Administration & Leadership

3 Research-Backed Strategies for School Turnarounds

What does it take to get an elementary school back on track after a bad accountability score?

September 13, 2019
Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo

Every year, around August, states report their district and school accountability scores for the previous year. Administrators and teachers hold their breath, waiting for a score that will affect how they spend the following year.

When a school receives a failing grade, the state gives the district a predetermined number of years before imposing harsh penalties: closure, reconstitution, or even replacement of the school board with a state-appointed board of managers. Such constraints can pit deep change against quick change, said Rebecca Herman, an education researcher with the RAND Corporation. Lasting gains in reading levels, math proficiency, and other academic benchmarks “take more time than policy typically gives.”

But progress can and should begin immediately, she said, with the hiring of the right leader to make fundamental changes across the campus. In that daunting effort, some initial wins—campus beautification, weekly attendance gains, or other short-term goals—are important to change a school’s perception of itself. The longer a school languishes with nothing but bad news, the more teacher morale, campus culture, and community support tend to flag. This makes the turnaround harder, Herman said, and failure can become “normalized.”

Failure can haunt individual students in these schools as well. Many fall further behind every year. Because of this, success in middle and high school turnarounds is rarely dramatic, and many turnaround examples, including the ones in this article, are elementary schools.

Across the country, schools that have done this work rely on three common research-backed strategies: monitoring data, improving curriculum and instruction, and shifting campus culture. Below are examples pulled from three elementary schools that have either turned around or are making substantial gains. Their stories show the three turnaround strategies at work in a large urban school on the East Coast, a small high-poverty school on the West Coast, and an ultra-rural school in America’s heartland.

Monitor Data, Down to Microtrends

Turnaround work is in the details, so every Wednesday at Del Rey Elementary School outside of Fresno, California, the school’s 240 students are released 90 minutes early and teachers meet in professional learning communities to analyze weekly assessment data and suss out student-by-student trends. Is Student A catching up to his classmates in reading? Is Student B dropping by a point or two per week in math?

Staying on top of these microtrends is one way that Del Rey climbed 24 points in math and 16 points in reading on state tests over three school years, said Principal Pete Muñoz.

But schools committed to improving their accountability rating pay attention to much more than year-end reading and math scores.

Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy (TAG) in Atlanta, for example, tracks a variety of data points on its 646 kids, and it saw college- and career-readiness measures on Georgia’s state assessment climb 11 points from 2016 to 2018. While TAG is still rated a D, the data is trending upward in a slow and steady march.

Progress is impossible if kids are not in class, so Principal Yolanda Weems has data teams for community outreach and attendance. “We try to make sure that we are in touch with families early” in a child’s life, Weems said—ideally years before they are supposed to show up on the first day of kindergarten. There’s no database for babies born in the school’s attendance zone, Weems explained, so her teams use social networks to catch as many new parents as they can.

Her teams intervene with phone calls and home visits at the first sign of a trend of absenteeism. The persistence pays off, Weems reported: In 2018–19, Tuskegee had the largest attendance gains in the Atlanta Public Schools system.

Elevate Curriculum and Instruction

Every turnaround model has to immediately address the quality of classroom instruction, the RAND Corporation’s Herman said. Research shows that the classroom teacher is the single most influential factor in student learning.

At Del Rey, state scores couldn’t improve until the curriculum was aligned with state standards and teachers rethought their instruction habits.

“When I first got here it was a different teaching model,” Muñoz said: Students sat quietly and were expected to absorb information delivered by the teacher. That model wasn’t working. Now, teachers are trained to get students thinking and talking, and to welcome a little noisy participation. “It’s not a quiet classroom anymore. Kids are engaged,” Muñoz said.

It’s critical to get them talking, he explained, because most students at Del Rey come to school “language poor.” Many come from households where English isn’t spoken, and most are from lower income homes where children are not exposed to the vocabulary they will need in school. Rather than stopping content instruction until kids acquire more language skills, the teachers at Del Rey are trained to teach and assess using oral and visual tools so that students don’t fall further behind while they improve in reading and writing.

With 40 students and around seven teachers, Loup County Elementary in rural Nebraska relied on class observation and feedback to go from the state’s lowest classification (“needs improvement”) in 2015 to its second-highest (“great”) in 2018. Principal Ken Sheets became a regular visitor in classrooms, observing and meeting with teachers to workshop things they were doing well, and things they needed to improve in their teaching. The primary goal was consistency across the school so that students could build seamlessly from one concept to the next, year after year.

Such attention can, however, feel like micromanagement if administrators are not careful, Sheets said. So while the two administrators and the instructional coach are more visible in classrooms, Sheets makes sure to celebrate as much as—or more than—he critiques. All the observation and data can lead to a fear that nothing will ever be good enough, Sheets said: “You have to work to alleviate those worries.”

Shifting Campus Culture

Schools that have received an F or another failing designation can take that rating to heart. Many are in areas that are economically or culturally isolated, so staff and students feel as though they’ve been written off.

A school name can be a first step toward reconnecting to cultural leadership and excellence. Whereas the previous school name became associated with struggle, districts often pick new names associated with achievement in the students’ own cultures.

TAG was formed through a merger of two under-enrolled and failing schools, and Atlanta Public Schools took the naming seriously. It wanted a name associated with the achievements of black Americans in STEM fields, as this would be the focus of the merged campus. The Tuskegee Airmen have lent “prestige” to the school, Weems said—not just providing the name but visiting and supporting the school. “We don’t take that lightly,” Weems said—she strives to make the students feel that they have been entrusted with something of value: the legacy of the Airmen. The new name and double-digit performance gains have restored community pride in the school, she added.

Community pride can also be born from community involvement in the turnaround process.

The sheer size and sparse population of Loup County’s 600-square-mile attendance zone could dampen community participation, but superintendent (and football coach) Rusty Ruppert says that hasn’t been the case. Rather than getting defensive about the school’s academic situation, in 2015 Ruppert welcomed parents, neighbors, and alumni to contribute moral support to the turnaround. They didn’t want to see local pride in the school diminished.

With board members hosting cookouts and volunteers standing in for parents who could not attend school functions, the entire county conveys a sense of ownership of Loup County Elementary. The kids feel like not only their parents but the other adults they see around town are rooting for them, Ruppert explained. The turnaround was, he said, “a community effort—not just a school effort.”

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