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Chicago School Turnarounds Done Differently

For my story in the Jan. 6 issue of Education Week, I traveled to Chicago to write about an organization that's worked to turn around a network of mostly Latino and black Windy City schools that had long been among the city's lowest-performing.

But unlike in the plans in vogue with the U.S. Department of Education, (and the approach used in many Chicago schools) the turnaround effort happened without replacing the principal and teaching staff in the schools. Instead, they were given outside support in developing structure, building a leadership team, and giving intentional, targeted professional development not only for the teaching staff, but for the principals as well.

Using that approach, and teaching students specific skills in a way that is infused throughout the building, five of the seven schools that remain started in the network four years ago have been deemed turned around. (Three left the network earlier because of school district changes or to do their own professional development.)

John Simmons, who runs the group, Strategic Learning Initiatives, said there are some situations in which you may need to remove principals or other school staff. But often, he told me, schools are failing because they don't receive these three things from the larger system: empowerment, trust and respect.

"When you provide the culture of trust in the building among the stakeholders and the respect for them as professionals and when you empower them—the three of those are the key to unlocking the systemic change," Simmons told me. "With those three, they can then take advantage of the strategies and tools for improving the classroom. Without those three, you aren't going to get the systemic change."

What do you think? Is this an approach other school districts should be using? Should U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan give school districts and states more flexibility to use this model from his former stomping grounds, or is it time to force more drastic action in the nation's lowest-performing schools?

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