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To Make Schools Great, Give Educators More Freedom

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Guest Post by Joshua P. Starr

A Year at Mission Hill gives us an in-depth look at what appears to be a fine school that has been given the freedom to operate a little differently. The question for many watching this series will be: "Why can't every school be like this?" The answer is that they can -- but only if we are willing to ask ourselves how to achieve the right balance between district expectations and school autonomy.

What Mission Hill is using as the foundation for its success are the keys to success for any school: Strong leaders that empower a great staff; innovation in the classroom; high expectations and quick interventions; collaboration and accountability among the staff; and true engagement with parents and the community.

As Melissa Tonachel, a teacher at Mission Hill K-8 School said in chapter 1, they have "real freedom and autonomy to work in our classrooms with groups of children and individual children. We do so well here responding to individual children."

I am the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), a large, generally successful district just outside Washington, D.C. Our county is among the richest in the nation, but more than one-third of our students receive free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty. A growing number of students also enter our schools speaking a language other than English and do not have the basic academic skills they need for success. Yet many of our schools with the highest concentrations of poverty and limited English proficiency are achieving at very high levels for the same reason that Mission Hill is succeeding -- our educators are meeting the needs of individual children.

For instance, more than three-quarters of the students at Gaithersburg Elementary School are living in poverty, and nearly half have limited proficiency in English. The principal, Stephanie Brant, talked extensively with her teachers and her parents and, together, they recognized the importance of literacy for their students. So the school took a bold, but simple, step -- they got rid of homework. Instead of doing worksheets and projects at home, students at Gaithersburg Elementary are required to read at night. The reaction to this move has been very positive, and reading proficiency is up. These students are better prepared to learn because of the focus that Stephanie and her community put on reading and comprehension.

This strategy might not work at all of our other elementary schools, but it works for Gaithersburg, and the principal knew it would because she engaged her staff and her community and did what was in the best interest of their students.

Not every school can be Gaithersburg Elementary or Mission Hill, nor should they be. But if we allow our schools to be directed by the needs of our students and give our school leaders, teachers, and staff the freedom to meet those needs, then every school can have the same kind of success.

Joshua Starr is the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools.

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