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Defining Success, One Student at a Time

The Education Redesign Lab convenes school and community leaders to explore what it takes to make change — for individual students and entire districts.
A meeting of the By All Means Network at HGSE

City and community leaders from HGSE’s By All Means network

When Lori James-Gross first started teaching in the early 1990s in Texas, her students were dealing with a lot in their lives: gangs, poverty, student deaths. As a teacher, she knew it wasn’t enough to just focus on test scores and grades.

“Students needed their basic needs met, and we needed to handle their social-emotional needs,” she says, “all before I could even begin to teach history.”

James-Gross, now superintendent of the Unity Point School District in Carbondale, Illinois, was speaking at a two-day gathering of community leaders participating in the By All Means initiative at the Education Redesign Lab. The leaders, who meet every few months, were discussing phase one of the initiative’s new Success Plans project. Under the project, By All Means cities and towns (eight sites in total) are starting to create individualized learning plans for all students, not just those with disabilities or learning differences who typically receive plans called IEPs or 504s. Success Plans would also be more extensive, and capture not only the standard information normally collected about students — grades, reading level, absenteeism records — but also all kinds of out-of-school “life” information: Has a family ever been homeless? Is food scarce? What does a student like to do after school? Is afterschool care an issue? What will the student do this summer? How does a student like to learn? What is the student’s dream? Each student would then be matched with services and opportunities in school and in the community.
Each By All Means city and town is approaching their Success Plan initiative in a different way during phase one. In Illinois, James-Gross and her team of teachers and counselors are creating their own database and starting with all eighth graders, in an effort to help students as they transition to high school and also give them a voice in how their learning path develops. In Salem, Massachusetts, with the help of the City Connects program, phase one includes individualized plans for all preK–8 students in every school. Providence, Rhode Island, is starting with students in three pre-K classes in one school. The city is partnering with Lifespan Community Health Center, which already screens many families and has a comprehensive data collection system in place.

>> Find out what it takes to create an effective Success Plan — and how your school or district can do it — from HGSE's Usable Knowledge.

Mayor Curtatone

Somerville (MA) Mayor Joseph Curtatone

Eventually, all of the cities and towns want to have Success Plans for every student in their district, but many acknowledge that getting to that point could be a challenge. For Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, this means getting more people onboard.

“It’s all about leadership and values, but it’s not just who’s sitting in the CEO’s seat,” he says. “There is no technical solution to what we’re doing. There is not playbook. It’s how you get the people on the other side — the mayor, the principal, the teacher — to say, ‘I have to own this.’”

For Kate Skonberg, the family and community engagement coordinator in Chattanooga-Hamilton County, Tennessee, the challenges circle back to what ultimately is at the heart of all Success Plans: building relationships.

“For us, capacity and convincing schools to do this are the big challenges,” she says. “We know relationships matter. The one-on-one conversations are important. Not a press release or a roll out plan, but sitting down and saying, ‘This is how it’s going to work.’ That’s what really helps.”