The Power to Transform Schools
What happens when you give educators power? What happens when you let them decide how to spend their school’s budget or schedule their students’ time?
Good things, it turns out.
“My kids love coming to school,” says Las Vegas fifth-grade teacher Nadia DeLeon. And not only that, but they’re reading, writing and performing math more proficiently too – ever since Paul Culley Elementary’s faculty became one of the first in Clark County’s empowerment school project.
Started five years ago, with the idea that teams of educators close to children could actually make the best decisions for their students, the empowerment school project is a model for transforming low-performing schools. Its success shows clearly that it’s not pinstriped legislators who know best what should happen in classrooms, it’s the educators. And, when educators have the flexibility and freedom to make decisions for their students, they make the right ones.
Consider Culley, where about 60 percent of students are Latino and all get free or reduced-price lunch. In 2005, not even a quarter of its kids read on grade level. By 2008, 57 percent did. Now Culley proudly wears the state’s designation of “high-achieving school.” The difference? “Everything we do here is so much more purposeful,” says fifth-grade teacher Emily Bassier, who previously taught in a regular Clark County elementary school.
Bassier also serves as chair of Culley’s School Empowerment Team, which makes decisions on how to spend the school’s budget – like all of Clark’s existing 17 empowerment schools, Culley gets an additional $400 per student per year – and also what curriculum will work best, and how to schedule their day, which includes an extra 29 minutes.
What this means is, empowerment isn’t just a concept at Culley. Its effects in the classroom are concrete – and they start at 8 a.m., a half-hour before the regular starting time for elementary schools. “We wanted to match our middle school’s hours, so that older siblings would be able to walk with their little brothers and sisters,” DeLeon explains.
After that early start time, empowerment extends into math class, which uses textbooks specifically chosen by Culley’s teachers, and then reading, where the school’s unique schedule calls for a block of focused reading in ability-level groups. Even after the last bell of the day, empowerment lingers, as students stick around for a half-hour of small group tutoring or extra-curricular clubs in art, music and sports.
It’s hard work by a dedicated group of professionals – but that’s what it takes to improve student achievement, says Carolyn Stewart, project manager for the Clark County Education Association, which partners with the district to support the empowerment project. She says, “You can not go in and wave a magic wand and make everything right. It’s going to take a team.”