Professional Learning

How to Reform a School without Firing the Faculty

March 16, 2010

Editor's note: Anne O'Brien is our guest blogger today. She is a project director at the Learning First Alliance, a Teach for America alumna, and a former public school teacher in the greater New Orleans area.

The Obama administration has made turning around America's lowest performing schools a cornerstone of its education agenda. And with good reason -- all children should have access to an excellent education.Schools that are not providing their students with such an education need to change.

The Findings

Recently one particular turnaround strategy has received some high-level support: the wholesale replacement of teachers -- interesting choice, given what researchers say about this approach. Turnaround experts Emily and Bryan Hassel wrote in Education Next, "Successful turnaround leaders typically do not replace all or most of the staff at the start, but they often replace some key leaders who help organize and drive change." And the 2009 Department of Education IES practice guide concluded, "The school turnaround case studies and the business turnaround research do not support the wholesale replacement of staff."

We at the Learning First Alliance have collected a number of successful school turnaround stories. In some cases the replacement of some staff started the process, such as at George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama, where it was accompanied by a focus on innovative technology, rich vocabulary, and content knowledge.

Collaboration is Key

But this approach is by no means necessary for a turnaround. At Anchorage's Mountain View Elementary a charismatic leader, committed staff, and additional funding and focus on reading helped begin the turnaround process. At Westwood High School in Memphis, a new climate of collaboration and a shared purpose led the way.

Then there is Port Chester's Thomas Edison Elementary School, where 80 percent of students receive free and reduced price lunch and nearly half are English language learners. In 1999, when New York State first began to assess its children, only 19 percent of Edison's fourth graders passed the English Language Arts test. In 2009, 75 percent did.

How did the school do it? Not with a mass firing.

Rather, fourteen years ago, Principal Eileen Santiago stepped into a school with, as she says, "many, many caring people," and built the capacity of her staff. That staff then strengthened its academic program and developed strong partnerships with the community.

Connecting with Community

In fact, according to Principal Santiago, "It is partnership work that really constitutes effective turnaround work." Edison, now a full-service community school, has formed relationships with agencies, such as mental health agencies, that don't typically have much to do with schools even though they also serve children. It has created a school-based health center.

It also forged a partnership with a college that brings tremendous resources, including student teachers, tutors, and the chance for children to visit a college site to see what the future holds for them.

And the school offers parents events that cover a range of topics, including supporting children's literacy, getting a GED, taking classes in English and even basic information like when to take a child to the doctor.

Both educators and policymakers can learn a lot from Edison. For me, the most important takeaway is Principal Santiago's belief that, "[A school needs] rigorous academic curriculum, solid instructional practices that are supported by research [and] coupled with a support network of wraparound services for the whole child," she explained, adding, "That is going to be the groundbreaking work that makes a difference in school reform."

What are your thoughts on the topic of school reform? Please share your stories and your views.

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