WI Districts Raise Achievement, Cut Costs

Published October 28, 2011

Three Wisconsin school districts have been boosting student performance while using less money and tailored technology, challenges for nearly every district in the nation as tax revenues remain low and U.S. K-12 academic performance remains mediocre.

The districts, part of a larger network called Cooperative Education Service Agency 1 (CESA1), also work together in a smaller, more informal cooperative largely held together by friendships between their superintendents.

“We have worked together for many years, so we use each other in terms of bouncing ideas off each other and getting feedback,” said Kathy Cooke, superintendent of Hamilton School District. “It’s kind of our own learning network.”

Taxpayer-Centered Administration
Pewaukee, Hamilton, and Greendale school districts skirt Milwaukee in southeast Wisconsin. They are small: Pewaukee and Greendale have 2,600 students, and Hamilton has 4,600.

At least 90 percent of students tested in these districts rated proficient or advanced in reading on state tests, 10 points higher than the region’s average and about 5 points higher than the state average. In math, these districts’ average scores in some grades dip to around 85 percent proficient or advanced, but each average still beats the region by about 15 points and the state by about 10 points. These districts spend at least $1,400 less per student than the state average of $12,300.

“Our school board is really the model,” said Steve Welcenbach, a parent of three who attended Hamilton schools. He became a strong supporter of his district after attending school board meetings and learning about Hamilton’s financial position. Cooke stopped to talk to Welcenbach after the meeting and sent him a letter a few days later, offering to meet with him and answer any questions, as well as directing him to the district’s business manager for financial data.

“Our middle school went from problematic in the mid-1990s to number one in the state,” Welcenbach noted. “That has a lot to do with the principal, but also has a lot to do with the superintendent who hired her.”

Student-Centered Learning
Working together, these districts have begun to shift the center of education from a standardized, one-size-fits all system to student-centered learning. Their teachers regularly meet to share ideas and learn new techniques.

“A key strategy we’re using is [to] start with small modules of change that ultimately aggregate,” said James Rickabaugh, director of CESA1’s Transformation Initiative.

One module includes math classes in Pewaukee incorporating software that assigns problems to students based on ability and alerts the teacher to trouble spots. Students in pilot classes moved much more quickly through their curriculum and understood the material better, said Pewaukee Superintendent JoAnn Sternke. This fall, the district moved all seventh graders into math classes blending software and in-person teaching.

Data-Driven Decision-Making
Pewaukee, Hamilton, and Greendale depend on detailed data to form decisions and goals, their superintendents said. Sternke uses criteria established by Malcolm Baldridge, a former Commerce Secretary, “as a framework for making systems more accountable to the taxpayer.” She said extensive metrics allow her to reduce expenses such as transportation and food services and to send more money to classrooms.

Cooke cited “aggressive targets, high standards for performance, and using data to improve deliberately” as keys to her district’s success.

“Not too long ago we were in a great state of distress,” she said. “Our facilities were a mess, our achievement was below the state average, [and] realtors would tell people not to move to the Hamilton school district. With the help of our school board, we made aggressive targets for improvement and really engaged the stakeholders in our organization and promoted transparency.”

The districts recognize the state test is a “relatively low-level assessment,” said Greendale Superintendent Bill Hughes, so they use their own metrics to gauge student achievement more accurately.

Engaging Communities
Shifting to student-centered learning has required these superintendents to get out and talk with parents and taxpayers, the three said.

“It takes a competitive person to get to a good superintendent’s position. Then it takes the opposite, the ability to collaborate and learn from each other without false pride and ask for input,” Hughes said. “We go to a lot of meetings people think are a waste of time, but we’re looking for ideas.”

Years of such meetings with business leaders, parents, teachers unions, and taxpayers has helped these superintendents work towards changes such as flexible instruction and teacher contracts.

“The public will say they want strong schools and change, but when you start to actually implement change they say, ‘I wanted change, but I didn’t mean me,'” Cooke said.

More Belt-Tightening Ahead
The districts expect to tighten belts again as state and local tax revenues remain flat. This year a new state law requiring employees to pay 12.6 percent of their healthcare benefits, half the national average, saved Greendale $470,000.

Several years ago, Hamilton switched from state health insurance, allowing the district to provide similar benefits privately for half the cost. The district also purchases natural gas through a broker, started a foundation that has raised more than $1 million to purchase technology, and created a tutor corps staffed by retiree volunteers.

“We used to be a sleepy district that in the last ten years has really become much more high-achieving,” Sternke said. “We deliver a quality education and have the data to prove it. That was not true 15 years ago.” 


Image by Neon Tommy.