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White: School Leaders More Critical Than Turnaround Model

The U.S. Department of Education's top rural education official said strong school leadership is more critical to improving low-performing, high-need schools than providing schools additional federal turnaround models to try.

John White, deputy secretary for rural outreach, told the Rural Education blog that the Obama administration supports the concept of full-service community schools, a turnaround approach recommended in a new rural education report. He said the fiscal year 2011 budget will request $1.2 billion for the 21st Century Learning Centers program, which incorporates community schools.

Yet White did not endorse adding the community schools model to the four federal turnaround options currently available to low-performing schools—a recommendation made in a report by rural education policy expert Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust.

Williams found that current federal reform models are failing many small, high-needs rural schools. Her report urged lawmakers and education officials to implement and provide incentives for a community schools turnaround option. Read a previous blog post on that report here.

White said the community schools concept can be powerful because it provides access to a comprehensive structure of services on the school site and focuses on strengthening academic performance by strengthening families and communities.

"However, a strong principal is needed to lead the transformation of a chronically low-achieving school to become a high-performing school," he said. "Finding a new principal can be a challenge in rural communities, but not impossible."

White pointed to the success of the current "transformation" model in West Carter Middle School in Kentucky as evidence that existing turnaround strategies can work in rural schools. There, a new principal worked with the existing faculty to dramatically improve student achievement, he said. Watch an Education Department video here.

"There is no more important factor in the success of a student than the teacher, and the administration believes effective teachers and principals are the linchpins for turning around low-performing schools," White said.

West Carter serves an isolated, high-poverty community. Yet at 500 students, it's larger than many tiny rural schools in the Mississippi Delta, in the Appalachian region and in Great Plains states. Those are the kinds of school districts Williams' report concluded might benefit most from an alternative turnaround option.

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