Syracuse Leading the Way on Reform in New York

In a few weeks, we will be releasing an update of our policy trends report called Learning Time in America. As a preview, I can tell you that we have, once again, found momentum continuing to build with more and more schools and districts redesigning and increasing school time to support student achievement and teacher development.  Effective use of more time in school has become an essential strategy for education leaders who oversee districts focused on creating excellent schools for all their students, regardless of the challenges of poverty, race, and disability.  Without adequate time for teaching and learning—and for countless at-risk students the standard 180 6.5-hour days is not adequate—educators understand that it is unlikely any school can meaningfully boost student performance.

While the large urban districts get most of the attention, often it is the small urban districts where improvement is really gaining traction.  I have written recently about the successes in Lawrence, MA and featured schools from Fall River, MA.  Now there are standouts in other states.  What is happening in Syracuse, New York, for example, is one of the more exciting ones. Superintendent Sharon Contreras is turning around a district that has for many years struggled to raise student achievement.  By leveraging significant state and federal funding, she has created two cohorts of expanded-time schools, enabling more opportunity for teachers to collaborate to improve instruction and for students to receive the personalized support in smaller learning groups.  She has created a district-within-a-district, called the iZone, a group of seven schools that are each aggressively implementing transformational practices to bring about school improvement. In addition, the district has designated another five schools to engage in a whole-school redesign through the state’s Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative.

To broaden the educational experiences of children, the superintendent has fashioned a network of effective partners, including community organizations, Syracuse University, the Museum of Science and Technology, Redhouse/Arts Collaborative, SUNY ESF, Baltimore Woods Nature Center, Syracuse Stage, Peaceful Schools, Catholic Charities and Contact Community Services that each work deeply with schools to provide enrichment and a robust system of school support. Contreras continues to align the efforts of these partners with the core instruction and educational priorities within schools as well to leverage these enrichment opportunities to create more time for teachers to collaborate and to analyze data.   

This re-organization and expansion of the day in iZone and ELT schools and the near seamless alignment of the constellation of reforms and partners constitutes an important reason Syracuse bears watching. In short, the full day is now designed to make all the various facets of a high-quality, well-rounded education fit together. The district is using interim assessments combined with other student measures to personalize education for each child and a way to monitor each student’s performance.  Ultimately, Dr. Contreras aspires to create a systemic approach to link data to instruction. The superintendent and school leaders and teachers in Syracuse understand that it is not possible to help students improve without gaining a full understanding of what they know and where they still need to grow.

At the same time, simply having ready access to data does not necessarily translate to change in the classroom. Teachers must also have the opportunity to strategize on how to target and differentiate instruction to meet individual student needs. To realize this objective, district leadership has insisted that teachers are provided adequate time to understand and apply the data. Consistent, dedicated collaboration sessions (about 30 minutes per day) are built into every teacher’s schedule so they can jointly figure out how best to address students’ learning strengths and deficits. Further, during regular collaboration, teachers work together to strengthen core content, including the district priority of improving comprehension and discourse around complex text.

But the educational design does not stop there, as more time for teacher learning should not mean less learning time for students. So, during the periods when teachers meet, students engage in productive learning, courtesy of the network of partnerships that Superintendent Contreras put in place. Under the guidance of these partners, students have the chance to engage in the arts, robotics, creative writing or a host of other fun things that are also carefully aligned to support core content skill development. Moreover, the partners become yet another source through which to assess student growth and development. (Incidentally, in some cases, the district has leveraged 21st Century Community Learning Center funds to install and strengthen these partnerships.) The well-rounded education that we imagine should be part and parcel of each child’s experience in school is taking shape in Syracuse.

In districts that serve large numbers of children in poverty, the path to meaningful and lasting school improvement is often long and winding. But the recent activity in Syracuse makes this district, in my view, more the exception, than rule. Why? We get an important clue by looking at how Superintendent Contreras has capitalized on the two major sources of funding—the federal School Improvement Fund in the case of iZone and the state ELT grant—and how this experience differs from other places. For one, we’ve found in our research that most of the thousands of recipients of a School Improvement Fund grant have not actually put in place a longer school day for all students. Instead, most provide more learning time only to a subgroup within a school. This approach then limits the impact that more time can have upon whole-school improvement. Syracuse was also one of only twelve districts in the country to be awarded a special federal grant aimed at developing leaders in turnaround schools. As for the ELT monies, Syracuse was actually the only district in the state to be able to implement this year. Their readiness has thus earned them an extra year of implementation.

From our vantage point, it is clear that Superintendent Contreras and her team have not only developed a strong vision for progress, but, more importantly, that they are constantly learning, reflecting and modifying their approach to best meet the needs of the students. We know from experience working with districts all across the U.S. that the road to preparing all students for success in higher education, careers and life is a challenging one, often with bumps along the way.  But with a clear plan and leadership like that of Superintendent Contreras, we are confident we will see substantial gains and we are eager to watch the progress as they reimagine how to develop their human capital, create sustainability strategies, strengthen core instruction, align instructional priorities and serve the children of Syracuse.