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Turning Around Turnaround: Real-World Examples

Note: Heather Zavadsky, education consultant and author of School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts, is guest-posting this week.

In my last blog I asserted that dramatic school improvement, or turnaround, should leverage districts rather than individual schools to coordinate and align the necessary reform elements to scale and sustain performance improvement; particularly in struggling schools. I also acknowledged the tricky balance districts face when attempting to provide flexibility to schools while maintaining instructional coherence throughout the K-12 continuum.

Real-world examples are useful for glimpsing at different improvement approaches that yielded positive achievement results, and seeing how districts strike the balance between centralization and flexible local control. Below are short examples from my turnaround book of how districts approached some of the essential reform elements. Keep in mind each example is a small part of a larger reform strategy in each district.

Human Capital Approach - Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS)

In 2006, Peter Gorman became superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a large and diverse urban district where one-third of the schools (165) performed below the district average on the state assessment. While the district saw positive achievement results through the creation of an 11-school Achievement Zone in 2009, Gorman felt a more systemic improvement strategy that emphasized human capital development was needed. In 2010, the district launched the Strategic Staffing Initiative (SSI), which provided prestige and cash incentives for the highest-performing principals to move to the lowest-performing schools. Each principal brought a team of eight to their new schools, were provided immediate supports, and granted "freedom and flexibility" to restructure their schools. The district also implemented a bold succession planning process, where individuals at all levels, even central office, were ranked into quartiles and trained based on their needs. Individuals who held the top rank were next in line to move up to particular positions. After the first two years, the first and second SSI school cohorts showed substantial achievement growth in thirteen of fourteen schools, and in 2010, increases were found in all 20 SSI schools for composite reading and math scores.

Balancing Innovation and Accountability - Denver Public Schools (DPS)

Prior to 2009, Denver, another large and diverse district, approached low-performing schools primarily with school closure. When Tom Boasberg became superintendent, he wanted to improve instruction, human capital, family and community engagement, and create more choice and smaller school structures. The first step was to develop a more nuanced system for understanding and supporting school performance called the DPS School Performance Framework. The Framework consists of color-coded performance bands ranging from the lowest, "Does Not Meet Standards" (red) to the highest, "Exceeds Standards" (blue). Multiple data sources including assessment data; growth over time; student engagement and satisfaction; re-enrollment; and parent satisfaction, inform the ratings,

A red score triggers a team that will consider the school's improvement needs in: instructional structures and systems; human capital development; and community engagement. Charter schools are also included in the School Performance Framework, and are even able to share buildings with traditional public schools. The district's two regional turnaround approaches include charter partnerships, and schools are also able to apply for "innovation status" through the state, which frees schools from many state laws and collect-bargaining agreements. Thus, they have flexibility over what counts; people, money, and time.

In 2010 and 2011, the district saw positive enrollment growth, and the schools are visibly moving up the performance bands, with significantly fewer schools in the red category than when they started in 2009.

Improving Instruction through Data - Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD)

When Jonathan Raymond became superintendent in SCUSD in 2008, he found uneven school performance, a culture of complacency, some schools in horrible condition, and a number of organizational gaps. He built a strong central office team to collaborate on and support academics, made immediate cosmetic fixes to schools, and set about improving the culture and instruction, which included increasing student and parent engagement. SCUSD identified six struggling schools the first year, called Priority Schools, with the intention of using them as "incubators of innovation." The district selected strong principals to lead them and told to design their "dream schools."

One of the most powerful innovations tested in Priority Schools was the use of a data inquiry approach to improve instruction. With the assistance of an external partner, Priority School teachers and leaders learned how work in teams to study data, identify "problems of practice," analyze student work, and create plans on how to re-teach and improve instruction. Because teachers and leaders could see a visible improvement in student work, the process was rolled out to the entire district. After the first implementation year, all six Priority Schools made achievement gains. This year, Raymond reports that preliminary unpublished results from last year's state assessment show even more impressive gains in the now seven Priority Schools.

Improving Instruction and Interventions - Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD)

Long Beach has been known as a highly effective district for years; they did not have any schools on the state's "corrective action" list. However, to address their bottom-performing K-8 schools, LBUSD identified eight schools for improvement and called them Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The PLCs functioned much like a zone and were given priority support. Additionally, to address a performance drop in the PLCs between 5th and 6th grade, the district pulled out all 2000 6th graders and placed them in a self-contained 6th grade academy to give teachers and leaders full flexibility over students, "all day long." No bells, no passing periods. For example, struggling readers were matched with reading specialists, and could work on reading for an entire half-day if needed. Teachers also meet every quarter and review formative assessment data to re-group students and match them to teachers based on their specific needs. The PLC results thus far are good; the once underperforming schools are now only a handful of percentage points below the district.

This is a small glimpse of how four of the five districts in School Turnarounds moved the needle in stuck schools, and improved overall district practices. My next blog will discuss some of the challenges they experienced and how they tackled them. Philadelphia, the one district from School Turnarounds I left out, will fit well in that section--their politics and challenges are noteworthy. However, the district did yield some positive results, and there are great lessons to learn from them. Stay tuned.

--Heather Zavadsky

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