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August 01, 2003  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Accountability Isn't Just for Schools

As a school transportation official, have you ever been accused of spending your limited funds without a great deal of accountability? Norfolk Public Schools has found a way to give all school district stakeholders, including the department of transportation, visibility, responsibility and accountability.

by Denise K. Schnitzer and John W. Hazelette


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“The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round...all through the town.” This familiar chant can be heard on any given day in primary classes in schools throughout the nation. One only has to leave home in the morning and afternoon to see evidence of these “wheels on the bus” as school buses deliver millions of children to school and then back home each day. With approximately 450,000 yellow school buses on the road in the United States, school transportation has a big presence in public school district budgets. Yet the call for accountability in the transportation arena is often lacking in school divisions’ strategic plans. This is especially true as transportation relates to improved academic achievement and community and parental involvement in schools.

Prior to the No Child Left Behind Act, accountability for educators was just starting to take root in American schools. Now, it is sweeping the nation. At Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools (NPS), accountability has been a way of life, not just for schools, but for all district departments.

NPS has made a concerted effort to make everyone involved with the school division accountable for student progress. No longer is it enough for the school buses to run on a fairly regular schedule and to only answer questions when parents complain. Instead, the department of transportation is now an integral part of the accountability process, whereby decisions are data-driven and are founded in “best practices” and research-based strategies.

NPS’ accountability-based system
Norfolk Public Schools is very attuned to the call for accountability by parents, legislators, government officials and community members. To answer this call, the NPS Guiding Coalition — a committee of parents, teachers, school board members and school and central office administrators — has developed the Norfolk Public Schools Comprehensive Accountability System. The system focuses on multiple measures of student achievement, concentrates on continuous improvement, holds all stakeholders accountable and provides for continuous monitoring and adjusting.

Based on education expert Douglas B. Reeves’ work with the Center for Performance Assessment, the accountability system is a comprehensive, continuous school improvement plan that focuses on all children learning at higher levels with higher standards. NPS’s system necessitates all stakeholders — students, teachers, principals, the school board, central administration, parents and the community — working together to improve student achievement. The system has evolved over the past four years to guide schools, the board and departments in assessing, planning and implementing strategies to reach the school board goal and the district objectives.

The accountability system provides a basis and support for individual school, central office and school board accountability plans. Each group involved in the accountability system follows the same three-tiered architecture to gauge progress toward meeting the written school district objectives. These three tiers include the following:

Tier 1 — All expectations from the state and school district levels.

Tier 2 — The strategic plan for the “local” levels (schools and departments) to follow throughout the year. Must support Tier 1.

Tier 3 — A narrative description of the efforts made by schools and departments, allowing them to tell the stories behind the numbers.

At the end of each academic year, each school, central office department and the school board writes a final performance report that shows the progress made during the year. These reports are published on the school district Website — www.nps.k12.va.us — for all stakeholders to view.

Transportation’s role
The NPS Department of Transportation is a well-run, well-tooled operation with a proven record of success. As with other departments at the “operations” level, the department traditionally has been viewed as separate and distinct from the academic business of schools. However, the process laid out in the Comprehensive Accountability System gave the department the opportunity to connect with and become a part of improving student academic achievement.

First, the transportation department selected its own accountability team to establish a set of goals. The team is made up of administrators, office staff, drivers and garage staff. Going beyond each driver’s responsibility to get kids to and from school on time, the team set goals that hold each employee in the entire operation accountable for at least one action. The result was a total team effort, in which everyone began supporting each other in the common mission of safe and efficient school transportation.

Setting the bar
In order to develop the goals for the operation, the accountability team looked at strengths and weaknesses and performed a thorough self-assessment. The important part of this stage was to not make excuses for any of the operation’s shortcomings. The team then set goals with specific, measurable strategies. These included tracking arrival times of buses to schools, tracking attendance for all staff, tracking school bus driver recruits, expanding cameras on buses, increasing numbers of drivers receiving non-violent crisis intervention training, reducing preventable crashes and improving contacts with the public. Strategies were set for each objective, and progress has been tracked and shared at bimonthly meetings.

The accountability team now prepares an annual departmental performance report and posts it on the district Website. Following the format set forth by the Comprehensive Accountability System, this report shows statistics on the Tier 2 progress indicators that were worked on during the past year and a narrative to explain those statistics. For example, the 2001-02 Transportation Departmental Performance Report gave statistics on five major indicators targeted for the year’s work. These indicators included the percentage of bus runs with on-time delivery to schools, the number of potential school bus drivers recruited, the number of cameras on buses, the percentage of drivers completing non-violent crisis intervention training and the number of preventable bus crashes per 100,000 miles driven.

Tallying the results
NPS was very pleased with the results of its accountability plan in the first year. The five Tier 2 indicators reflect a broad base of issues that impact the operation’s mission on a daily basis. Success in these areas generated a higher level of responsibility, improved communications and a cohesive approach to meeting the departmental mission.

NPS also found some challenges when monitoring these data. For example, although 99.5 percent of the bus runs reported on-time delivery, only 39 percent of the schools reported data. Thus, the district now sees that it must work closer with the schools to obtain all bus log data so that on-time deliveries can be more accurately tracked. Obviously, this greatly impacts student academic achievement, as students who aren’t in school cannot learn. Also, it should be noted that 2001-02 was the first time that NPS collected such data, and thus it became the baseline on which to compare future data and truly demonstrate the accountability to students, parents, teachers and the community.

Author Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that great organizations never become complacent with being good, but constantly strive to be better and better. He also notes that it is very important to get the right people on the bus and, once they are there, to be sure they are in the right seats. NPS’s accountability system provides a way to measure whether the district indeed has the right people in the right seats on the buses — literally and figuratively. The NPS Comprehensive Accountability System is supporting the transportation department’s efforts to become great. After all, accountability is more than a word at NPS — it has become a way of life.


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