What Does A School Turnaround Look Like?

Hildebrand Pelzer III, the principal of a public school, lays out the hard, slow work of improvement—and what it takes to turn schools around.

On tough days, I want to close my school and start a new one from scratch. But I’m not ready to give up on it yet. Education work is hard and, as President Obama pointed out, “there is no silver bullet” when it comes to our schools.

Without school-level individuals who collectively embody grit, character, commitment, cohesion, and like-mindsets, any school turnaround effort could come up short and face resistance from doubters and skeptics.

In her article, “School Turnaround – Where Is That Magic Formula Again?,” education writer Karin Chenoweth says, “The way some people talk about ‘turning around’ a high-poverty, low-performing school you might think there was some kind of magical formula. If we could just master a special ‘innovation’ or ‘disruption’ incantation or combine just the right incentives and policy formulas, then schools would be turned around. But that isn’t the way educators who have led improvement talk about it—at least in my experience.”

Last school year, in the city’s assessment, Carnell improved 10 percentage points in our climate. We also increased by nearly 24 percent the number of K-3 students reading on target. That bodes well for continued improvement over the next couple of years.

Modern day school turnaround efforts in the United States got their start from a national policy initiative to elevate the performance trajectory of low-achieving schools, rapidly and dramatically. For almost 30 years, school turnaround efforts have ranged from the iconic, such as Principal Joe Clark’s controversial “bullhorn” methods, which won the support and respect of his students, but not his teachers or key community stakeholders, to federal approved-evidence based, whole school reform models, to charter schools, and educational management companies. Today, the current reform era is one of metrics, made up of a combination of business-model key performance indexes and measures that attempt to rate the performance of schools with a single number.

Some of the most memorable depictions of schools, principals, and teachers engaged in school turnarounds have been explored on the big screen. The movie Lean on Me portrayed Joe Clark’s efforts.

Others include Stand and Deliver, a true story about Jaime Escalante, a math teacher who challenged both the system and the stereotypes to raise the standard of life for his inner-city students.

Freedom Writers portrayed a true story about a high-achieving teacher, in a racially divided school, who gives her students what they’ve always needed, a voice. Dangerous Minds depicts the rough-and-tumble life that urban students face every day and the powerful connection a teacher makes with those students.

Waiting for Superman is a documentary examination of the state of education in America: it follows several students as they struggle to get out of traditional public schools and be accepted into a charter school.

Since 1967, there have been more than 10 notable efforts at school turnaround in Philadelphia alone. In just the last 10 years, these school turnaround efforts have included Empowerment Schools, the Turnaround Network, and the School Redesign Initiative. Since 2000, I have been directly involved in at least three of the district’s major reform efforts. The latest of those was the School Redesign Initiative.

In 2015, my school, Laura H. Carnell, became one of four schools selected for the first cohort of the district’s School Redesign Initiative. The focus of this initiative was to provide school communities the opportunity to envision where they want to be (at a school-level) within three to five years and beyond. Led by dedicated teachers, students, and community partners, we embraced this opportunity and embarked on creating  a school of high expectations, accountability, innovation, organizational change, and data-driven instruction.

Since 1967, there have been more than 10 notable efforts at school turnaround in Philadelphia alone. In just the last 10 years, these school turnaround efforts have included Empowerment Schools, the Turnaround Network, and the School Redesign Initiative.

We were clear about what needed to be accomplished and how the redesign process would ensure a collective vision for change. As a veteran Carnell teacher explained, “We weren’t meeting our targets. We knew we had to do something if we wanted to avoid being closed or turned around. The people that stayed are the ones who were adaptable, but change is hard and not for everyone.”

At the school level, we focused on implementing a five-goal approach to improvement based on research. These five goals included:

  1. Focusing on school culture
  2. Making student achievement a priority
  3. Developing instructional quality
  4. Expanding talent development
  5. Creating family engagement opportunities.

The first step of the process was to be transparent about the need for dramatic change. When I arrived at Carnell in 2012, the District had declared it to be “in crisis.” It was clear that we struggled in areas such as teaching and learning, culture, and engaging parents more closely with the learning environment. By my third year at Carnell in 2014-2015, the school had started to show modest progress in several areas, but was still underperforming. That year, Carnell’s School Performance Report ranked achievement at 11 percent (up from 7), climate at 27 percent (up from 20), and progress at 72 percent (up from 48).

