The superintendent of a suburban Ohio school district has turned her district around in two quick years by implementing several technology-based programs and creating a “no-excuses” environment.

When Deborah S. Delisle became superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District (CHUH) two years ago, the district’s status was “academic watch.”

Ohio’s state report card ranks districts in one of five categories: excellent, effective, continuous improvement, academic watch, and academic emergency. In just two years, CHUH has improved its status by two categories in the state’s rankings, to “effective.” The district has experienced academic gains as high as 20 to 30 percent in some subject levels.

Delisle attributes the district’s success in part to the “no-excuses” environment she created.

The district serves 6,384 students who live in the suburbs of Cleveland. Although it serves a suburban area, its student population is culturally, racially, and economically diverse. Seventy-eight percent of students are African-American, and 51 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Yet Delisle does not allow her staff to excuse underachievement because of poverty, race, or the high number of transfer students. “You have to have a no-excuses environment,” she emphasized.

Data collection and analysis is also key to CHUH’s improvement plan. “I wanted to know through data that kids were growing, that kids were achieving,” Delisle said.

Principals analyze student data and devise action plans to address problem areas. Action plans have to reflect the district’s priorities, and they are documented, tracked, and evaluated. Implementing effective action plans is important, Delisle said, because they factor into each principal’s performance review. “We have a laser-like focus on student achievement,” she said.

This fall, the district is rolling out a full implementation of a computer-based program called the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association. Over the last two years, the district has piloted the MAP electronic assessment. This computer-adaptive program periodically tests students on their knowledge of state-required content, so teachers can guide instruction throughout the year.

The state test, which is administered once a year by paper and pencil, doesn’t guide instruction, show improvement, or give teachers a chance to improve students’ knowledge, Delisle explained.

Now, in addition to the state test, students will be tested via computer three times per year. Teachers will get instant feedback they can use to identify and address problem areas immediately. More importantly, data are provided for each individual student. “You can see significant growth from the struggling student, but you can also see growth from the top students so they don’t remain on a plateau,” Delisle said. “There’s no hiding in a group.”

The technology makes it easier to administer tests, get instant results, and analyze the data, she said. Plus, teachers and principals can easily pull the reports they need.

Delisle is big on providing opportunities to students, especially for those who are economically disadvantaged.

CHUH has eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school. The high school is currently divided into five distinct, smaller learning communities, as part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pilot program. Each smaller learning community has 400 students and employs a different educational philosophy, such as arts and technology, personalized learning, or Socratic seminars. The outcomes of each learning community are being studied and evaluated for their effectiveness.

Delisle said the high school also features a brand-new television production lab where students will be able to take courses in television production starting this fall. The goal is eventually to have students producing television programs for the school and community. Each teacher has a computer in his or her classroom, and some of the teachers have laptops. Every building has a series of computer labs, as well as a distance-learning lab, tutorial programs, and credit recovery programs that help students earn credits needed to graduate.

To help struggling readers, the district has installed four Scholastic Read 180 labs at the high school and three at the middle schools. The program has students reading and responding online, as well as doing independent reading and small-group instruction. Another goal for this school year, Delisle said, is to develop a program to acclimate students who have transferred into the district, to keep them from getting discouraged and dropping out.

CHUH has a rigorous curriculum and high expectations that often overwhelm transfer students, especially students who are floundering or who didn’t want to move in the first place, Delisle said. Transfer students would be assigned to an action center, where teachers and counselors would determine their reading and math competencies and then design individualized learning programs to help them catch up if needed. The action center’s social worker also would help the families of transfer students meet their basic needs, such as getting eyeglasses or dental care.

With an eye toward the global competitiveness of its students, the district also intends to start a Chinese language and culture education program. CHUH will bring a Chinese teacher to the district starting in August 2007.

Delisle has reorganized the district’s IT department to make it more service-oriented. For instance, the IT director now reports to the superintendent, for two reasons: (1) to make it easier for Delisle to keep a pulse on what is happening, and (2) to encourage the department to move into more challenging areas.

IT department staff members examine the district’s needs and allot budget dollars accordingly. The Education Resource Center, which purchases the district’s educational software, is now housed with the IT department as well. When the district purchased Apple computers for its television studio, the IT department was able to assess its ability to maintain those computers.

All purchase orders, work orders, and help-desk requests are now made electronically using SchoolDude’s web-based software. The program lets staff members analyze various data, such as how many requests were made and what the largest problem categories are. The custodial staff, for example, use SchoolDude to manage work orders and track how long it takes to complete them.

Professional development at CHUH is embedded in the job, Delisle said. Teachers are given release time during the day for training. Staff meetings sometimes focus on building skills such as data interpretation.

The district developed an electronic report card system in-house. Program specialists worked with teachers to develop a system that makes report card writing easier.

CHUH also is moving toward a paperless environment. Staff members use laptops and personal digital assistants in meetings to take notes and review documents. Upper-level administrators use smart phones to access eMail and the internet.

Delisle also attributes much of her success to her talented support staff. “There’s such high energy in our district, and there is a belief in kids–and that belief is a catalyst for change. I’m really proud of that,” she said.

She added: “I believe very strongly in relationships.” She makes herself visible in the school buildings and accessible to teachers, custodians, and school nurses.

Delisle is a first-generation college student in her family. She majored in psychology but couldn’t afford graduate school, so she switched to education.

She began teaching second grade in Connecticut in 1975. She also earned her master’s degree in gifted and talented education from Kent State University.

Delisle moved to Ohio for her husband’s job, where she took a position developing programs for gifted students. In 1985, she became coordinator of a district-wide K-12 gifted and enrichment program in Shaker Heights City School District in Ohio.

In 1988, she returned to the classroom to teach. There, she became interested in language-arts skills acquisition and served as the language-arts specialist. In 1995, Delisle took an administrative position with the West Geauga School District as director of academic services.

In 2001, CHUH recruited Delisle as associate superintendent, then later interim superintendent, and now superintendent. “It’s funny, because my goal was never to be superintendent,” Delisle said.

Delisle advises others to set high expectations for themselves and others, and to remember that kids are central to your mission. “It’s absolutely critical to cast a vision and live by that vision,” she said. Link: Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District