Administration & Leadership

3 Key Elements of a School Turnaround Effort

An award-winning principal describes how he works to steer change, especially at struggling schools.

May 22, 2024
Courtesy of Sylvia Carrizoza
Kevin Sotomayor, principal of Isaac Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona

School turnaround, the effort to foster success in a struggling school, is a complex process requiring a delicate yet radical transformation of nearly all facets of school life—from curriculum to instruction to culture. 

It’s even harder when a leader is new to a school, as is often the case. They must build meaningful and collaborative relationships, respect the expertise of those already in the building, and foster trust with the whole community—while avoiding efforts that might appear to be rooted in saviorism.

To understand what it takes to navigate this work, I spoke with Kevin Sotomayor, recipient of the 2023 K–12 Dive Award for Principal of the Year and current leader of Isaac Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona. Sotomayor has dedicated his career to school transformation, not only leading several turnaround efforts but also starting a school of his own—as he says, “ground up”—before joining Isaac. 

Sotomayor told me how he uses data, deep listening, and direct communication to drive change as a leader.

BRITTANY COLLINS: How do you go about facilitating a school turnaround?

KEVIN SOTOMAYOR: It starts with the culture and the leadership. You gotta figure out who you are: What are your nonnegotiables? What is your true north? I recommend Bill George’s True North—a great book from the business world. Be very clear and consistent articulating your true north with your staff. You’re the compass.

Leading a turnaround also requires a culture of listening, of understanding before we react. The school I’m at now, we’ve had this incredible transformation, and I hold on to the vision, the understanding. How did I get it? I started with individual meetings with every returning staff member and with students. I need to know who I’m talking to, who I’m working with, what their expectations are and aren’t, what they want to do. 

From there, it’s easy to see how we start to move forward. You will be told exactly what needs to happen and how you need to move forward, especially by the kids.

We have beginning-of-year, middle-of-year, and end-of-year data. And of course the state assessment. But I would rather lay my money on, “Teacher, tell me how this kid is doing in class. Are they engaged?” 

Kevin Sotomayor

COLLINS: What advice have you received from students?

SOTOMAYOR: Just be real. At one of the middle schools I was at, this young lady was in danger of getting kicked out. I took her on as a mentee. We started meeting, and she was always so respectful. We had great conversations. One day, I went, “What’s the problem? Your teachers always send you to me saying you’re disrespectful. You don’t listen. You just do what you want to do. But if I ask you to do something, you might question it, but you do it. What’s the deal?”

She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Because when you ask me how I’m doing in the morning, you mean it. You really want to know. They don’t want to know. They’re just saying it to say it.” 

Kids can smell disingenuousness. 

When I first came to my current school, the kids said, “You’re gonna leave. We know everyone does.” I had to prove myself to them. I heard what they were telling me—they knew abandonment. So I showed up. I listened. I talked to them: “What do you guys want? What do you expect?”

They told me everything I needed to know. And now that the school has really turned around, the kids are like, “Oh, you meant it. You didn’t leave.” 

COLLINS: Turning back to the idea of a true north or vision for a school, how do you keep your staff focused on that?

SOTOMAYOR: Really taking them through “Here’s where we are, but this is not where we’re gonna stay, so what do we need to do collaboratively to move forward?” We focused on establishing and then living our core values. They are present in everything we do. We often reflect on our practices, and if they do not reflect one of our core values, then we question why we are doing it. 

Teachers said they didn’t have enough support when it came to behavior—it felt like the prior administration wasn’t visible. So I said to my AP, “Here’s your office, here’s my office—say goodbye to them. We can’t be in here unless it’s for a meeting—we have to be visible.” We literally walked hallways and classrooms, utilizing our phones to keep up with texts and emails. Most of the time, we worked at our desks after our students and staff were gone for the day. 

Once we showed our commitment, the staff bought in; they’re with us now. 

COLLINS: What turnaround programs and policies have been most impactful for you?

SOTOMAYOR: Meeting kids where they are. But that doesn’t mean we’re in sixth grade teaching third-grade curriculum—it means we have to scaffold appropriately. We have focused on student discourse. We wanted student-to-student interaction, so we provided professional development on that. We didn’t start with kids—it’s been all about the adults. We really hit growth mindset first: “Do you believe that our kids can perform at this level? If you do but don’t know how to get there, great—helping with that is our job.” We hired instructional coaches to bring teachers along, help with professional development, go into the classroom, and lead coaching cycles.

A principal at another middle school and I created cross-site PLCs. We rearranged our master schedules and worked with district strategists and our assistant superintendent. All content areas release for prep at the same time across three schools now. We carved out an hour for teams to meet as sixth-grade social studies across districts, eighth-grade math, etc. 

That builds teacher leadership and ownership, so it’s not us telling teachers something is gonna work, it’s people in classrooms with them telling them it works. We combine instructional practices and learn from each other. We’re in our fourth year of that, and we’ve seen great gains. 

COLLINS: How do you measure those gains? I’m sure it’s not immediate and not as simple as looking at test scores. What’s your approach?

SOTOMAYOR: Over the years, it’s been about a story—and data. I joke that I’m surprised I got hired, because they always ask in interviews, “How do you use data?” I always answer that I don’t put a lot of weight into what the tests supposedly tell us—that this is how smart or not our kids are.

Yes, tests can give us great jumping-off points, because if we realize kids are scoring low in vocabulary, we need to ask why. Is it truly the vocabulary, or their comprehension? Is it a certain grade level? Demographic? 

We use iReady, so we have beginning-of-year, middle-of-year, and end-of-year data. And of course the state assessment. But I would rather lay my money on “Teacher, tell me how this kid is doing in class. Are they engaged?” Let’s look at their work consistently. Are they doing really well in class and just tanking on the test? Then we need to help with test-taking strategies. 

With any turnaround, academics are huge, but so is instruction. I have to look at the staff I’m inheriting, their evaluations, and as many years of academic data as I can. Educators talk about the whole child—part of my job is trying to find the whole school. There’s culture data, demographic data, academic data, instructional data. We start to look at it from all angles to find leverage points where if we hit them right, they’ll domino. 

COLLINS: What misconceptions have you encountered regarding turnarounds?

SOTOMAYOR: “These poor kids! Oh, their background! We can’t push them that hard.” A lot of our kids are coming in with adverse childhood experiences—I think some of our kids have almost every single one—but they’re showing up every day.

That’s one of the biggest misconceptions, that these kids can’t perform. They absolutely can. Because of their backgrounds, they didn’t have the preschool everyone else did. It’s our job to help them overcome that. They are unbelievably smart. We hold them back when we feel like we have to dumb things down. 

We’re going to teach with the scaffolds that are appropriate to help them access what they need to know. It’s not the kids—it’s always the adults, and 90 percent of the time it’s not intentional. We gotta hold high expectations, and students will meet us there.

COLLINS: Returning to your idea of nonnegotiables, what are some of yours?

SOTOMAYOR: Number one: We have to believe in our kids. We have to believe that they really can do it. They may not be there yet, but they can get there, and they will. Number two: We have to be learners ourselves. If we think we know it all, we’re done.

This interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and flow.

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