The Little School System That Could

Transforming a City School District

By Daniel L. Duke

Subjects: Organization Theory
Series: SUNY series, Educational Leadership
Paperback : 9780791473801, 185 pages, March 2008
Hardcover : 9780791473795, 185 pages, March 2008

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Table of contents

List of Tables
1. Introduction
        Understanding Systemic Change
        Doing Organizational History
        Why Is the Manassas Park Story Important?
        Organization of the Book

2. The Birth of a School System
        A New City and a New School System
        A Plethora of Postpartum Problems
        Schooling in an Unsupportive Environment
        Cause for Hope

3. An Improbable Choice for an Impossible Job
        The Cards DeBolt Was Dealt 
        Delivering on the Promise
        Envisioning the New High School
        From Brainstorming to Bricks
        Raising Achievement in an Era of Accountability

4. Excellence Begins Early
        Where Will It Be and Can We Afford It?
        Planning the New Elementary School
        What About Learning?
5. A Foundation for Sustained Success
        It Takes More Than a Leader to Make a Leadership Team
        Charting a Course to Significance
        The Final Ingredient for Success

6. A Maturing Culture of High Achievement
        Multiple Indications of Success
        Features of Manassas Park's New Organizational Culture

7. A Future Full of Questions
        How Will Manassas Park Cope with Changing Demographics?
        Will Local Revenue for Education Continue to Be Adequate?
        How Long Will the Political Alliance Hold?
        Will Student Achievement Continue to Improve?
        What Will Happen When Tom DeBolt Leaves?

8. Understanding the Process of School System Transformation
        The Power of Politics
        The Impact of Re-culturing
        The Necessity of Structure
        The Potential of People
        A Systematic Approach to Systemic Change

9. The Significance of Manassas Park's Transformation
        Lesson 1: School Systems Can Be Turned Around
        Lesson 2: A Change Process Characterized by Accelerating Incrementalism
        Lesson 3: School System Change Benefits from Local Adaptation
        Lesson 4: Size Probably Matters
        Lesson 5: Don't Underestimate the Importance of Improved Facilities
        Lesson 6: The Necessity of Broad-based Community Support
        Lesson 7: Transformation Starts at the Top
        Lesson 8: Transforming a School System Can Transform a Community


Examines, from four organizational perspectives, Virginia’s Manassas Park City School’s ten-year turnaround.


The Little School System That Could is a story about transformation. In 1995, equipped with not much more than a vision of the quality education that urban students deserved, Tom DeBolt, the new superintendent of the Manassas Park School System, set into motion a series of reforms that transformed the district. By 2005 every school was accredited, passing rates on state tests had doubled, and the school system was attracting national attention. Daniel L. Duke examines the district's ten-year turnaround, from four organizational perspectives and addresses the critical role of professional and political leadership in overcoming the challenges of low morale, scarce resources, changing demographics, and dysfunctional school-community relations.

Daniel L. Duke is Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Virginia. He is the author of many books, including Education Empire: The Evolution of an Excellent Suburban School System and coeditor (with Margaret Grogan, Pamela D. Tucker, and Walter F. Heinecke) of Educational Leadership in an Age of Accountability: The Virginia Experience, both also published by SUNY Press.


"This short book covers the broad sweep of real life, from politics and facilities to instruction and learning." — The School Administrator

"Virtually all states have moved toward deregulation and decentralization in an effort to require local districts to forge need-specific improvements. Historically, superintendents have been instruments of change and not reform architects. This book both exposes new realities of practices and provides an excellent example of one school district's journey." — Theodore J. Kowalski, coauthor of Effective Communication for School Administrators: A Necessity in an Information Age