Book Reviews

The Little School System That Could

by Daniel L. Duke, State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y., 2008, 171 pp. with index, $18.95 softcover

“What does it take to turn around a low-performing school system?”

That is the story Daniel Duke tells in The Little School System That Could: Transforming a City School District. Manassas Park, Va., came into being as a new, underfunded and underperforming school district of 1,700 students in 1976. Twenty years later, new political alliances have resulted in the construction of new schools, stable funding, improved student learning and a strong culture of professionalism.

The author recreates the Manassas Park story from 45 interviews. Written in the form of a case study, the first few chapters introduce the players as the district endured years of superintendent turnover and turmoil. The transformation occurs mostly during the last 10 years under Superintendent Tom DeBolt’s leadership.
Duke, a professor at University of Virginia, includes detailed sections on school design, teacher involvement and building political will. He documents dozens of steps to turn around achievement.

Duke analyzes the Manassas Park story through four lenses detailed in Reframing Organizations by Lee Bolman and Terry Deal. Politically, the superintendent felt a moral obligation to do everything possible to improve facilities, funding and achievement. Re-culturing was accomplished through symbolic events, higher pay, partnerships with the city and developing shared beliefs. Structure was addressed through long-range planning, a new funding arrangement with the city and teacher teams. The district built people potential through recruitment, training, improved salaries and professional learning communities.

This short book covers the broad sweep of real life, from politics and facilities to instruction and learning.

Reviewed by Larry L. Nyland, superintendent, Marysville Public Schools, Marysville, Wash.