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Christopher Steinhauser has been the superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District in Southern California for 13 years. Made famous by the movie Freedom Writers, which told the story of novice teacher Erin Gruwell reaching her troubled students in the early 1990s through writing, Long Beach has long been a hard luck city, fraught with gang violence and poverty. Those problems still have a grip on many parts of the city, but outcomes at the city’s schools improved dramatically over the past decade.
The district’s API score, a number on a 1,000-point scale based largely on standardized test performance, rose from 648 in 2002, when Steinhauser took office, to 784 in 2012, the last year for which base API scores are available. The city’s graduation rates increased from 75.9 percent in 2010, when California first adjusted how it calculates graduation rates, to 80.6 percent in 2013. And teachers are voting for the new policies with their feet. That is, they’re staying. Long Beach boasts a 94 percent retention rate for new teachers, which is extremely high for an urban district.
Steinhauser is the first to admit the district still has problems. The gap in student performance between children of color and white children is still 10 percent, he says. Poverty and the temptation of gang life are still issues in the city of nearly half a million people. And there are always factors outside a local school district’s control, like the availability of state funding to buy materials, pay teachers and run facilities.
Nevertheless, Long Beach has begun to be recognized in California for its turn-around. In early March, Steinhauser was at the Carnegie Foundation’s annual conference, which took place near San Francisco this year, to talk about how those changes took place. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s your short list of principles that need to be in place to make changes in a big system like Long Beach’s school district?
A: It’s critical that people have a strategic plan and that everything they’re doing aligns with that strategic plan. In Long Beach, we center everything around human capital.
For example, we know that the number one factor for raising student achievement is a great teacher, so we work with our (local) university to do pre-service induction and we co-develop these programs. We also co-teach these programs, so we know that when teachers are at Cal State Long Beach–that’s where I hire about 75 percent of our teachers from–they are getting an excellent teacher prep program.
Plus, when [teachers] come to Long Beach Unified, we take them to that next step with induction. We have a required two-year induction program in Long Beach and by the end of the second year, the new teachers have received excellent support to become an excellent teacher.
Q: So you’re saying that to change the system, you have to invest in the people who make up that system?
A: Absolutely. And it takes everybody. You can’t do it by yourself. In our case, we’re working with our university partners, our community college partners, and our government agencies to design and become as efficient as possible so that there aren’t redundancies.
Q: Long Beach seems to have a lot of partnerships. Do you need a full-time employee to manage those partnerships?
A: I’m not a big process person and I don’t believe in a lot of bureaucracy. You don’t want process to get in the way. So we don’t have a lot of people. We do this on a very shoestring budget.
Q: How would you advise other districts to start making useful partnerships?
A: What you do not want to do, in my opinion, is to take on five initiatives at one time. You may have five things or 20 things that you need. But as a group, you need to say, “What is that one thing that’s going to be a catalyst that will then lead to other initiatives?”
Q: What is happening in your district now that most surprises or impresses you based on where the schools were when you started there?
A: I’m like a proud father. We just had a student of color town hall meeting. We also have a program called the Male Academy and the Female Academy, which we started about eight years ago and five years ago respectively. So we had representatives — three boys and three girls, and they’re all high school kids. Five of the six were taking AP classes, and these are all at-risk young men and women. The culture has changed drastically.
These were kids who would’ve told you they had all these obstacles in front of them, from the community, from just normal life. But through persistence, through support, through grit, they all said that they could achieve what they wanted to.
A lot of people told us not to start the academy program and we took a big risk on it. Today it’s paying huge dividends.
Q: What differences would a student from 10 years ago notice in a Long Beach school today?
A: Ten years ago, in elementary school, you would not be learning about college as a fourth and fifth grader.
Ten years ago, the eighth grade algebra would’ve been very restricted. That’s not the case today. The vast majority of the kids are in algebra and doing well.
In high school, you would’ve seen that the demographics of AP classes did not represent the demographic makeup of the system. Fast-forward to today and it’s the complete opposite. It’s truly open access. And the students are doing quite well and the passing rates have done well too.
Q: What’s been the biggest challenge in changing the district?
A: Any time you take on these large initiatives, you have to have a plan in place. I’ll use the AP open access plan as an example. This was not a bottom-up initiative. There were a lot of people in the beginning who were against the plan because they said kids weren’t prepared, teachers weren’t there, and so on. What we had to do was form a committee that really listed all the issues that we needed to address. And then as a system, we had to say, “OK, how can we address all these issues?”
We did it from every single angle — from student preparation to simple things like materials. But once you have success, the culture changes. It’s amazing how fast it will go, because it will change in a year.
But you have to be willing to stand up for what’s right, and sometimes it may not be pretty. And if you for whatever reason have a bump on the road, don’t give up on that initiative. Why did you have that bump on the road? Drill down on it, and then go forth.
If you’re unwilling to change, that’s a different story, but that’s never been the case. We’ll always set something out there, and say, “OK, how can we work together to that goal?” And then the key is going to those areas that are having success, with the same demographics, and having people see it with their own eyes. Then it opens up. Because nobody wants to do a bad job and people work really, really hard.
Nine out of ten times they come up with things much better than we could as a central office.
Q: You’ve been in the district a very long time. You’ve been the superintendent in Long Beach for 13 years. That’s longer than most big city superintendents. What part, if any, do you think your longevity plays in the district’s success?
A: It wouldn’t matter if I were the superintendent or somebody else. This community wants everyone to do well, and so we have to wrap all of our resources and our energies around that.
I just happen to be fortunate and blessed to be in this community where everyone gets that. It makes me a better person because it’s never dull. We’re never satisfied with our success. Even though we’ve had many successes, we celebrate for five seconds and then we say “OK, we have a whole other hour to work, guys.”
I think it’s about the sense of family, the sense of openness, the sense of what I’m going to call “flatness” in the sense that we don’t have a lot of protocols where you have to go through certain steps to see certain people. We have pretty much an open-door policy. And one reason for that is that 70 percent of our employees have their kids in our schools and live in our communities. People can pick up the phone and call any of us, whether it be a board member, the superintendent, the principal, it doesn’t matter. We’re all here together.
Q: Do you think low staff turnover is important?
A: The consistency of a school system, especially for big urban districts, is absolutely important. I don’t have a large turnover of teachers. I don’t have a large turnover of administrators. In fact, I have the reverse. I have thousands of people who apply every year who are highly qualified who want to teach in our school system because they see the support, they see the professional development, they see the ongoing learning that everyone has. Once you have a community that’s built that continuity, you can really achieve anything.