Located 20 miles north of New York City in Rockland County, N.Y., the Pearl River School District (PRSD) provides education for 2,500 children, kindergarten through 12th grade. In addition, more than 1,000 adults participate in the district's continuing education program. PRSD's 203 teachers are distributed among three elementary schools (kindergarten through grade four), one middle school (grades five through seven), and one high school (grades eight through 12).
Over the past eight years, spending for instruction has grown by 43 percent, an increase largely achieved through savings from operational efficiencies. Property taxes account for 82 percent of the district's annual budget, which must be approved by local voters.
Students in Pearl River can choose to attend more than 80 private and parochial schools located within free-busing range (15 miles) of PRSD schools. But, since 1990, the proportion of eligible students choosing to attend PRSD schools rose from 71 percent to 90 percent. Transfers to other institutions are rare: 94 percent of students who begin their schooling in Pearl River complete their high school education in the district.
In response to national scrutiny toward public education, in 1991, a new board of education and PRSD's administration critically examined the district's academic performance. District leaders were quick to notice consistently average performance. In 1992, they initiated a process to continuously improve student performance and deliver value for the entire community, including teachers, families, taxpayers, and businesses.
Since 1991, PRSD has been both strongly focused on its core mission--"every child can and will learn"--and persistent in its pursuit of the district's three strategic goals: improving academic performance, improving public perception of the district by incorporating quality principles and values, and maintaining fiscal stability and improving cost effectiveness.
Both PRSD's mission and its goals are the products of collaboration. Every year, representatives of stakeholder groups--including students, parents, faculty and staff, taxpayers, and local business leaders--participate in reviews of PRSD's mission and goals.
Alignment of mission and goals is achieved through a "golden thread" quality structure that runs through all district levels and units. Carefully devised organizational linkages integrate activities ranging from complying with federal and state requirements to designing curriculum and assessing how individual students are performing. This ensures that efforts to meet mandated standards, for example, or to conform with other requirements do not become ends in themselves, separate from the district's goals.
PRSD's "balanced scorecard"--a scannable composite of leading and lagging indicators of progress toward meeting goals and underpinning strategic objectives-provides continuous, up-to-date tracking of district performance. Related tracking measures are employed on successively finer scales: school, grade, classroom, teacher, and student. Regardless of focus, all PRSD goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.
Mindful of the continuity of learning, PRSD has reorganized to remove structural obstacles that might distract from achievement of academic goals. The aim is to create a clear "line-of-sight" from kindergarten through high-school graduation. For example, scores on a fourth grade assessment test guide curriculum improvements to ensure that, eight years later, students graduate with New York State Regents diplomas.
PRSD also has created a team structure that makes the success of students a shared responsibility that transcends grade levels and schools. It eliminated department chairs and four curriculum directors. Now, all instructional staff are organized under one K-12 curriculum director; elementary teachers work in grade-level teams, middle school teachers work in cross discipline teams, and high school teachers work in subject area departments. Principals have day-to-day responsibility for managing faculty and staff, but the job of designing and delivering instructional programs belongs primarily to teachers.
When collaborating to make curriculum improvements, teachers use PRSD's A+ Approach for Classroom Success, a variation on the plan-do-study-act method that is systematically deployed throughout all phases of the district's operations. Curriculum mapping is a vital element of the five-step approach (analyze, align, act, assess, and standardize). Developed to align the entire K-12 curriculum to state and national standards and to link instruction across grade levels, curriculum maps detail the content area covered as well as the method of instruction and assessment techniques used. Maps are adjusted quarterly, guided by data analyses. The progress of predetermined "high need" students is evaluated by the special child study team at each school. When student performance goals are met, instructional strategies and curriculum design are standardized.
In addition to the formal employee-evaluation process, which checks individual teachers' performance against PRSD's goals and objectives, the district superintendent and senior administrators also work to ensure a strong focus on continuous improvement in the classroom. The superintendent, for example, visits each school in the district weekly to observe classroom instruction and to consult with principals. Formal district-wide reviews of continuous improvements are held quarterly.
The percentage of students graduating with a Regents diploma, a key PRSD objective, has increased from 60 percent in 1996 to 86 percent in 2001, only 4 percentage points below the state's top performer. In comparison, the percentage of students earning Regents diplomas in schools with similar socio-economic profiles decreased from 61 percent in 1996 to 58 percent in 2000. In 2001, PRSD met or exceeded its benchmark district on three of the eight State Regents content exams and was within three percentage points on the other five content exams.
Helping students to prepare for college, PRSD has greatly increased participation and improved performance in Advanced Placement courses. In 2001, 76 percent of students achieved scores of "3" or better, up from 23 percent five years earlier. Also, the percentage of students taking the SAT I exam has increased over the past five years, approaching the highest reporting district in New York, and exceeds both the state and national averages. In addition, 75 percent of PRSD's special education students take the SAT I exam, as compared with 3 percent statewide and 2 percent nationwide. PRSD's SAT I test scores also have increased over the past five years.
Overall PRSD student satisfaction, measured with a recognized national survey, has increased from 70 percent in 1998 to 92 percent in 2001 and surpasses the highest score in the survey's databank (86 percent in 2001). Overall PRSD parent satisfaction, as measured with the same survey, has increased from 62 percent in 1996 to 96 percent in 2001 and exceeds the highest score in the survey's databank (89 percent in 2001).
PRSD's overall staff and faculty satisfaction rate has increased over the past four years, from 89 percent to 98 percent for staff and from 86 percent to 96 percent for faculty. Overall, PRSD's combined faculty/staff satisfaction score serves as the benchmark for schools using the same survey.
Within the surrounding community, PRSD also earns high satisfaction scores. Local voters typically approve the district's annual budget by a two-to-one majority or better.