Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

This post is the third in a series of case studies that use the campaign planning system introduced in our advocacy guidebook to explore lessons learned from our state CANs. This week we examine MarylandCAN’s 2014 campaign to build support for creating more “opportunity schools” in Baltimore.

The Plan

When Jason Botel took on the role of executive director of MarylandCAN, one of the things that most surprised him as he traveled the state was the negative tone around many discussions about education and the achievement gap. This was particularly true when the conversations turned to Baltimore, the state’s largest city and its lowest-performing school district.

Jason found himself returning again and again to leadership guru Peter Drucker’s famous insight that “A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses.” The starting point for any campaign to improve education in Baltimore, he concluded, had to be not the weakness in the system but the pockets of strength. 

He set out to document, celebrate and learn from the schools that were giving students the opportunity to reach their full potential. 

Goals and Strategy

As he met with principals, parents and teachers across Baltimore, Jason—a former Baltimore teacher and principal—was surprised by the varied thoughts and opinions on the state of education in the city. As he told the Baltimore Sun in their report on the project: “There are folks who think they’ve made a ton of progress, and there are other people who think the school system was bad, is bad, and will always be bad. I thought: ‘Let’s find out.’”

To do so, Jason started working with the 50CAN policy and research team to understand how he could build upon the research efforts in other states to shed light on the schools in Baltimore that could serve as examples for the whole city. Jason and the MarylandCAN board developed a two-part plan for their opportunity schools campaign.  

They knew that identifying these opportunity schools would be possible if they could build upon the best practices in studying school success to create a trusted methodology. They also felt that done right, this report would be of interest to policymakers and could help drive real change. Therefore, for their top-tier strategy the MarylandCAN team chose expert communities with a focus on three tactics: 1) research study, 2) policy report, and 3) working group.   

At the same time, they knew that collecting the facts wouldn’t accomplish very much if it wasn’t connected to an effort that would engage supporters and dramatize just what a difference these schools were making for their students and communities. Therefore, they also went to work on a second-tier social movements strategy with three additional tactics: 1) school events, 2) public addresses and 3) storytelling.  

Tactics

Research report. At the center of the campaign was the “Opportunity Schools” report, which aimed to shine a spotlight on the Baltimore schools breaking down the link between income and achievement. After a careful review of dozens of previous efforts across the country, the MarylandCAN team arrived at the following definition to guide the work of the report: An opportunity school is a public school with no entrance criteria where students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals outperformed overall state proficiency rates in at least half of tested grades in both reading and math for the past two years.

After carefully reviewing the data, they found that eight public schools in Baltimore City made the cut: seven elementary schools and one middle school. With the list in hand, Jason and team got to work visiting the schools and talking with the principals and teachers. They asked them to share their in-school best practices and their policy recommendations for the school system as a whole, and paid special attention to practices and recommendations identified by multiple school leaders.

They identified five common practices across the eight opportunity schools: 1) use data to differentiate instruction, 2) encourage teacher collaboration and peer feedback, 3) establish high academic and behavioral expectations, 4) hire and retain effective teachers, and 5) give teachers autonomy and flexibility in the classroom.

They also listened to school leaders’ policy recommendations and developed five policy solutions to build upon these pockets of strength: 1) expand the reach of opportunity school principals by giving them a larger role in selecting, training and mentoring new principals, 2) give all principals more autonomy in exchange for greater accountability, 3) increase the number of social workers in schools, 4) develop local partnerships that increase the number of part-time reading interventionists in schools and 5) recruit operators from around the country with a proven track record of success with children from low-income households to operate schools in Baltimore.

With the report completed, Jason and team turned to their next big challenge: using it to jump-start a citywide conversation. 

School events. What kind of event would help recreate the energy and excitement Jason and his team felt when researching these opportunity schools? That was the big question that they grappled with as they turned to their social movement strategy. Ultimately, they decided that rather than try to bring the schools to new audiences they would bring new audiences into the schools. They set to work on a series of celebrations of the opportunity schools to be hosted by the schools themselves.

They invited community leaders, parents, partners and the media along. The result was a whole new dimension of showcasing the schools’ success. Having read the report and seen the numbers, they could now see the schools in action.

“Thank you for giving me opportunity!” from MarylandCAN on Vimeo.

The schools events not only generated far greater media attention for the report and the schools, including the above-mentioned front page story in the Baltimore Sunbut also provided an opportunity for the teachers, staff and students in the school to be celebrated for their contributions to the community.

Results

Since its launch in May 2014, MarylandCAN’s interactive report has received more than 11,000 visitors, far outpacing anything it had created to date. At the same time, the policy recommendations helped jump-start a conversation about what policies would need to change to have more opportunity schools in Baltimore and across the state. One of the biggest policy recommendations in the report—greater flexibility and autonomy for the city’s public charter schools—was picked up by Gov. Hogan and became a centerpiece of his charter schools reform bill. The changes, with a strong advocacy push from MarylandCAN, were signed into law at the end of the 2015 session. Those changes represent one step forward in a long road ahead for opportunity schools and their operators, and MarylandCAN looks forward to continuing to walk the path to change.

At the same time, the MarylandCAN team’s success with the “Opportunity Schools” report didn’t just stop at the state’s borders. Inspired by what they saw, the team at PennCAN decided to bring this approach into their state as well. In June 2015 they released the “Alleghany County Opportunity Schools” report, which showcases the opportunity schools that are serving as a role model to Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities in Pennsylvania.

But MarylandCAN isn’t resting on the success of the report. The team is hard at work on a new report focusing on opportunity high schools, which is due out in late August. Picking up where the previous report left off, it will take on the special challenge of providing a high-quality high school education. If history is any guide, what the MarylandCAN team learns from this work will once again be driving the conversation and helping pave the way for even bigger changes to come.

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