How school districts can use limited resources strategically to enhance student success

July 2, 2019
picture of teacher and student

There is a growing chorus of voices in support of increasing funding for California school districts — from the governor to legislators, teachers and (according to one poll) a majority of voters. Despite Los Angeles voters’ recent rejection of a new parcel tax — a proposal to increase school funding by taxing real estate — this momentum isn’t going away.

Joe McKown

The funding challenge across California is real, as districts face declining enrollment and rising healthcare, pension debt and Special Education costs. The funding increases tied to California’s Local Control Funding Formula were laudable but were only ever promised to restore per-pupil funding to pre-2008 levels.

Regardless of what happens in Sacramento or at the ballot box, school systems know they can’t wait; they must use their limited resources as strategically — and as equitably — as possible to accelerate student learning. “How much” schools receive is important; “how well” resources are used is also key.

Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a national nonprofit with a California office and focus, recently profiled eight school systems from across the country that used their resources strategically and are seeing tangible results for black, Latinx and low-income students. Among those, two California districts provide examples of how school systems can manage people, time and money effectively.

For example, in 2013, Fresno Unified’s highest-poverty elementary schools performed in the bottom 30 percent of schools in the state. The district set two strategic priorities: 1) Better support teachers in mastering rigorous new standards and 2) Provide instruction tailored to individual student needs.

Christina Baumgardner

Leaders in Fresno Unified knew that time was key. They compared the district’s schedule to high-performing districts across the state and country and discovered that their school day or year was shorter in some cases. Fresno students met the required state-mandated instructional hours, of course, but other districts had either bargained for or created schedules that maximized time for instruction or teacher development. Fresno Unified tested an extended school day with three schools using federal grant money and saw promising student growth.

So they set a theory of action to extend the length of the school day in targeted elementary schools and one middle school and provided the staff and support needed to use that extended time effectively and efficiently.

In 40 “designated schools” that serve high concentrations of students in poverty, students received 30 extra minutes per day for instructional support tailored to their needs and teachers received 80 additional hours per year to plan collaboratively in teams. Teachers received a salary increase to compensate them for the extra time.

Fresno Unified also invested in new instructional leader roles and support for principals and worked with teachers to ensure the time is used well. Moreover, they worked to spread a culture of continuous improvement and data analysis throughout the district. Rather than give across-the-board raises or implement isolated intervention programs, Fresno Unified used $18.9 million in LCFF funds for this integrated strategy designed to improve the core educational experience that high-needs students receive.

Five years later, performance growth for low-income students in the designated schools increased at nearly double the rate of other schools in the district. One third of these schools now meet or exceed the district’s average performance in math.

San Diego Unified faced a different problem but addressed it with a similarly strategic approach. In 2014, only 50 percent of high school seniors were on track to graduate having met all the requirements for entry to the University of California system and many lacked a clear postsecondary plan. So the district set a strategic priority of meaningful graduation for all students.

They developed a transcript review process and software that helped counselors identify persistent scheduling patterns that kept students back, such as when a student’s journalism class might not meet UC/CSU English requirements, or when a student was enrolled in a class they had already passed. They launched a pilot program to place English learners in more grade-level classes along with support, changed the district funding model to provide high-needs schools with more resources and partnered with local colleges and businesses to help students explore post-secondary options. This change happened in the midst of a budget crunch — new funds were scarce, but it was possible to shift resources and change processes.

Three years after the reforms were implemented, all students who graduate have passed course requirements for entry to the UC/CSU systems. As of 2016 (the last year for which we could gather data), 9 percent more African-American students and 10 percent more Latinx students were on track to graduate than in 2014. San Diego was recently recognized as a district “beating the odds.

These district efforts are not perfect, nor perfectly replicable. They both have required tough trade-offs and will require continuous improvement efforts to fully meet their potential. Though each district took different steps, they had a common approach: They each 1) set a clear theory of action for the big changes their schools needed to make, 2) made tough resource trade-offs and 3) redesigned processes and practices — including timelines, tools and mindsets — to support schools.

We see these three focus areas as the gears that power school systems’ strategic priorities and accelerate improvement for black, Latinx and low-income students

If all California students are to receive the excellent education they deserve, we must lift up the strategies that promote a more equitable student experience. Promising examples exist — the task now is to keep searching for them, sharing them and learning from them.


Joe McKown is a partner and Christina Baumgardner is a principal associate at the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, which partners with school system leaders to transform how they use resources.

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