6 K-12 school districts to watch in 2019
Decisions surrounding charters, school safety and online learning make these school systems worth noting.
As the education space continues to evolve, transformations, disruptions and trends are shaping districts and schools across the country.
The widespread adoption of technology has put some districts on the cutting edge of innovation while placing others further behind their counterparts. Heightened school safety concerns, combined with recent incidents of violence, have thrown certain school systems into a growing dialogue on how to shift the narrative. And as issues including low teacher salaries and insufficient funding persist, some districts are forced to deal with the educators who are begging for something to change.
As each of these conversations continue to progress, a number of districts have stood out for a variety of reasons.
Broward County Public Schools (BCPS)
The nation’s sixth-largest district and the home to more than 271,500 students garnered national headlines in February 2018, when a former student attacked one of the southern Florida system’s high schools and fatally shot 17 students and staff members.
Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as well as the school system and the rest of the country, spent months dealing with the aftermath of the shooting. And what’s happened since is worth noting.
As one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, the massacre put BCPS at the center of the school safety conversation. After President Donald Trump suggested arming teachers — with some talk of using Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) funds to do so, sparking sharp controversy among educators, students and families — a commission investigating the shooting recommended giving educators guns.
More than 100 pending lawsuits allege the district — and, in some cases, local law enforcement — is partially to blame for the tragedy, leaving many to wonder how liable schools are in protecting students. And newly installed security features set the stage for other districts to follow suit or question whether the hardening of schools has gone too far.
Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD)
Nationwide teacher strikes made waves in 2018 and have continued into the new year. And LAUSD — the nation’s second-largest school district, with roughly 500,000 students at more than 1,000 schools and 200 public charters — remains at the center of this conflict.
After months of bargaining, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) went on strike Jan. 14 after a build up of protests, such as staff meeting boycotts, downtown rallies and other actions. While the issue of teacher pay has figured into the bargaining process, the union's most vocal demands focus on reducing class sizes, adding more counselors, librarians and nurses, and limiting charter school co-location on district school campuses. And while LAUSD has offered educators a higher salary and more funding to reduce class sizes, the two groups are still at odds over many of the details. Negotiations continued over the weekend, but the strike entered its sixth day on Tuesday because members will need to vote to approve any agreement made between the bargaining teams.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has argued that the union's demands will bankrupt the system, and has urged UTLA to direct its protest toward state policymakers in Sacramento.
Garfield County School District (GCSD)
Despite schools’ embrace of ed tech trends and blended learning opportunities, some districts — typically, those in rural areas — are still struggling to catch up. In some cases, internet access, which feels like second nature to many of the nation’s students, isn’t a given resource for schools or surrounding households.
GCSD, a rural Utah system that enrolled just over 900 students in the 2017-18 school year, provides a computer to every student but sits in an area where broadband access isn’t a guarantee. To overcome the homework gap students face as a result, district leaders want to pilot a statewide initiative that would help bring high-speed internet to highways and rural households — two places where students spend large chunks of their days. The district has already implemented options including WiFi-equipped buses, but as teachers nationwide continue moving assignments online, current options have proven insufficient.
Leaders behind the plan still lack the federal license they need to use the spectrum that provides mobile internet to a particular location. And it’s up to the Federal Communications Commission to decide whether to give this rural district — and others — free access or charge them for these licenses. What comes of this proposal will surely have implications for districts everywhere in evaluating the feasibility of bringing broadband access to all students.
District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)
With a new year comes a continued push for encouraging school improvement through greater accountability. DCPS — home to some 48,000 students across 115 schools — has become a model for progress: One of the nation’s lowest-performing school systems improved faster than almost any other, thanks to changes including an independent charter authorizer and stronger school choice mechanisms.
But there’s still a ways to go, with expanding high-quality seats, boosting equity in a high-poverty area, and improving coordination between charters and traditional schools among the items on the system’s checklist.
DCPS also had its fair share of controversy in 2018. A federal investigation of a diploma scandal caused the system’s reform measures, which were said to spur massive improvement and influence similar efforts nationwide, to be called into question. About 1,000 DCPS teachers were found to be unlicensed. And nearly a year after the former chancellor of the district resigned, following revelations that he took shortcuts to transfer his daughter to a high-performing school, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser nominated Lewis D. Ferebee for the job.
The Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent has a contentious record of his own, raising eyebrows with his creation of an "innovation network" of charter schools that contributed to improvement while garnering criticism over perceptions of school privatization. Between Ferebee’s confirmation, the system's challenge of cross-sector collaboration and its unclear trajectory, DCPS is one to keep an eye on.
Summit Public Schools (SPS)
Boasting 11 charter schools throughout Washington and California, SPS is looked to as a model for success by many school choice advocates. And so far, Summit Learning — which boasts an online platform and shares its approach of giving schools and educators the tools they need to personalize learning — has been adopted in more than 380 schools nationwide.
Since the network founded its inaugural school in 2003, SPS adopted a new teacher preparation program that trains educators to work in the personalized learning environments it encourages. For the 2018-19 school year, the program has taken on its second cohort of teaching residents, who spend four days per week in a classroom with a cooperating teacher.
But not everyone endorses Summit Learning. Some students took to protest, citing data privacy concerns and claiming the model lacks rigor, is disorganized and isn’t accompanied by teachers trained in using it.
As the school choice debate continues and districts continue to expand personalized learning models, as well as teacher preparation opportunities, SPS is a network to watch in helping schools determine whether to adopt similar initiatives of their own.
Mesa County Valley School District 51
Years after school leaders decided they wanted to make personalized learning a priority, Mesa County Valley School District 51 is proving its commitment to a transparent, competency-based education system. Serving just over 22,000 students across 46 schools, the district is in the midst of a transition from a traditional model to one that embraces a performance-based framework and the opposite of a one-size-fits-all structure.
Using community engagement and learning from other districts following this model, District 51 set up seven "demonstration environments," or pilots, that allowed the pace of learning and levels of support to differ with each student. After that, a five-phase process — which includes establishing a working group, creating an initial structure and gathering feedback — guided schools across the district in continuing to make this shift.
Personalized learning is increasing in popularity across schools nationwide, but recent debates have raised questions about what this term means, what it entails and what is most effective. And with a reasonably large student population, District 51's level of success in this transformation can guide other school systems looking to follow.
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