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Turning Around Turnarounds - The Challenges

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

This week I've been writing about the crucial role of districts in turnaround or school improvement. Turnaround is a tricky business that has its skeptics, particularly when talking about closing and/or restarting schools. Put well by one principal, "For years you beg parents and community members to come in, and no one comes. But at first mention of closing a school, they are practically knocking down your door."

District and school leaders know how important schools are to their neighborhoods and community, and that closing them cuts close to the heart. They also know that moving leaders and teachers out of schools is unsettling and personal. Yet they assert that years of failing kids cannot be ignored; many say it is the moral imperative to change poor educational conditions, even if it means closing a school. Drastic change is difficult, and comes with many onerous and daunting challenges both internally and externally. Below are a few examples.

Union Opposition

I'm not a union basher; I was a teacher for six years and a member of my teacher association. I am all for protecting teachers, but some unions create obstacles that impede a district's ability to use people, money, and time to improve instruction for kids. Turnaround and improvement are very human intensive endeavors. They require placing the best talent in the most struggling schools, and providing specific training and support to help them succeed. It takes unique people with special skills.

Some systems will monetarily incent people to those schools, as did Charlotte-Mecklenburg for example. Some districts cannot get teachers in struggling schools, even with extra stipends, as was the case in The School District of Philadelphia's Promise Academies. Often those schools end up with new but very talented teachers. This would not be a problem, except when the recession hit two years ago, these new teachers were the first to go because of a "last in, first out" (LIFO) policy in the union contract.

In Sacramento, to protect the district's investment in Priority School teachers (improvement schools), the district leveraged a provision in education code that allows leaders to waive seniority-based layoffs for teachers with unique skills, competency and training. District leaders were very intentional about the trainings and support their Priority School teachers received, which they meticulously documented. It is important, stated superintendent Jonathan Raymond, to leverage available tools to protect "the most vulnerable students." To date this strategy has been successful. However, the local teachers union supported by the California Teachers Association has filed a law suit trying to remove this provision from California Education Code.

Philly was a worse case. In the summer of 2011, when most teacher contracts are already secured, Philly teachers spent a summer of uncertainty as the court battled over a similar LIFO provision, delaying contract negotiations. Meanwhile, district budget holes meant a high volume of layoffs, and some teachers took positions outside of the district for job security; a painful decision for teachers dedicated to their schools. A long and complicated story short, union/district friction reached a crescendo, superintendent Arlene Ackerman's contract was bought out, seniority-based layoffs were upheld, and entire academic departments in some Promise Academies were "decimated," according to several principals.

On a happier note, Denver Public Schools can gain flexibility from state laws and union contracts through the state's Innovation Schools Act of 2008. Innovation Schools submit a proposal to the board of education, illustrating how they plan to improve student outcomes. Many schools in Denver's regional turnaround approach, like the Far Northeast, are Innovation Schools; they can extend the school day or year, and have greater flexibility over staffing and instruction.

Another strategy used to offset potential union opposition was good-old fashioned reading; meaning, the union contract, page by page. Long Beach USD superintendent Chris Steinhauser always knew the contents of the contract. When he wanted to open up Advanced Placement classes to all students, teachers were not happy (it would require more training, etc.). However, he could show that the contract allowed it, helping him move past their opposition and open up the classes.

Community Opposition

School closure upsets kids, families, and communities. However, there is solid evidence showing that closing or restarting schools is often more efficient and effective than trying to change an entrenched culture of failure. The first step is gaining public support. Several leaders asserted the importance of investing ample time informing the community and having an honest and open dialogue about challenges and concerns. What's important, cited a Denver leader, is to make that exchange real, rather than a fake appearance of seeking input when a decision has already been made. He saw community meetings as an opportunity to answer questions, address concerns, and let people know the process is part of the district's commitment to "do what's right for kids."

In Philly, one dynamic "turnaround" principal described how he reconnected an apathetic community with his turnaround (the classic 50% reconstitute model) school. He instituted school uniforms to signal seriousness around academics, and implemented community walk-throughs prior to the start of the school year. According to him they, "stormed the neighborhoods and flooded them with information," dressed in school uniforms; a previously unseen display. Additionally, they held an open house where they literally rolled out a red carpet for parents, hired a well-known jazz band, and served dinner. The goal was to get parents in so he could tell them about the program and outline expectations.

Leveraging parents is an integral part of improvement and sustainability, particularly in places where pushback often comes from within the system. Because the politics and union opposition were so strong in Philly, Ackerman felt her best leverage point was externally, with parents. When Ackerman had one of her six annual parent roundtables, they were held in an auditorium to house the 800+ parents that attended. She provided many parents with her personal cell number in case they had problems getting into their schools to observe their children in class. To help Promise Academy parents better understand what to expect from a school, she arranged bus tours for them to successful schools, to show them what a "good school looks like." Though she has been gone since the summer of 2011, a large group of well-informed parents who learned positive advocacy practices for their children still remains.

These examples are but a small drop in the bucket. Improving schools is difficult work, but worthwhile, as there is evidence that the needle can and has moved in places it's been stuck for years. But it takes a well-coordinated effort, best lead/facilitated/supported by a district to ensure kids receive a seamless K-12 education, regardless of where they attend school. There is much to learn about this complex topic which is fascinating, vexing, and at times quite uplifting. I thank you for your attention this week.

--Heather Zavadsky

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