Once leaders in Phoenix’s Balsz Elementary School District committed to embarking on serious school improvement, they didn’t have far to look for an inspirational model. Nearby Creighton Elementary School District was already several years into a comprehensive turnaround process, and achieving considerable success.

The path to replicating Creighton’s improvements might have seemed straightforward. Balsz and Creighton share similar student demographics, each began with comparable student achievement challenges, and Balsz leaders brought in the same outside support that had guided Creighton’s turnaround: a technical assistance team from WestEd and funding from the Ellis Center for Educational Excellence, a Phoenix-based foundation.

Yet Balsz pursued a path to turnaround that was very different from Creighton’s — a difference that was both intentional and key to success.

School reform initiatives at the district level are always challenging, in part because no two districts are entirely the same, explains Joseph Sassone, director of Integrated Services for WestEd’s Comprehensive School Assistance Program. “We know the principles that work, but going into a particular district and getting those principles fully implemented is another story,” says Sassone. “Every situation is different. You have to customize.”

The school improvement principles Sassone is talking about are time-tested, research-based, and widely embraced. They include the use of a viable curriculum; data-based instruction and decision making; regular assessment of student progress, with intervention provided when and where necessary; and professional development and coaching for teachers and school leaders. But the process of putting such elements in place can lead to very different emphases and timelines, even in districts as similar as Balsz and Creighton.

Creighton: The model

Creighton serves 7,200 students in kindergarten through grade 8, about 90 percent of the students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, and more than half are English language learners. When Creighton began a turnaround process in 2008, it was a struggling, underperforming district. The state had designated the district as “failing” and six of its nine schools as “underperforming.”

Sassone, who helped lead the reform work undertaken in Creighton, said it focused on three areas: establishing a viable standards-based curriculum and measuring the extent to which students were meeting the standards; coaching teachers in high-quality classroom strategies to boost student achievement; and using data to refine instruction. “These are basic, research-proven characteristics of successful school turnaround programs,” he says.

Six years and $4.6 million later, Creighton is a different district. And the improvements, Sassone says, came fairly quickly: By spring 2011, eight of its schools had been relabeled as “performing plus” and one as “highly performing.” The percentage of students who met or exceeded proficiency in reading increased from 48.5 to 68 percent. Because the standards and assessments now used to measure student progress in Arizona have changed, it is difficult to compare current student achievement to earlier progress. But according to Creighton Superintendent Charlotte Boyle, achievement levels are holding steady, and less quantifiable results of the reforms — such as stronger district coherence, leadership ability, and the quality of the district’s professional development — remain firmly in place.

Replication in Balsz: Tailoring reform to fit context

When the turnaround process in Balsz began in 2011, WestEd’s team drew on lessons learned from Creighton and other districts. “But no matter how similar two districts, the context is always different, and you have to understand that context,” notes Sassone.

In both districts, the WestEd team began by getting to know the district’s needs and building relationships with administrators and educators. This process led to different, customized school improvement models in each site. Both districts focused heavily on curriculum and instruction and on support for English language learners, says Sassone, but whereas Creighton educators prioritized students’ reading ability and the overall quality of classroom instruction, the priorities for Balsz were developing principals’ capacity to carry out reforms and improving math achievement. Balsz also chose to focus on developing strong school-based leadership teams. “That was something we had not concentrated on in Creighton,” says Sassone, “but which we came to realize was critical if we wanted change to really take hold in Balsz.”

Another key step in any effective replication process is actively engaging school leaders and other major players, getting them to commit to the hard work involved, Sassone says. It’s that commitment that provides not only the impetus to create new policies and procedures, but also the drive to sustain them. “We can show you what needs to be done, and how to do the work,” he says. “But you’re the ones who actually have to do the work.”

…[N]o matter how similar two districts, the context is always different, and you have to understand that context.

Alexis Wilson, Balsz’s assistant superintendent of Administrative Services, says educators in Balsz were “honest about the fact that we needed help, and that if there were other experts with greater expertise in curriculum, using data, and professional development, we wanted their support.” But they were also apprehensive, uncertain about the “big, outside entity that had come in to change Creighton.”

In Balsz, Wilson says it certainly helped that she had previously worked with Sassone when she was a new principal at Griffith Elementary School and Sassone was a consultant for the district. As a result, “Joe and I had already built a relationship and it was easy for me to say to my staff, ‘I know this guy. And he knows what he’s talking about.’”

In the absence of long-standing, prior relationships such as the one that existed between Wilson and Sassone, engagement can often emerge from the results of a formal district needs assessment. Sassone says such an instrument is a “good way to come to understand all the factors that make up a district and helps people realize that you really do comprehend their needs. Once you’ve done that, you can sit down together and with credibility start building relationships based on a high level of trust, which then leads to customizing a replication to fit a specific district.”

According to Wilson, it didn’t take long for others in Balsz to begin building those relationships with the WestEd specialists, and that laid the groundwork for a long-term, productive process. She says that ultimately it was the ability of Sassone and the WestEd team to communicate effectively that helped solidify their relationships with her teachers and principals, which in turn led them to commit to the improvement initiatives. She especially appreciated the WestEd staffers’ willingness to customize the process — to “listen to us, and then adjust their plans based on our input.”

Sassone notes that another necessary part of successfully customizing school reform is an awareness of and ability to respond to the political climate in a district, such as the nature of the relationship between the school board and superintendent. In Creighton, Boyle saw her role as a promoter and protector of the reform process. “Because of that, when things got rough, we could be confident that the board would continue to back the initiatives,” says Sassone. “I think the superintendent’s support made a huge difference.”

Replicating success

Within two years of Balsz beginning the reform process with WestEd, the district’s students had made significant gains in reading and math: The percentage of students meeting or exceeding proficiency in reading increased from 56 to 65 percent, and in math, the percentage increased from 49 to 59 percent. Griffith Elementary School won the National Center for Educational Achievement’s Higher Performing School Award. Now five years into the process, Sassone still visits the district five times per year to work on leadership issues, and a team of WestEd experts who specialize in teaching English language learners visits monthly, as does a team of math specialists.

In addition to working in Balsz and Creighton, WestEd’s Comprehensive School Assistance Program is tackling school turnaround in numerous other locales, including the Arizona border city of Douglas, three rural California school districts (Evergreen Elementary, Fairfield-Suisun Unified, and Konocti Unified), and a large, urban Wisconsin district (Milwaukee Public Schools).

In each case, a customized process is being used to replicate proven school improvement initiatives. As Wilson notes, replication “seems so basic, and makes so much sense: Take what you know has worked well somewhere else and put it in place in your district.” Still, she adds, “I attribute our success to the fact that while we replicated much of what happened in Creighton, our approach was different, modified, and it grew out of our communication with those on the WestEd team.”