Administration & Leadership

4 Keys to an Elementary School Turnaround

A veteran elementary principal shares how she and her staff transformed their school into a National Blue Ribbon School.

February 17, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

Change didn’t come easy at P.S. 249, a high-poverty school in Brooklyn. In the early 2000s, our school was failing in every possible way. There was no instructional focus or guidance from leadership—two principals had been hired and fired within a year. The staff was composed of new teachers lacking adequate training and a handful of disgruntled veteran educators. Morale was at an all-time low, teacher turnover at an all-time high, and the culture was polarized.

Now, after two decades of my leadership, P.S. 249 is a thriving, nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School. While the transformation has been an uphill journey, I have reflected on what initiatives and strategies made it possible. I have boiled down my decades of school turnaround work into a few steps that leaders can follow to positively transform their schools.

4 Strategies for a School Turnaround

1. Create a safe and welcoming environment for all. If students don’t feel welcome, it’s unlikely they will want to come to school. Decades of research suggest that a student’s sense of belonging in school is a strong predictor of academic performance, persistence, and overall motivation

Creating a welcoming environment can be achieved through small but powerful daily habits that start when folks walk through the doors each morning. A principal’s place at morning arrival is wherever they can say hello to each student entering the building. Encourage your teachers to do the same in their classrooms. 

Also, pay attention to students who struggle socially and academically. At P.S. 249, these students get a daily check-in with an adult mentor other than their teacher. This shows these otherwise disengaged students that they belong and that there are people in the school rooting for them.

2. Establish a culture of trust with your staff.  Ego and impatience will get you nowhere or, worse, will create a deepening dysfunction in your school. Leadership focused on humility, patience, and the ability to listen is essential for building trust with your staff. But don’t forget: Trust goes both ways. Your staff won’t trust you unless you trust them.

Jon Saphier, the founder and president of Research for Better Teaching, argues that “when educators trust their leaders and each other, academic achievement rises. Not coincidentally, students also develop trust and a sense of safety in their school community.”

There are many ways you can build trust with your staff. Meet with them regularly to connect and identify their strengths. Help colleagues pursue their passions so that they give their best to their students. Listen with an open heart and mind so you can hear and act on the voices of all stakeholders. You must nurture your staff and encourage their self-care so that they come to work ready to focus on their students. 

3. Encourage and engage in professional development (PD). Creating a culture of continuous learning starts with modeling that mindset yourself. As principal, you should be reading books and articles, attending PD events, and learning from experts to continually expand your own knowledge and skills. You must also be an active participant in the learning opportunities that you bring in for your staff.

In addition to bringing experts to your school, allow your educators time and funding to attend professional conferences, read books, or access content that builds their knowledge and pedagogy. You should also establish regular opportunities to share and read up on high-impact instructional strategies as a collaborative team through weekly best-practice emails, peer observations, common planning periods, or demonstrations at achievement team lab sites.

At P.S. 249, teachers analyze student-assessment data and then practice one research-based strategy that they wish to learn more about together. If the strategy doesn’t yield good results after four to six weeks, they select a different one. If the strategy works, they explore ways to replicate it across the school. By placing this work in the hands of teachers themselves, they take ownership and gain a passion for building their own content knowledge. 

The highest-quality professional learning is grounded in research, includes opportunities for educators to collaborate and reflect, and gives participants ample time to practice new learning and receive feedback.

4. Maintain a laser-like focus on instruction. Our school believes in coherent practices, not programs, and we strongly feel that it is our instructional expertise and excellent teaching practice that allow students to grow. Exceptional curriculum supports this journey, but products alone don’t drive learning.

No matter what priorities call for your attention each week, as the school’s leader, you must be present with your educators. Spend half of your time visiting classrooms or engaging within instructional activities. This can include observing instruction, participating in professional learning, providing feedback, or co-planning with educators.

Your educators should see you as an instructional leader in your building. Research shows that effective instructional leadership and principal visibility positively impact teacher performance and strengthen school culture and morale.

Regardless of your school’s location, size, budget, or demographics, you can incorporate any or all of these tips to positively shape your school. Creating a safe space, building trust with your staff, and focusing on instructional excellence are all strategies that school leaders can do and must do to transform their schools. Yes, change can be daunting. But given what is at stake—our children’s futures—we’re long overdue to change the way we think about school transformation.

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?

P.S. 249 The Caton School

Public, Urban
Grades PK-5
Brooklyn, NY

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  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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