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The Long Beach Way: A Systemic Approach to Educating Every Child in Every School

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November 14, 2011 06:09 pm

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Last week I did a site visit at Long Beach Unified and was reminded of what is really possible in urban education. When we hear of great, transformative superintendents, we often hear names like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein. While I wouldn’t take away anything from other leaders, to me, Chris Steinhauser and the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) staff should be at the fore of any conversation on great district leadership and the types of district systems to which the nation should aspire.

The district has not been short on honors over the years. LBUSD received the prestigious Broad prize for urban education in 2003 and has been one of only two school districts to be a finalist five times. In a 2010 McKinsey Company report, LBUSD was identified as one of the world’s twenty leading school systems in terms of improved and sustained performance. Yet, it’s not awards or numbers that make Long Beach great. At Long Beach, it’s all about the system.

Some would contest some of LBUSD’s achievement and say that it benefits from unique attributes that make its success difficult to replicate. For example, the five LBUSD school board members are all former educators who provide the district advice without being a barrier to key innovation. Similarly, teachers seem proactive about taking bold steps that will help students in the long-run. Unlike most districts in the country, LBUSD district leaders have come through the system with relatively little turnover. Steinhauser himself started out as an elementary school principal and then moved to the district staff before becoming superintendent in 2002. Long Beach also has the deep support of businesses, postsecondary partners, the mayor, and others in the community.

Yet attributing these advantages to chance neglects the fact that Long Beach has systems in place to create its own good fortune. For example, the board and teachers are treated as partners rather than obstacles to innovation. In order to ensure buy-in, they are brought in long before an initiative is about to take off. Additionally, all stakeholders know that the district is not going to simply pursue dollars for the sake of dollars or pursue the flavor of the month in school innovation. LBUSD has a clear vision and approach and, regardless of what the fiscal climate is, it pursues that approach with as much fidelity as possible. For example, as the district works to implement the districtwide strategy, Linked Learning, stakeholders are aware that this work dovetails with the district’s previous smaller learning communities and college and career readiness initiatives. Stakeholders know that the district’s goal is college and career readiness for all students and everybody moves together in that direction.

While this common vision is impressive, vision by itself does not sustain progress at LBUSD. There are structures districtwide that support this success. First, the district is almost fanatical about data and having a data literate staff. The district not only collects in-depth student data, but also has mechanisms to gather teacher feedback which district staff use to support teachers and site leaders in areas of highest need. These mechanisms help support what Long Beach staff call a top-down, bottom-up style to running the district.

Beyond internal feedback loops to support school level staff, the district maintains other structures that engage the external community such as businesses, postsecondary partners, and other community members. Through various long-standing advisory committees, LBUSD creates trusting, honest, and mutually beneficial relationships with the business, postsecondary, and political communities in the region. These relationships are not about attending a meeting or writing a check. They are about creating opportunities for long-term active engagement in how education is delivered to students districtwide.

Through these and other factors, LBUSD creates a culture of success that sustains a meaningful long-term investment by both internal and external stakeholders. In the process, the district has redefined equity and access to a high-quality education by saying, we’re not going to have a good school here or there where some students can get a high-quality education. Instead, we’re going to have a high-quality system where all students benefit from this education regardless of the school they choose to attend. While Long Beach staff will be the first to tell you that they have a long way to go before every student is graduating college- and- career ready, taking a page out of “the Long Beach way” can provide huge benefits to students in other schools and districts across the nation.

Ace Parsi is a policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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