LAWRENCE — The SWIFT Education Center, part of the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas, has received a $17.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement for a five-year project titled “Equity Leadership in High Need Schools: Building High Quality Effective Instructional Leaders to Improve Student Outcomes.” The award will build upon a $24.5 million grant that established SWIFT in 2012 and the center’s current work in eight states to improve achievement for hundreds of thousands of students.
The project will work with 70 principals of high-need schools in four districts across the country to develop their leadership through professional learning and job-embedded coaching. They will learn while they apply SWIFT’s proven methods for improving educational outcomes for students by ensuring equity for students of color, students segregated because of disability or learning disorders, students who are high achievers, who are English language learners, who are refugees or who live in poverty, among others.
Amy McCart, co-director of SWIFT Education Center, is principal investigator for the grant, and Wayne Sailor, SWIFT co-director and professor of special education at KU, is co-PI for the project.
“We know from our previous work that when principals and school staff create equitable learning environments and a culture committed to supporting the complete range of student variation, student success follows,” McCart said. “Students with diverse capacities must engage with the grade-level curriculum to learn and grow, even though how they engage may look very different from one another.”
In the first year of the project, SWIFT will finalize arrangements with the four school districts and universities in each locale to provide some of the coaching and support, then hold an Equity Leadership Summit in Kansas City in spring 2019. In order to provide evidence of the effectiveness of the method, half of the selected principals in each district will begin two years of professional learning in August 2019, and the other half will serve as a control group until they begin receiving the services in August 2021. SWIFT researchers will evaluate principal competencies, systems transformation and student academic and behavioral outcomes for all the schools.
“Every student has the right to learn from the beginning and to know they belong,” McCart said. “When kids walk through the school doors, we help schools have a Multi-Tiered System of Support set up where educators and their leaders can be responsive to the full range of student needs. Our purpose with this grant is to help principals and leaders to design educational spaces, not places. We don’t have separate rooms where kids go to get the supports they need, because their needs are met in the grade level class and curriculum.”
SWIFT Education Center’s approach to ensuring equitable use of resources matched to all students’ needs is the culmination of Sailor and McCart’s long-term body of research. McCart, a Lawrence native, entered into the work through a school in Kansas City, Kansas, as part of her doctoral work in KU’s nationally recognized Department of Special Education. That successful turnaround project planted the seed for more than $43 million in funding and grant awards in the last six years.
In addition to developing principals to become better instructional and transformation leaders, the project will build local education agency capacities to sustain and develop future leaders. The sustainable nature of the program will allow efforts to continue should principals leave a district and to continue training new principals locally after the grant project ends. The project will also allow principals to earn “micro credentials,” or certificates for each competency they develop. This micro-credentialing system will eventually be expanded to a national system available to educational leaders in any state.
While principals, district staff and researchers will put the grant funds to work, McCart said the ultimate beneficiaries will be students, especially those who are marginalized or have traditionally not had access to the same opportunities as their peers.
“Across the country there are so many students and children of color who are disproportionately placed in special education, given unnecessary discipline referrals or segregated from general education for various reasons,” McCart said. “One of the major goals of this work is to make sure all children, including students of color and those with disabilities, have access to all that education has to offer. Our students should not have to work harder to get what all are entitled to. We want to continue to elevate the message that ‘all does in fact mean all.’ The national discourse that SWIFT Education Center has helped to shape is important. We now know we can support schools to be highly effective and responsive to all students. We look forward to working with principals and leaders who give so much of themselves to realize this important work.”
Photo credit: Amy McCart, co-director of the SWIFT Education Center, talks with a student at a SWIFT School in Mississippi. SWIFT has earned a $17 million grant to implement its equity strategies with 70 principals in schools across the country. Photo Credit: SWIFT Education Center.