brought together Jeffrey Howard, founder of The Efficacy Institute, Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap, and Josh Anisansel, a Long Island school administrator who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Valley Stream 30.
In a wide-ranging conversation moderated by podcast creator Karin Chenoweth, Josh Anisansel described Nassau County as highly segregated with tremendous inequities. Jeff Howard responded that these kinds of inequities are deeply woven into American society but that schools and districts that are fully mobilized are able to operate as if they didn’t exist. “Educators who get this right…reach a kind of state of grace where they come to a firm conclusion that there ain’t nothing wrong with these kids. These kids can learn at the highest levels.” Natalie Wexler argued that all children need a carefully sequenced curriculum that builds knowledge systematically both to help children learn about the world and ensure that they can read at high levels. Panelists grappled with whether programs and curricula are more important or the beliefs and systems educators bring to the enterprise and worked through a number of related issues.