Despite the commencement of Mardi Gras festivities just a few blocks down the road—or maybe owing to these festivities?—school superintendents by and large didn’t appear too jazzed for the 2003 American Association of School Administrators (AASA) conference in New Orleans Feb. 20-23, judging by the relatively poor attendance (3,400 paid registrants, only 100 more than last year’s post-Sept. 11 turnout) and sparse traffic in the exhibit hall.

Still, those who did attend the conference were treated to several solutions designed to save schools money and make the job of senior school executives easier.

Though the official conference theme was “Leadership in Changing Times,” the unofficial theme was how to do more with less—a reaction to the increased accountability in K-12 public education spurred on by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and also the serious budget shortfalls affecting states from coast to coast.

In the opening general session, AASA Executive Director Paul Houston compared the situation faced by public school superintendents today with that of the fishing vessel Andrea Gail in the movie The Perfect Storm: As in the movie, a confluence of events—each challenging in its own right, but abundantly more taxing when experienced together—threatens to capsize the best efforts of school leaders today.

Nevertheless, school leaders cannot use a lack of resources as an excuse for failing to meet the rigorous demands of NCLB in ensuring that all students succeed, conference speakers repeatedly intoned.

This idea was epitomized by 2003 Superintendent of the Year Award winner Kenneth Dragseth of the Edina School District in Minnesota, who quoted from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 “Citizenship in a Republic” speech in accepting his award:

“‘It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who … spends himself in a worthy cause …'”

Reaching ‘universal proficiency’

Stressing that the goals of NCLB were embraced by school leaders long before there was any legislation to mandate them, AASA President John R. Lawrence introduced a new term for “adequate yearly progress,” the benchmark for meeting the law’s tough new requirements: “universal proficiency.”

Shortly thereafter, keynote speaker Samuel Betances, a sociology professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, expressed in practical terms why it’s more important than ever to ensure that all students achieve universal proficiency.

By 2005, Betances said, we’ll have an estimated 158 million people in the work force in the United States—but this figure is about 10 million shy of how many people actually will be needed then. One reason for this projected shortfall is that America is “getting older,” he said: In the 1950s, there were 17 working people for every retiree; today, there are only three people working for every retiree.

To make up the difference, he argued, schools will need to do a better job of preparing traditionally underserved poor and minority students to become skilled workers and productive members of society—despite the fact that many of these students are at a distinct disadvantage.

“For the first time, schools have to be successful with those who are learning-ready and those who are not,” he said.

One way to help close this gap, he said, is by creating “community homework centers” that are open after school and in the evenings, where students can get the extra help they need from skilled tutors. Another idea is to hire the best and brightest students to help tutor those who are struggling.

Technology can help school leaders ensure universal proficiency, too—and some of the companies exhibiting at the conference demonstrated software designed to help educators pinpoint students’ precise skill levels and identify those children in need of extra assistance.

The National Study of School Evaluation (NSSE), a nonprofit research and development organization based in Schaumburg, Ill., introduced DataPoint, a set of web-based software tools aimed at helping school leaders make more informed decisions using student achievement information. Educators can use the program to import, access, and manage data for individual students or groups of students; conduct point-and-click queries based on specific criteria they define; quickly analyze data and calculate statistical comparisons; and generate reports and graphs.

Another conference exhibitor, Levings Learning of Oklahoma City, demonstrated its web-based assessments in math, English, science, social studies, and fine arts for students in grades 3-12. Levings has designed its assessments to align with each state’s standards of learning. With the company’s PASS Plan, educators can find out how students are progressing at any time during the year by testing students online and getting instant feedback.

Of course, simply identifying students who need extra help is only half the battle. Several exhibitors displayed software designed to bring struggling students up to speed with their classmates. Among these was Building Reading Skills, a brand-new remedial reading program created through a partnership between Albert H. Brigance and Failure Free Reading of Concord, N.C., that targets at-risk and special-needs students in grades four and up.

