Blog / Fostering Continuous Improvement

A Transformational Tale: Waukegan Public Schools

Posted June 29, 2020


While so much has changed over the past few months, one steady thread for districts is figuring out how to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for historically underserved students. I’d like to share how one district has wrestled with this challenge, made major strides forward, and what it will take for it to continue removing barriers to learning.

Prior to the pandemic, Waukegan (IL) Public Schools (just north of Chicago) asked me to analyze data and interview stakeholders to assess its progress on improving outcomes for students from low-income households and students of color.  Although long-time community members say that “you could always get a great education in Waukegan,” average student performance was alarmingly low for some time.  While achievement on state assessments is still low, improvement is undeniable and the district appears solidly on the right track since hiring Theresa Plascencia as superintendent in July 2016.

My analysis identified several factors for this improvement, starting with the sense of urgency and focus that Ms. Plascencia brought. Other factors include planning strategically, empowering and supporting principals, and maintaining fiscal health. Even in Illinois’ uncertain budget context, WPS invested in badly needed facility upgrades. Plascencia also focused on elements of high-functioning systems: curriculum and formative assessment as well as effective communication with principals and other stakeholders.

Work is far from over in Waukegan.  Aside from the COVID-19 crisis, which has dealt a devastating blow, student achievement is still not close to where anyone wants it to be. As with many districts serving students from low-income households, WPS struggles to recruit a sufficient number of high-quality teachers, especially bilingual educators. The transition to a more financially efficient high school model, while improving, is still in progress and remains unpopular among stakeholders. Negative perceptions are further fueled by questions about central office transparency. And at times, district staff attention is diverted away from school management and serving students to tend to less-crucial public relations situations.

To continue to make gains, WPS will need to manage the return to schooling effectively, a major challenge for any district. WPS also will need to focus on full implementation of its priority strategies. This requires enhancing the experiences of teachers and principals, understanding variability in performance and implementation, learning from implementation successes and challenges, and making necessary adjustments. In short, WPS will need to apply the principles of continuous improvement.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Plascencia, WPS is undoubtedly on a path to improvement. Scaling and sustaining this improvement will require focus on the part of all board members, administrators, and educators. And it will mean continuing to foster the culture of problem solving and continuous improvement already taking root across the district.

Download the full case study for more details on how the district has gotten where it is and where it needs to go next to achieve sustained change.

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