Here at Empower Schools we are all about empowering schools. That’s why we are watching (and cheering on) Clark County, NV, as it embarks on an ambitious project to reorganize itself into a district of empowered schools.
The impetus to rethink the organization of the Clark County School District, the nation’s 5th largest, comes by way of the state legislature. A bill in early 2015 proposed breaking up the district into smaller, city-specific districts. The bill eventually passed with an amendment to create an advisory committee to develop a plan for reorganizing the district. That brings us to the proposal to “flip” the 350+ school district into a school centered model where the central office serves the needs of the schools and becomes a customer facing organization. In other words, the proposal is to empower all of the schools in Clark County School District.
The strategy at the heart of the proposal is very similar to the one that Lawrence, MA has used over the last 4 years to drive student improvement in a chronically underperforming district with strong results. Our work in Springfield with the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership is based on the same theory of action. We believe that schools are the unit of change, not the district, so if you want to improve student achievement, you have to empower the teachers and leaders to make decisions based on their unique community’s needs.
We have learned a lot in our work with Lawrence and Springfield, and one thing that is always clear is how difficult it is to overcome the adaptive challenge of newly acquired autonomy. There have been many efforts to provide principals and teachers with autonomy, some ‘bounded’, some ‘earned’, and the challenge at the heart of all of them is supporting the front line workers to understand and use their new freedoms to the greatest extent and for the greatest impact.
So, we will be watching Clark County closely as it attempts to reorient itself from district focused to school focused. Will it work in a district that big? What happens to the already high performing schools? How will the Superintendent’s role change? How will the autonomy be ‘rolled out’? How will teachers respond? How will the role of the Board of Trustees change? And, obviously, does it have an impact on student achievement?
We’ll also be taking notes because we are convinced that empowering schools, teachers, and leaders is the key to improving schools for everyone involved.