Helping underperforming schools in tough times

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, June 3, 2010

Daniel A. Domenech arrived in Fairfax County 13 years ago as the new schools superintendent.

He was a former elementary school teacher with a reputation for raising achievement for low-income students. But he had to prove himself, fast, in difficult circumstances. Many Fairfax schools, particularly in the Route 1 corridor, were doing worse than the county average in math and reading, and many parents did not want to hear about it.

Domenech launched Project Excel, identifying 20 elementary schools as low-performing and giving them more class time and money to improve. But at community forums, people asked him why he was stigmatizing schools full of good people trying their best. Domenech shook his head. "If you are satisfied with the education your kids are getting, this is fine," he said. "But I'm not."

When he left seven years later, many Excel schools had turned around, and Domenech was a national figure, eventually becoming executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. Now his successor, School Superintendent Jack D. Dale, faces his own crisis: deep budget cuts that have ended the Excel program that made Domenech's reputation. I asked the former superintendent how he felt about that.

"It was a different time, and we had to do different things then," he said.

His organization's members are reeling nearly everywhere from similar financial crises. He said he thought Dale had taken the essence of Project Excel (more resources for the neediest schools) and spread support in a new way to low-income students struggling in every part of the county.

The new program is called Priority Schools. It requires a cautionary note. Raising student achievement in schools full of poor kids whose parents are distracted by the disappointments and irritations of scarce jobs and bad housing is hard to do.

Priority Schools, like Project Excel, sounds terrific, but new programs usually do. A sustained commitment to improving teaching and smarter management can make significant change, but school districts are often torn by conflicting priorities and political disputes that get in the way.

Priority Schools has Domenech's blessing, but more important, as he would say, is the high level of professional talent in one of the best equipped and led school systems in the country.

Domenech said Project Excel's gains stemmed in part from adding three hours a week to classroom time in 20 schools and paying the teachers for the extra time with an additional $1 million annually for each school. His staff also pioneered a school performance bonus system well ahead of its time. If an Excel school reached certain achievement targets, everyone in the building, whether the principal or a custodian, would get a reward, as much as $2,000 each.

The Priority Schools program will not be handing out cash. But it will try to raise the talent and expertise at each school on the list by giving special training to principals, such as the University of Virginia's two-year Turnaround Specialist program. It will also allow those principals to pick the most promising applicants for teaching jobs first during hiring season.

Domenech said the Excel school parents became boosters of his program. He will be just like them, living in the county, praising its teachers and seeing daughter Jillian graduate this month from Oakton High School.

She might be one for the Priority Schools program to watch. She plans to attend Mary Washington University and become, like her dad, an elementary school teacher, maybe good enough to help Fairfax kids take another step forward.

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