When Bigger Can Be Better

The superintendent in Guilford County, N.C., recites the major benefits from the merger of three school districts by Jerry D. Weast

When it comes to school mergers, growing bigger is an inescapable result of the process. And when faced with the prospect of a much larger school system, many individuals on the inside and outside harbor fears of administrative red tape, loss of identity and lower student achievement.

Those worries were precisely what I faced four years ago when I was hired as superintendent of the newly-merged Guilford County Schools, located in one of the busiest and most populous areas of North Carolina.

While some large school systems across the United States have been discussing breaking up in recent years due to a myriad of bureaucratic and funding problems, the catalyst for merger in Guilford County primarily was rising costs and inequity in both curriculum and funding among three neighboring school districts. With the marriage of Greensboro City, High Point City and Guilford County school districts, we became one of the nation's 60 largest districts and the third biggest in our state with 59,000 students.

Like a particle accelerator, the merger created an open and charged atmosphere that allowed a greater degree of freedom for change by our administrative team, which had been challenged by a newly elected school board to make this new, larger system more flexible and aggressive than any of the three previous entities.

Our board of education likened our task to building a new airplane while flying the old one. The challenge at hand was to build a plane that was bigger, faster, could fly higher and farther, handle more capacity, land on shorter runways and economize on fuel better than what we currently had. We had to come up with new standards and change the way we were thinking in order to achieve that goal.

Have we achieved what we set out to do? To a large degree, yes. Four years after the merger, we can let the statistics speak for themselves: Students have improved in the core subjects of reading, writing and math; our dropout rate has fallen to the lowest level among large districts in the state; student performance on the SAT has increased for the past three years; and local costs per child has dropped 4.5 percent over the period while teacher salaries have risen 18.5 percent and spending on classroom supplies, materials, technology and staff development set record levels.

Cost Savings

Conflicting theories abound about the merits of school district mergers. Proponents insist they save dollars while others swear they raise costs. Our experience lends some support to each theory. Local spending was held in check, and the savings enabled us to redirect dollars into proven classroom programs that work for students, teachers and parents.

Much of the savings came through staff reorganization. We cut more than 70 positions in our central staff and, while downsizing is never easy, the reorganization dissolved a lot of bureaucracy and returned more than $3 million to our classroom budgets. We saved additional dollars by privatizing some operational and maintenance functions.

The most controversial cutbacks came with the elimination of small academic or enrichment programs that did not contribute significantly to student achievement. Even though these cuts initially rechanneled $2.36 million into more effective activities, these were tough decisions to make because most programs at some time or another enjoyed support from the community, staff or a benefactor.

A new focus on team management that emphasized direct service to students increased our efficiency and provided better communication than had a former hierarchical approach. School principals and their building leadership teams became more involved with parents and community members in the decision-making process that ensured greater levels of accountability at the site level.

The merger also served as an opportunity to examine our expectations, standards and level of student achievement. We focused our efforts on the new mission statement adopted by our 11-member school board, which emphasized continuous measurable improvement in students' academic performance. With that in mind, a team of eight people dedicated four months to compile all the student achievement data from the three former school districts for the previous five years, reorganized it into a single, new database for a detailed analysis in order to determine where the new merged district stood on achievement. The data initially filled seven three-ring notebooks before it was reduced to a single volume.

But the information it contained was not good news. It showed that only one of every five 4th-graders could write coherently. A subsequent AASA curriculum audit suggested that classroom instruction should more closely follow the state's prescribed standard course of study.

To pointedly focus attention on this data, we translated all our achievement data into compelling visuals, allowing teachers and parents to see quite clearly whether their school was above or below the achievement levels of others in the system, neighboring counties or the entire state. The visual data served as a constant reminder that each school needed to emphasize raising its achievement scores. We pursued that task vigorously with a systematic plan beginning with preschool and extending beyond high school graduation.

Starting Early

We knew something had to be done to curtail the developmental delays of many children entering school. Working with community agencies countywide, we attacked the issues of quality day care, health care and recognition of non-handicapped developmental delays. The board allowed us to shift funding within our budget to create six preschool classrooms for developmentally delayed 4-year-olds. This program proved to be so successful, it now has grown to 29 classrooms in four years.

In pursuit of a goal set in 1994 that every child will read with comprehension by the end of 2nd grade, we have developed a battery of programs that ensures no child will fall through the cracks. Recognizing the continuum of maturation that exists between the ages of 4 and 7, we developed a well-articulated program that bridged those years.

Reading Recovery, a respected and widely used program that provides one-on-one attention to below-level readers, became the centerpiece of our efforts, but it could not stand alone and be cost effective without the early childhood emphasis, developmental kindergartens and a follow-up program we have titled Reading Together.

