Atlanta: A Case Study in School Improvement

The public school district in the city of Atlanta is a turnaround story. In recent years, the district has achieved significant improvements in many respects, not the least of which is student achievement levels. Part of what is happening in the district pertains to a lean approach.

Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, who joined the district in 1999, is the driving force behind a three-pronged approach focusing on the quality of instruction, the improvement of facilities and the improvement of business processes.

I spoke recently with Wendell Love, program director in the district Office of Strategy and Development. Love is one of the lead people in the effort to improve business processes.

Love, who was hired in February 2007, is focusing on areas that he says “cause the most pain,” including the lengthy time it takes between a teacher requesting something and then actually receiving it. His office also oversees project management, and he is working both to developing cross-functional teams and to establish process owners who accept responsibility for an entire process.

Love had previously worked with the district as a consultant. His background is in process improvement; among other credentials, he is a certified quality auditor with the American Society for Quality (ASQ).

As in any such situation, cultural issues are among the most challenging, particularly when it comes to dealing with any negative information. “It is at once a very public kind of thing, and at the same time there is the need to kind of contain the bad information as much as possible until you can do something about it,” he says.

And a school district, especially one with 51,000 students, presents unique difficulties. “You don’t have access to principals and teachers during the time that they work,” he notes. In addition, “you can’t go to 90 schools every week. It would be amazing if you could get to 90 schools in a year.”

While the business process strategy is the one that most clearly ties in to principles of continuous improvement, other efforts also present evidence of the right approach. In a report on the district this past October, Hall described some of what the district does to raise achievement:

1. We put comprehensive school reform models in all our schools.

2. We gave school teams planning time and put coaches in the classroom to help our teachers improve their delivery of instruction.

3. We aligned our curriculum and scope and sequence with the Georgia Performance Standards.

4. We gave teachers and school leaders the tools to analyze student performance so they can continually adjust instruction

5. We recruited high quality principals and invested in principal training to help them become even more effective instructional leaders.

6. We put together school reform teams that provide cross-functional support to schools under the leadership of high performing executive directors of schools.

7. And, finally, we targeted our resources to help our lowest performers.

Hall has also been effective in helping the district obtain new sources of funding, including a $10.5 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced last spring.

Not many school districts have forward-thinking leaders who can both envision and implement far-reaching improvement strategies. Here’s hoping Atlanta can serve as an example for many others.

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