Redesigning Schools for Student Success

Changing old thinking into new ideas

by Dr. Rod Berger

When I sat down to talk to Fran Rabinowitz, she had just completed her first year as the Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) and was very enthusiastic about her work. As a veteran superintendent of multiple school districts, she has a wealth of experience and earned wisdom forged in the hot fires of school board meetings and NCLB standardized testing.

When Fran took over as head of Bridgeport Public Schools, it was a struggling district that had faced years of community and school board battles. Central High School, in particular, had a history of low student achievement with many students were failing core classes like Algebra and English. The school faced additional challenges like a high rate of student behavior referrals, low attendance, and a very tight budget. To better support and engage students, Bridgeport was going to have to rethink the way they did things. They needed to pack more power into their educational “punch” while staying within budget.

The Bridgeport district partnered with School by Design (SxD) and set about changing the culture. SxD completed an audit that presented the district with actionable scenarios so they could develop a plan to rethink resource use, curriculum, and schedules. The district was able to implement a flexible scheduling model that allowed them to provide more academic support to struggling students, giving them the opportunity to catch up in critical core classes. “We sometimes feel that the schedule for the high school is like a sacred cow,” Fran says. “It's set up, and you don't monkey with that schedule because it determines everything that happens at the high school. But once you take a look at the schedule with fresh eyes, you see where you can free up resources that you didn't even realize you had.”

They also instituted a more rigorous course of study that more closely mirrored the college experience with a focus on independent study and time management. Students were also offered more equitable access to Advanced Placement courses and tutoring by teachers.

The new flexible schedule allowed more time for high-quality teacher professional development embedded throughout the week and school year with an emphasis on teacher-directed lesson planning. “We decided to reinvest in the professional learning of staff because even though it's not going directly to students, it is very much going to affect the quality of that child’s education,” Fran says. “We need teachers in the classroom who are better able to engage students in a better way because they are better trained.” This comprehensive professional development was accomplished through the district’s participation in the Innovative Professional Development (iPD) Challenge, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers worked with iPD to collaborate with other teams to create interdisciplinary lessons that inspired higher levels of engagement.

Three years after implementing these changes, the redesign was declared a success. Central High School experienced an increase in attendance, there were fewer behavior referrals and suspensions, and most importantly, there was an increase in students on track to graduate on time. The amazing turnaround was crowned further when Central High School was recognized as one of the top 40 schools in Connecticut in 2017 by U.S News & World Report.

About Fran Rabinowitz

Fran Rabinowitz was named Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents in June 2017. Most recently she served as Interim Superintendent of the Bridgeport Public Schools and has been a classroom teacher, district administrator, Associate Commissioner of Education for the State of Connecticut, and Superintendent of the Hamden Public Schools in the past as well. Fran Rabinowitz has been a respected educational leader in the state for over 30 years.

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