Building Reading Skills is an interactive program that delivers instruction in reading vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension through a series of short, well-sequenced lessons. The software incorporates the voice of a human instructor and is designed to appeal to even the most reluctant readers by connecting reading to students’ real-life experiences.

Creating successful partnerships

Another key to doing more with less is for superintendents and other school leaders to foster partnerships with members of the business community that can bolster the core mission of their respective institutions.

In a session titled “Maximizing the Benefits of Business and School Partnerships,” former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and Carlton Curtis, vice president of external relations for Coca-Cola Co., presented a set of eight “Guiding Principles” to help school leaders form successful alliances with private-sector companies. Both are members of the Council for Corporate and School Partnerships, a nonprofit organization established in 2001 to forge stronger ties between the business and school communities.

The group’s eight Guiding Principles are:

  • School-business partnerships must be built on shared values and philosophies.
  • Partnerships should be defined by mutually beneficial goals and objectives.
  • Partnership activities should be integrated into the school and business cultures.
  • Partnerships should be driven by a clear management process and structure.
  • They should define specific, measurable outcomes.
  • They should have support at the highest level within the business and school and concurrence at all levels.
  • They should include detailed internal and external communication plans that clearly illustrate the expectations of all parties.
  • They should be developed with clear definitions of success for all partners.

Over in the exhibit hall, several companies were showcasing programs that exemplify the spirit of school-business collaboration.

Dell Computer of Round Rock, Texas, announced that Canadian software firm Corel Corp. has joined as a partner in Dell’s TechKnow program, a nationwide initiative that provides computers, software, and training to disadvantaged middle school students. Corel is providing 1,000 copies of its CorelDRAW Graphics Suite software to participating districts, giving TechKnow students access to standards-based software for graphic design, page layout, image editing, and vector animation. Corel also will help develop the program’s curriculum, Dell said.

Global communications company Sprint Corp., with world headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., highlighted its Empowered Education initiative, another example of a successful school-business partnership. Through this program, Sprint is working with schools to create customized internet “interfaces,” or gateways for delivering a wide range of educational services to teachers, parents, students, and other community members, using the power of the internet to empower stakeholders in the educational process.

Document services company Xerox Corp. was at the conference to publicize a little-known program called FreeColor-Printers, which is designed to remove the cost barriers associated with high-speed color printing. Participating schools receive a free printer, a three-year service agreement, eMail and telephone support, and access to a members-only web site that includes ideas for using the printer in classroom projects—a $4,500 value. In return, they must provide monthly usage reports and purchase ink and maintenance kits from the program’s web site. The company hopes that once participants see the value of the printers, they’ll order more at the regular price.

Another exhibitor, CDI Computers of Ontario, gives schools the opportunity to save as much as two-thirds of the cost of new computers. CDI supplies refurbished Tier I computers to schools at a fraction of the cost of brand-new machines. Most of the company’s computers—which include brands from manufacturers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, Sony, IBM, and NEC—are returns from two-year lease agreements, and all are subjected to rigorous quality checks and are backed by three-year warranties.

International control-technology company Honeywell, based in Morris Township, N.J., promoted its Energy Savings Performance Contract, an innovative business model through which Honeywell will upgrade a school’s or district’s energy management systems. In return, schools pay for these improvements with the savings they realize in energy and operating costs, which are guaranteed to meet or exceed project payments.

See these related links:

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

2003 AASA Annual Conference & Exposition
http://www.aasa.org/nce_2003/index.asp

National Study of School Evaluation
http://www.nsse.org

Levings Learning
http://www.levingslearning.com

Failure Free Reading
http://www.failurefree.com

Coca-Cola Co.
http://www.coca-cola.com

Dell Computer Corp.
http://www.dell.com

Corel Corp.
http://www.corel.com

Sprint Corp.
http://www.sprint.com/education

Xerox’s FreeColorPrinters program
http://www.freecolorprinters.com

CDI Computers Inc.
http://www.cdicomputers.com

Honeywell International
http://www.honeywell.com