School districts nationwide face myriad challenges and successes heading into the new year. Where some jurisdictions see gains with student success and technological innovation, others continue to face takeover threats and lawsuits. Others are confronted with growing pains amid population booms bred by local business growth.
As we continue into the new year, here are six districts worth keeping an eye on.
San Diego Unified School District, California
While the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress provided few results to celebrate, the San Diego Unified School District was one district participating in the Trial Urban District Assessment that continues to see gains in reading and math in both 4th and 8th grades.
Last year, SDUSD was among seven districts in California that the Learning Policy Institute recognized for being a “positive outlier” because students are scoring higher than would be predicted, based on demographics. Among the improvements researchers noted in the report: emphasis on principals being instructional leaders, organizing Common Core standards in a way that are “manageable” for teachers and matching graduation requirements with standards for admission to the states’ university systems.
This year, the district began building on its work by adding “enhanced math” classes — without a test prerequisite — that it hopes will address the issue that black and Hispanic students and those from lower-income homes are less likely to take advanced math classes than white, Asian and more-advantaged students.
The question is whether the district’s increasing financial troubles will affect the classroom. With a projected $70 million budget deficit next year, officials are saying that layoffs are possible. As with other large districts in the state, such as Los Angeles and Oakland, leaders are also placing blame on the state legislature for providing far less per-student funding than in other states.
Paradise Unified School District, California
With newly appointed superintendent Tom Taylor, the Paradise Unified School District, north of Sacramento, continues to rebuild and recover from the deadly and devastating Camp Fire, which burned down or damaged most of its nine school buildings in November 2018.
Michelle John, who became superintendent in early 2018 and oversaw reopening of schools in off-site locations following a three-week closure, announced her retirement in the fall.
As with natural disasters that have struck other districts in recent years, enrollment is significantly less than before the fire because families have been forced to relocate. The district has about 1,770 students — roughly half as many as before the fire — and separate schools have been combined onto single campuses.
“While we are going to be smaller, it will not stop us from thinking big,” Taylor, a graduate of PUSD schools, wrote in his letter to parents last month. He emphasized progress, such as the construction of a new gym at what is now Paradise Junior and Senior High School, and the opportunity for 7th and 8th graders to take more electives because they are on the high school campus.
Providence Public Schools, Rhode Island
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green announced a takeover of the district in November, just months after parents urged state intervention and a scathing report from Johns Hopkins University detailed the district's "deep, systemic dysfunctions" that "clearly, and very negatively, impact the opportunities of children in Providence."
The report found that in the district of 24,000 students — many of them from minority and low-income backgrounds — a majority weren't learning "even near" grade level, teachers felt demoralized and unsupported, and principals struggled to demonstrate leadership. In her takeover announcement, Infante-Green reasoned that despite significant funding increases from state, Providence continued to chronically underperform.
While the decision was mostly uncontested by parents, students and even the board, continued community involvement and input throughout the turnaround could be key for success. So far, an interim superintendent, Frances Gallo, has been appointed. But significant overhauls, including new leadership, are expected to take place in the 2020-2021 school year. While the board is expected to remain in place, Infante-Green will have sweeping authority over school closures, hiring and firing personnel, contract negotiations, curriculum changes and budgets.
At the same time, a federal lawsuit filed by Providence students and their parents, and brought before Chief Judge William E. Smith at the U.S. District Courthouse in Providence, also brings into question the quality of civics education in the state. The case will be appealed in the 1st Circuit and could, depending on other similar lawsuits, eventually bring the nature of the right to education to the Supreme Court's attention.
Houston Independent School District, Texas
Texas too attempted a takeover of its largest district in November, citing the school board's "breakdown in governance" and one chronically underperforming high school as reasons. After a legal battle ensued between Texas authorities and the school district in a last-ditch effort to prevent state control, a state judge recently granted a preliminary injunction to the district that would block the state from immediately taking over until a final ruling is announced.
The legal struggle is expected to continue. If a takeover does occur, the school board will be replaced by a board of managers that have yet to be announced. Some worry a takeover could lead to larger class sizes, an exodus of valuable teachers, higher suspension rates for black and Hispanic children, and fewer services for low-income students.
This takeover would be the largest in the nation so far, making it an unprecedented move.
Rowan-Salisbury School System, North Carolina
Deemed a "low performing" district in 2015, the Rowan-Salisbury School System has risen to prominence in the years since as a beacon of innovation among the nation's public schools. The 18,653-student, 35-school district in 2019 committed to overhauling its approach to learning, implementing a 1:1 device program and an innovation mindset centered around a "have no fear" theme.
An AASA case study released in September details the district's transformation, noting the depth of professional development it provided to get educators up to speed on how to incorporate tech into lessons, as well as how the district had a device in the hand of every student and teacher by the fall of 2014.
The path wasn't without hurdles, though, as 65% of the district's students are economically disadvantaged and 13% are English language learners. But by 2016, the state removed the district from its "low performing" list, and today, most of its schools no longer carry that designation individually.
Frisco Independent School District, Texas
A northern suburb of Dallas, Frisco ISD has experienced quite a boom over the last 25 years, expanding from a handful of schools to nearly 70 as its student population ballooned to top 60,000 among local business growth. Even as the district meets expectations from the state, that growth brings its own share of challenges.
Former Superintendent Jeremy Lyon told NBC DFW in 2013 that the district was adding an estimated 3,000 students per year, a number sure to stretch the limits of class sizes and teacher bandwidth in any district. Luckily for Frisco ISD, voters have mostly been onboard with bond measures and tax ratifications to build new schools and hire more faculty.
Whether there's a point where the expansion is too much to handle remains an important question, but Frisco ISD currently serves as a model for how to navigate growing pains when districts experience similar population booms.