As noted in a University of Pennsylvania-commissioned study about our work, the culmination of Carnell’s educational struggles and incremental attempts to improve made the School Redesign Initiative timely for us.

Beyond the data, we had to prepare the entire school community for a successful redesign effort. With skeptics among all of the stakeholder groups—including teachers—this was a difficult hurdle. To go further and gather additional information about how the school community felt about Carnell, we conducted focus groups and surveys with stakeholder groups.

The results screamed that both the students and the parents wanted better quality instruction for the students, from teachers dedicated to their learning, and that parents wanted a way to better understand what their children were learning in the classroom. Cumulatively, the overall survey results suggested that the teachers had to revitalize their teaching practices and embrace a new instructional model that could improve their classroom performance.

Sharing the data openly with the school community helped to make the case that Carnell indeed needed rapid and dramatic improvements. By building supportive partnerships with students, teachers, parents, and community organizations, we overcame the trepidations of the skeptics.

There are lessons here to be learned by other urban schools, whether part of a special district initiative or not. Redesign takes community buy-in, hard work and creativity. It also takes consistency and funding.

The district also played a critical role in establishing an environment that was conducive to change. It provided $50,000 in foundation funding for a full planning year, the opportunity to visit other turnaround models around the country, time to experiment, pilot ideas, and a district-level office that supported us by providing monitoring and continuous improvement planning.

After we determined both where we were and where we wanted to be as a school, we embarked on deciding how to achieve the redesign successfully at the school level. We identified a curriculum partner and an instructional model that shared the purpose and commitment to improving the outcomes for all students.

We developed a written plan that communicated the redesign rationale and anchor goals that would be pursued to increase organizational coherence and educational effectiveness. We developed an implementation plan that ensured monitoring, review of progress, and identified the resources and supports that the school would need to make the redesign successful. By creating our ideal school and establishing the vision and mission for moving us into the future, we positioned our school for rapid organizational change and sustainable performance.

This June will mark three years, the earliest that we can measure the results for our five goals. It has been a mixed bag. In the first  two years of participating in the School Redesign Initiative, our improvement was upward in areas like teacher development, student growth, reading enhancements and parental access. We struggle still in student achievement and Carnell has consistently remained in the district’s “Intervene” tier in this area since 2013.

But we are, slowly, starting to see changes to how students learn, particularly in early literacy. Last school year, in the city’s assessment, we improved 10 percentage points in our climate. We secured “Model” school status (the highest tier) for our growth on the mathematics PSSA; and moved up to “Reinforce” school status (the second highest) for percentage of K-2 students reading at grade level. We also increased by nearly 24 percent the number of K-3 students reading on target as measured by the Developmental Reading Assessment. That bodes well for continued improvement over the next couple of years.

There are lessons here to be learned by other urban schools, whether part of a special district initiative or not. Redesign takes community buy-in, hard work and creativity. It also takes consistency and funding: This year, we lost several teachers to other schools or districts, a setback after investing in their training. We also struggled to get outside funding that would pay for sustained resources for training and personnel needed for school-wide innovations, like injecting project-based learning into every classroom. Without the time and funding to train teaches en masse, that part of our ambition may not be achievable.

A School Redesign Initiative can offer a process to help schools manage their own turnaround effort. At the end of the day, stakeholder groups at Carnell worked together to plan, launch, and implement a school redesign strategy. This collaboration helped to shape and reinforce the school’s new vision, mission, and core values.

As a result, more people bought into the process and were encouraged by and engaged in the school redesign process. Even when setbacks emerge and shift the momentum—such as with parent push back, teachers leaving, student behaviors, and funding rejections—the clear process of our solid, evidence-based redesign plan keeps us focused on our established goals, tracks progress toward milestones, and includes frequent communication with stakeholders. That helps us keep this important work on track.

This article originally was published in The Philadelphia Citizen, where Hilderbrand Pelzer III is a regular contributor. Hilderbrand is the principal of Laura H. Carnell School in Oxford Circle. He won the 2014 Lindback Award for Distinguished Principal Leadership, and is the author of  Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison. Pelzer contributes regular columns from the school front lines during the school  year.


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