The latter is a peer-tutoring program, developed in conjunction with Hebrew University in Israel and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, that provides a safety net for 2nd-graders who need additional help in reading. It also helps cut down on any recidivism that may occur in graduates of the Reading Recovery program.. The key to this whole scenario is training and the use of specifically developed materials that address fundamental reading weaknesses.

Upper-grade students benefited within the merger's first nine months when we raced ahead of the state to develop our own criterion-referenced tests, administered in grades 3-8 every nine weeks. Technology was provided in the form of an instructional management system that allows teachers to develop and score tests for immediate feedback, rather than waiting long periods to determine students' level of mastery. Consequently, teachers were able to reteach needed skills immediately, resulting in extraordinary improvement. The recent National Assessment of Educational Progress shows our 8th-grade math students have achieved higher than students in North Carolina, the Southeast and the nation.

Remediating Performance

Another mystery yet remained for us to solve. At a series of public forums conducted shortly after the merger, many parents expressed major concerns over the quality of classroom instruction. Yet an examination of official teacher evaluations by our 93 principals over the previous five years showed all but a handful of teachers received ratings from above average to superior.

To address this inconsistency, we launched Project H.E.L.P. (Helping Evaluators Lift Performance), which made telling the whole truth about employee performance a top priority. Principals received training in how to identify weaknesses they observed in teaching and how to support the improvement of poor classroom teaching. The more realistic evaluations that followed had both positive and negative effects, but the community at large recognized the close relationship between quality instruction and student performance, and they supported our efforts.

Wider Opportunities

The reorganization has given our middle and high school students new opportunities. Added emphasis on a challenging, rigorous course of study for college-bound students has increased the number of students opting for Advanced Placement courses and exams by 53 percent over the last four years. Two of our high schools have passed rigorous scrutiny to be chosen for the International Baccalaureate program. In addition, we sought to return lost time for teaching at all grade levels by protecting the school day from interruptions, including dismissal for athletics, pep rallies, money collection, even worthy community efforts like every "-athon" imaginable.
Even with our new approach to curriculum and achievement, a gratifying, familial atmosphere has returned to many of our schools. Some of our administrative savings were directed toward Yale University's Comer School Development Process for Change, which allows teams of school staff and parents to make decisions for schools using guidelines that emphasize collaboration, consensus and a no-fault attitude. Guilford County has since become a model implementation site for the Comer process with six developmental pathways undergirding our reform efforts.

Another staff development approach that has shown great promise came through collaboration with the National Paideia Center, based at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The training has helped our teachers acquire instructional methods that emphasize skills that the business community seeks in employees. Our students are learning to think, reason, organize their thoughts and respect the opinions of others. Our dedication to this process resulted in our system being named the Guilford County Center for Paideia Studies and becoming nationally recognized as a demonstration site.

Perhaps the biggest coup borne out of merger was the full development of our technology program, particularly the institution of the North Carolina Fiber Optic Information Highway, which connects all 15 high schools with one another and the world. This cutting-edge endeavor has given amazing educational opportunities to students and teachers. It became possible because the conflicts of geography, three competing systems and overlapping phone company service areas were eliminated through merger.

Witnessing our successes, the business community—which encompasses the third and seventh largest cities in our state—recognized the potential for a better-trained work force. Through the auspices of our new workforce preparedness program, which combined the education committees of two chambers of commerce, a college tech-prep curriculum became a reality in our high schools. Business leaders collaborated with us and our local community college to develop a curriculum and define the necessary skills needed in today's labor market.

The result is a plethora of apprenticeships for college-bound students. By the year 2000, we expect 1,000 Guilford County students to be enrolled in apprenticeship programs that support our math, science and communications curriculum. These are not fast-food jobs, but technical positions that point to a future in generalized fields of study, not specific jobs.

Again, the merger was our ally in developing such a program. Even in a county as complex and growth-oriented as Guilford, it would have been impossible to negotiate business support for programs of this magnitude in three separate school districts.

An Enabling Factor

Four years after merger, recognition of the progress being made by our school system has come via numerous national awards, yet we take greatest pride in the fact that our blueprint for ensuring students a successful future is achieving its intended results.

Countering some initial fears, larger size has not been a deterrent in our efforts to improve our public schools. Rather, the merger has brought about combined human and fiscal resources that permit us to support student learning in ways unimagined in our earlier state. The merger has been the enabling factor for wider community support, better efficiency in our administrative practices and more focused and rigorous programs resulting in higher student achievement.

Jerry Weast is superintendent of the Guilford County Schools, P.O. Box 880, Greensboro, N.C. 27402-0880. E-mail: jweast@guilford.k12.nc.us