Case Study: What Does it Take to Turn Around a School?

A community of educators come together

April 12, 2012

How does a school go from struggling to success? My goal in this blog is to share success stories and resources to help you make a difference in all the schools with whom you make contact. There is a role for everyone here: principal, superintendent, teacher, parent, school board member, politician, community member and taxpayer.

Becoming an Above Average School

I'll start with a magical place where I had the privilege of being the principal for four years: Georgetown Community School. We went from below the state average to the top 8 percent of schools in Colorado, ultimately earning the John Irwin School of Excellence.

Lesson 1: Fight for Quality Schools (Parents and Community)

I was school board president during an extended period of declining enrollment and we were considering closing our smallest school. But the community had a school in Georgetown for over 125 years, and there was no way they were going to let that school go without a fight. The tiny community had well over 100 people at our contentious board meetings.

But the school was clearly in trouble. Enrollment was declining. The school had five principals in four years. The Colorado Student Achievement Program test scores were below average and the school had been languishing for years.

Lesson 2: Create a Plan (Parents and Community)

Meanwhile, a group of parents and community members met countless hours and created a detailed charter school plan.

Lesson 3: Focus on the Plan and Ask the Tough Questions (School Board)

My fellow school board members and I were skeptical. How can this group turnaround this struggling school? What impact would a charter school have on the rest of the district, especially keeping open such a small school? The group presented a huge binder for the charter school plan. We were a small school district of around 1000 students. I was a teacher at another school district and sat down and read the plan from cover to cover. I was impressed but still skeptical if the group would have the commitment to support the school after it started. I created a list of questions about the budget, curriculum and instruction, hiring, assessments, behavior, policies, and parent and community involvement. I heard later what a pain it was to research and answer my questions and those of the other board members. However, the charter application group answered every question to my satisfaction.

Lesson 4: Get a Strong Curriculum (School Staff)

When we, as a board, asked the existing Georgetown Elementary School what their curriculum was, we got vague answers. When we asked the charter school applicants what their intended curriculum was, we received very specific answers: Saxon Math, Open Court Reading, Core Knowledge Science and Social Studies, and a "Stepping Out" program where the students would go out of the school to learn about the environment and history of our mountain setting and silver mining past.

Lesson 5: Hire a Strong, Child-Centered Staff (Administration)

After a lengthy process, the board approved the charter. Part of my thought at the time was that this group and school were energetic and innovative and had the potential to challenge not only the students of Georgetown, but also, if they were successful, become a positive competitive challenge to the other elementary schools and feed our middle and high school with well-prepared students.

The group hired a principal with 30 years of experience in education. Dr. Holmes did an excellent job of hiring a talented staff. None of the original teachers or administration remained. Dr. Holmes felt that finding staff that were child-centered was the foundation of a great school. The board of the new school agreed and together they created the vision, "It's all about the kids." Dr. Holmes had attended workshops with Ventures for Excellence and he said that he used their methods of choosing the staff. Whenever we were challenged with a decision as a staff or board, we would focus on what was best for the kids.

Dr. Holmes retired after the first year, and one day, she suggested that I apply for the job. I had been a K-12 teacher for seven years and corporate trainer and business owner for 13 and had thought about school administration, so I applied. When I accepted the job, I resigned from my post as school board president and began my journey as a school administrator.

What helped turn your school around? Please share your experiences and ideas.

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  • Assessment
  • Community Partnerships
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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