Education Lab

Valley districts team up to push school reform

Seven school districts -- including Fresno, Clovis and Sanger -- that unsuccessfully sought $700 million in federal money to improve education in California have decided to move ahead with the effort anyway.

The districts announced Monday they have formed a nonprofit consortium to raise money, share ideas and become laboratories for boosting student achievement.

Their efforts could help school districts throughout the state devise better ways to teach students and assess their teachers, officials said.

Clovis Superintendent David Cash said the districts will learn from one another and put successful techniques into practice in the classroom.

"We have to give teachers tools to help them, and they will do what needs to be done," Cash said.

At the same time, he said, teachers who don't adapt could get help to improve -- or might be forced to leave.

The Fresno, Clovis and Sanger unified school districts will collaborate with school districts in Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco and Sacramento through a nonprofit organization called California Office on Education Reform, whose board is composed of the superintendents from each district.

The seven districts represent about 20% of California's 6 million K-12 students.

The seven school districts led California's unsuccessful efforts to compete for $700 million in federal Race To The Top funds. Nine states and the District of Columbia were awarded funds in August.

Local and state education officials attributed California's loss in part to the state's failure to track students as they moved between districts and after high school.

The districts had planned to create their nonprofit consortium using federal Race to the Top funds.

Without the federal funds, the districts are trying to pursue the same goals, but on a smaller scale.

A second nonprofit organization, California Education Partners, will focus on raising money. Already it has raised $3 million for the project, said Rick Miller, a senior partner with the group and a former deputy superintendent for the state Department of Education.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said the group is pressing ahead with its reform agenda so that the major candidates for governor and California superintendent of schools know educators remain serious about the issue.

The districts are working on data systems to improve student tracking from elementary school through high school and into the work force, said Hanson, president of the education reform group.

The districts also want to ensure that students in California can score as well as students in other states under the new national education guidelines, he said.

Toward that goal, some of the districts already are working together to devise common strategies and curricula to improve student performance.

Part of the project will create a portal for the districts to collaborate and share information on everything from collective bargaining to data collection to teaching students algebra or English.

It will be open to all districts statewide to observe what the seven member districts are doing. It also will develop new ways to evaluate teachers and principals.

Marc Johnson, Sanger Unified's superintendent, said funding shortfalls no longer are an excuse to fail. Teachers and districts must work together to improve student achievement -- and evaluations of teachers and principals should be linked to student achievement.

"Each of us is going to have to do the work within the culture of our district," Johnson said, "but accomplishing common goals of how those actually roll out in each district may be a little different."

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