For the 2008-2009 school year, administrators in the 2,700-student Ansonia (Conn.) Public Schools, a predominately low-income school system outside New Haven, faced the challenging situation of being designated "in need of improvement" under the No Child Left Behind act, one of 21 in the state. Two of the district's four schools had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for two or more years under NCLB, having struggled particularly in reading and writing. Just 43 percent of sixth-graders and 44 percent of eighth-graders reached the state's "Goal" level for writing in 2008, for example.
Because of this status, the state intervened, and APS crafted a three-year improvement plan after working with the Connecticut Accountability for Learning Initiative (CALI), an office of the Connecticut Department of Education that provides services for struggling districts. Ansonia developed instructional, school and district data teams to study achievement, with the district-level group responsible for drafting the improvement plan, which began in the spring of 2009. Curriculum development in language arts and math in all grades created common performance tasks and assessments across the district. Five new AP courses were added, staff members attended classroom technology workshops, and parents were involved with community forums and family educational programs.
"A lot of districts, when mandated to work with the state, can be resentful or uncooperative," says Tony Gasper, who worked as a consultant for CALI with APS prior to becoming assistant superintendent. "But in Ansonia, Superintendent Carol Merlone and the administration instead viewed the situation as an opportunity to improve."
Identifying Key Data
"CALI works with districts to identify, through the use of data, those areas of change that will have the greatest impact on improving student achievement," says Lol Fearon, chief of the Bureau of Accountability and Improvement in the Connecticut Department of Education. "The district develops an improvement plan, and then each school develops a plan closely aligned with the district's."
CALI also emphasizes improvement through professional development, as well as improving core subject areas of reading, writing and math, implementing frequent assessments, creating a positive school climate and forming data teams at every level. The program also offers technical assistance teams, executive coaches who work with principals, and training sessions for board of education members, paraprofessionals, administrators and teachers alike. These services are available to any state district for a fee, but are free for those like APS that have been labeled in need of improvement.
Taking Advantage, Seeing Results
Even though Ansonia is only halfway through the three-year improvement plan, the district is already seeing results. Standardized testing for 2010 showed moderate to significant gains in several areas, including sixth-grade reading and writing, where 82 percent and 89.1 percent of students reached proficiency, up from 65.1 percent and 75.7 percent in 2009; and eighth-grade reading, with 74.7 percent reaching proficiency, up from 62.6 percent in 2009. "Our middle school also made the 'Safe Harbor' list this year," says Gasper. "We now have a very sophisticated data team system that you don't find often, even in larger and more affluent districts. This would not have been possible without partnering with the state."
"Ansonia has made a solid commitment to the work and made full use of the supports offered," says Fearon. "They are succeeding because their leadership, including administrators, teacher leaders and board of education members, is invested in the process."
Ansonia's administrators believe other school systems put in this position would benefit from taking advantage of what their state offers. "Most school leaders cringe at the thought of losing some autonomy. But take it for all it's worth, because it's worth a lot," says Gasper. "You're essentially getting expensive services for free."
Kurt Eisele-Dyrli is products editor.