For most people, education reforms bring to mind changes in schools. For Marla Ucelli, they bring to mind changes in a system much higher up — the district.

Marla Ucelli, director of District Redesign for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown, gave a talk early yesterday evening at the Dwight Hall Library. In “Systematic School Reform: Making the Difference at the District Level,” Ucelli explained the need for equity as well as results when setting reforms for school systems.

“Our goal should be to close the gap in achievements based on race, ethnicity and family income while ensuring that schools in the system still meet high academic performance standards,” Ucelli said.

The talk turned into more of an informal discussion as the dozen students and educators who attended shared their concerns on the education system. While some attendees, like Julia Travers SOM ’05, were very interested in improving the organizational elements of the district system, others, like Stephen Lassonde, dean of Calhoun College and professor of history, were equally fascinated with its past — “seeing the same problems [in education] happen again and again.”

As Ucelli explained, despite an increase in school reforms, many core problems — such as a lack of communication between different departments at the district level — still remain. She stressed the importance of examining these problems, which happen at the higher level, rather than merely focusing on schools individually.

“Schools are under scrutiny all the time, but we rarely ask central offices to hold up mirrors to look at themselves,” she said, “District is a kind of blah to most people.”

Ucelli cited numerable examples of school systems across the United States, from California to Florida, that have started to show improvement.

Most district efforts fail from poor coordination of multiple initiatives since not enough emphasis is placed on a single clear goal, Ucelli said. But the “Smart” District, otherwise known as the Local Education Support Systems (LESS), “involves a much wider spectrum of community members, organizations and agencies to move power and resources to schools and to provide needed supports and timely interventions.”

“Smart District makes decisions and holds people throughout the system accountable by using indicators of school and district performance and practices,” she said, adding that Annenberg Institute Poll Findings indicate that over 80% of the people polled are in support of giving the community a greater role in reforming the urban school system.

For Ucelli, as for many of her listeners, this “LESS is more” approach was common sense.

“Schooling is the most important service communities guarantee to children and youth,” she said. “District can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do it alone.”

Jonathan Gillette, director of Yale’s Teacher Preparation program and organizer of the talk, nodded in agreement.

Ucelli also advocated student-based budgeting, where actual dollars per student are weighed according to various categories, such as ESL, special education, and low-income students. This way, she explained, “funding becomes more transparent, flexible and equitable.”

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