The Little School System That Could: Transforming a City School District

reviewed by Anthony H. Normore - June 11, 2008

coverTitle: The Little School System That Could: Transforming a City School District
Author(s): Daniel L. Duke
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791473805, Pages: 171, Year: 2008
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What does it take to turn around a low-performing school system? Interest in this question has increased substantially since the advent of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and other state and federal measures aimed at greater educational accountability. Daniel Duke’s The Little School System That Could: Transforming a City School District is a compelling example of the new realities confronted by superintendents who engage in turning around low-performing school systems. Duke shares a decade’s worth of organizational change, transformation, and reform movements invoked by a new superintendent in a small city school system - Manassas Park - in northern Virginia. Faced with a variety of problems that ranged from inadequate resources and deplorable buildings to mismanagement, incompetence, and personnel turnover, low staff morale and subpar student achievement, newly hired Superintendent Tom Debolt and his allies transformed this fledgling school system in ten years. Debolt’s experiences, challenges, obstacles and support systems is a story shared by Duke that will “hearten even the most skeptical observer of public education” (p. xi).

Using qualitative research procedures to conduct his research, Duke developed a conceptual lens based on Bolman and Deal’s 1997 organizational frames where each frame embodies a set of assumptions regarding how organizations operate and adjust to their circumstances. Embedded throughout the research, Duke uses this framework to illustrate how the structural, human resource, political and symbolic frames serve to focus attention on particular aspects of Manassas Park and the role they play in supporting or inhibiting change. Duke gathered primary data from interviews conducted with a variety of individuals (i.e., superintendent, school board chair, central office personnel, city officials, school administrators, and consulting architects) – all who were associated with the Manassas Park City Schools over the years from 1995-2005. Secondary sources of data collection included school board minutes, newspaper articles, school improvement plans, accreditation reports, financial records, central office documents, a dissertation on the early history of the school system, school system planning sessions, administrative retreats, and school design workshops. Using the four frames allowed Duke to detect and document “what” changed in the system over time. Further, examining the critical incidents offered insights into “why” and “how” these changes were accomplished.

Written in a fluid narrative format, the text is organized around nine chapters. Followed by an introductory chapter, Duke describes the circumstances surrounding the birth of Manassas Park City School system in chapter two. He details the problems and struggles that the school system confronted by first providing a brief description of the unsupportive context surrounding the creation of the city of Manassas Park and how several superintendents regularly came and went.  The chapter concludes with an introduction of one superintendent who was hired in 1991 who the public felt would finally “arrest the needed downward spiral in which the school division found itself” (p. 27). Still, the superintendent resigned in 1995.  

The next three chapters provide a chronology of events experienced by the newly hired superintendent, Tom Debolt, in 1995. Chapter three begins in 1995 with the hiring of “an improbable choice for an impossible job” (p. 31) - Superintendent Tom Debolt, Manassas Park’s seventh superintendent in twenty years. Duke details the conditions faced by the superintendent and his efforts to forge political alliances and secure adequate resources to ensure the construction and completion of a new high school which opened in 1999. Chapter four introduces several contentious issues faced by the superintendent concerning the construction of a new elementary school (i.e., funding and schools location). The chapter concludes with a discussion of the impact of the new school and its academic program on student performance. Chapter five examines three keys to sustaining success in the improving school system including (a) building a capable leadership team, (b) developing a comprehensive long-range plan, and (c) negotiating a revenue sharing agreement with the city council that “constituted an insurance policy against the predictable ups and downs of public education – demographic shifts, economy fluctuation, turnover in leadership…” (p. 74).

Organizational culture, leadership, change, and sustainability are the focal points for the subsequent two chapters. In chapter six, Duke explains the maturation of a transformational organizational culture in Manassas Park City Schools and how this culture was characterized by compelling characteristics such as high expectations and professional competence. Of particular interest to the reader are factors associated with the change process: the setbacks, the support factors that lead to increased student achievement, and the non-linear transformational process. Duke organized chapter seven around several issues that “were keeping Manassas Park leaders awake at night” (p. 115) as the first decade of Debolt’s leadership drew to a close. Predictions of future challenges for Manassas Park City Schools lead to pertinent questions that included: How will Manassas Park cope with changing demographics? Will local revenue for education continue to be adequate? How long will the political alliance hold?  Will student achievement continue to improve? and, What will happen when Superintendent Tom Debolt leaves?

In the final two chapters, Duke revisits the conceptual lens and makes concrete connections between theory and practice. In chapter eight, Duke examines how each frame or “lens” was important to understanding the school system’s transformation process. By looking at the organizational history of Manassas Park City Schools in terms of the four frames, it is clear to the reader that systemic change was achieved in a relatively systematic way. Of specific interest to the reader is that the Superintendent and the school “board appreciated the relationship between student achievement, teacher compensation, school facilities, and school leadership…and recognized the importance of community support for an involvement in the change process” (p. 140). Most of all, Superintendent Debolt and the school board made certain that “virtually all students benefited from their actions by ensuring that conflict and political turmoil would be minimal” (p. 140). As highlighted by Duke, “perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the school’s system’s turnaround was the total absence of public and professional calls for a return to ‘the way things used to be’” (p. 141). In the concluding chapter, Duke discusses eight lessons learned from this transformation for educators in low-performing school systems and students of organizational change. The lessons include: (a) school systems can be turned around, (b) a change process characterized by accelerating incrementalism, (c) school system change benefits from local adaptation, (d) size probably matters, (e) don’t underestimate the importance of improved facilities, (f) necessity of broad-based community support, (g) transformation starts at the top, and (h) transforming a school system can transform a community.

Daniel Duke’s book, The Little School System That Could: Transforming a City School District, is a story about transforming a school district at a time of low morale, scarce resources, changing demographics, and dysfunctional school-community relations. The story of Manassas Park City School system is uplifting and restores faith in school reform and educational leadership. This book is a highly recommended volume for those who have a vested interest in public education including aspiring and practicing school leaders, superintendents and district office personnel, professors of educational leadership and administration, school boards, teachers, parents, and policymakers. It is especially significant for educators in urban settings who work with limited resources and diverse populations. As indicated by Duke in the preface of the book, “while the account of what happened in Manassas Park is most directly applicable to other small city school systems, it contains lessons for all school systems facing the challenges of low performance, underfunding, political turmoil, and a culture of low expectations and defeatism” (p. xi).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 11, 2008 ID Number: 15275, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 10:02:50 PM

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