Strength in Numbers: Seven Districts Have Joined Together to Collaborate, Share Best Practices and Most of All, Improve the Education They Offer Their Students

Article excerpt

What do you get when you take seven strong school district leaders, add insight, wisdom and hardwork?

Find out how these superintendents created a consortium, what they accomplish together and how you can follow suit.

When Monte Moses, the superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District in Englewood, Col., checks his PDA, he finds a calendar full of education conventions, from the American Association of School Administrators to the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Denver Area School Superintendents' Council.

But three times a year, Moses heads to a different kind of gathering. Those are the meetings of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium, a group of seven high-performing school districts that have been crossing state lines in order to stay that way. Moses, whose district joined in 1997, recalls that the consortium got its start a year earlier, with the unlikely meeting of two superintendents from Lake Washington and Vancouver in Washington state, and another from Poway, Calif.

"The three of them began talking about trying to get together some like-minded superintendents who had school districts with comparable characteristics," says Moses, "And then through their networks, they began to identify districts that they thought were worth connecting with, working with and emulating."

Besides Cherry Creek, the Plano (Texas) Independent School District soon joined the group, followed by the Blue Valley Unified School District in Overland Park, Kansas, and, most recently, the Peoria (Ariz.) Unified School District. And while the original three superintendents have moved on, their successors are pursuing an ambitious plan--from increasing student learning and staff development to expanding data-driven decision-making and involvement with the local community--designed to improve districts that already enjoy high test scores and winning reputations.

Rejecting the Status Quo

"One of the mantras here at Blue Valley is that the status quo is unacceptable," explains Superintendent Tom Trig. "You can't become a great district without pushing the envelope. And it helps to meet and account to a group that asks the hard questions three times a year."

The consortium's schools share other characteristics: high academic achievement; similar student populations (between 20,000 and 40,000) and demographics (suburban, but becoming progressively diverse); committed and stable school boards; and a strong bent towards innovation. And in the present day, adds Moses, it's not surprising that consortium members have found common ground even though they are geographically far apart.

"Several things have happened in recent years that have made districts more likely to be facing the same kind of issues than not," he observes. "All states, with the advent of standards and assessments and the accompanying state laws around those issues, have found themselves in relatively the same position-more state testing, more rankings of schools, more accountability issues so that we are all in the same place, even though the mechanisms may be different from state to state."

The most recent joint ventures of the seven districts-featured at their recent meeting in Englewood-include a literacy initiative stretching from grades K-16. "We're trying to design it backwards based on the requirements of college success all the way down to 'What does that mean to a youngster in a kindergarten classroom on the first day of school?'" says Moses.

On a similar scale, the consortium is working on a college readiness program for all students in grades pre-K-12. "If they choose a different path such as technical or vocational schools, that's fine," says Blue Valley's Trig. "But we want to know the shortfalls when kids are not ready."

Part of that readiness depends on revolutionizing the use of assessment data, and in this area, Moses points out, the consortium is re-engineering the curve, not just getting ahead of it. …