The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Report on District and School Assistance Centers (DSAC)

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
November 5, 2010

This report on District and School Assistance Centers (DSAC) is designed to provide the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education with more information about the role of the DSACs in our Framework for Accountability and Assistance. Although still in an early stage of development, the DSAC initiative is gaining traction across the state. In collaboration with educators in the field who are drawing on DSAC support and with partners who are assisting this effort, including the state's Readiness Centers, we will continue to strengthen our network of support.

In 2005, the Department initiated plans to develop and deliver a more structured set of assistance activities targeted to the ten largest, highest poverty urban districts in the Commonwealth. These ten districts, known as the Commissioner's Districts, are: Boston, Brockton, Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Springfield and Worcester. Schools in these districts account for over 80% of the state's lowest performing schools; the need for state assistance is acute. In the Department's Framework for Accountability and Assistance, all of these districts, with the exception of Brockton, are Level 4 districts.

The Department established an Urban District Assistance (UDA) unit in 2006 to provide support to the Commissioner's Districts and their lowest performing schools through several modalities:

  1. In collaboration with district and school leaders and other partners, UDA has developed a series of tools and written guidance focused on enhancing district capacity to improve the quality of teaching and learning; these toolkits include the Learning Walkthrough protocol, the District Data Team toolkit, and the Common Planning Time guidance.
  2. Department personnel (UDA district liaisons) provide direct support for effective implementation of the toolkits, working alongside district and school personnel to customize the tools and embed new practices to assist district and school leaders in more strategic decision-making.
  3. The UDA unit has engaged with superintendents to develop state/district customized agreements that identify specific improvement initiatives, including leadership training, to be supported by funds provided through the Department's grant process.

The Department's UDA unit continues to interact with leaders in the ten districts on a regular basis and district leaders report that UDA liaisons have become valued partners in their improvement work. UDA's work continues to evolve. Over the last eight months, the liaisons' efforts have been focused on supporting each district's work with its Level 4 schools. We have included a copy of the UMASS Donahue Institute's August 2010 evaluation report: A Study of the DESE Office of Urban District Assistance.

A Regional Approach
In early 2009, with the UDA unit's work well underway, the Department's newly-reorganized Center for Targeted Assistance (CTA) was positioned to respond more systematically to the broader need for state support. The CTA reviewed research and examined models of statewide support that would allow us to build on our collaborative work with urban leaders while customizing a new approach for intervention in smaller urban districts, suburban districts and more rural districts.

In August 2009, the CTA began designing an educational support model that would enable the agency to reach out beyond the ten Commissioner's Districts to a second tier of priority districts where student performance results were not strong and assistance was needed. In November 2009, the CTA launched six District and School Assistance Centers (DSACs) that are designed to engage primarily with Level 3 districts in each region. (There are currently 49 Level 3 districts.) The six DSACs have been staffed and operating for almost one full year. As a group, they comprise the Department's regional system of support.

This new structure is not a rebirth of the Department's former model of regional offices. The DSACs do not serve as generalist assistance providers, monitors or grant managers; their work is targeted to the highest priority districts and schools in each region and is focused on strengthening district and school capacity to improve teaching and learning, developing effective leadership, planning strategically, and closing the achievement gap. Although still in the early stages, the DSAC model appears to hold great promise. We have included a Briefing Memo prepared by the UMASS Donahue Institute that offers preliminary findings regarding the DSAC model's early implementation.

Taken together, these two structures - the Urban District Assistance unit and the DSAC initiative - are the foundation of the Massachusetts State System of Support. Many units within the Department are contributing to the on-going design and content of the assistance work that flows through this state system of support.