Your Thoughts On Turnaround Schools

In late September, we asked our readers to share their experiences with Turnaround Schools as our reporters began their search for turnaround stories in the southeast.  Through the Public Insight Network and our Turnaround Schools query, we received feedback from individuals all across the US on how they think failing schools find success, and here are some of their responses.  If you’d like to contribute to the ongoing conversation or read and listen to the series, visit the Southern Education Desk.

Your Thoughts on Turnaround Schools

Q: Do you, your child or someone you know have personal experiences with turnaround schools? If so, please briefly describe the experience. Also, if you taught in a turnaround school, were you new to the school?

A: Yes, I’m a principal of one of Colorado’s 13 Cohort One School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools. I was hired in the summer of 2009 at Hanson Elementary School two months before the school was identified as a potential SIG school. In the first year (2009-2010) we worked with the staff and community members to begin the process of planning for the three years of SIG reform work. We are now in our third and final year of that work. In 2012 Hanson moved from the lowest rating (Turnaround) on the state’s School Performance Framework (SPF) to the highest (Performance).
- Nelson Van Vranken, Boulder, Colorado

Q: What is the single most important factor that contributed to the success or failure of the turnaround effort and what were some of the biggest challenges?

A: The single most important factor is to have a master principal who is an educator first and foremost. He or she needs to have innovative ideas and not just do what the latest new craze in education is.
- Jose Soto, New York, New York

A: The single biggest factor that contributes to the success of a turnaround school is the willingness to acknowledge what is not working and to ask for help. The biggest challenges are often that a lot of well-intentioned people get hung up by politics and are unable to make progress.
- Kate Westrich, Cincinnati, Ohio

A: I believe you should be asking what our goals are in educating our young people. Measuring a school’s success by how students do on achievement tests is not the way. The validity of evaluating the scores depends on whether the test is to find out what the students should know, not what they don’t know.
- Vivian D’Angio, Boynton Beach, Florida

A: The single most important factor to the success we’ve had is to have a narrow focus on improving tier one instruction at the school. Our highest priority has been on improving the quality of instruction. We hired three instructional coaches and three other support staff. These staff members deliver high quality site-based professional development sessions for our teachers.
- Nelson Van Vranken, Boulder, Colorado

Q: Do you think there are characteristics that are common to all turnaround schools, and can other schools use them as a model for achieving their own success?

A: I think we need to first ask what our goals are. I believe there should be two goals: teach students how to think for themselves and how to think critically. The second goal should be to educate them to use their emotions constructively, not destructively.
- Vivian D’Angio, Boynton Beach, Florida

A: Yes. Focus on improving instruction is the key. We have documented every single component of our reform work in great detail. A team could take our work and easily replicate it.
- Nelson Van Vranken, Boulder, Colorado

Q: How important is strong leadership? And do you think that leadership change is necessary and crucial?

A: Strong leadership is essential to successfully turning around a school. Sometimes that means getting new leadership for a school, but not necessarily. If a leader can be humble enough to acknowledge that what they’re doing isn’t working and to ask for help, that’s a huge first step. Change is difficult and providing leadership through periods of change is even more difficult.
- Kate Westrich, Cincinnati, Ohio

Q: What role do parents play, and how vital is the role of the entire community in making turnaround schools possible?

A: Parents in underserved school communities cannot, for the most part, be brought into the process of PTA in the traditional way. These are often people who are struggling to live, who are dealing with crime and violence, and they don’t have successful school experiences from which to draw. So to make rules that require parents to be active in order to have their child attend a school is simply a selective process.
- Cindy Walsh, Baltimore, Maryland

A: Parents and the community play an important role in school turnaround. Depending on the demographics of the school and community, parental involvement can vary. Turning to the community to play a role in school and student support helps augment where parental involvement is lacking. It also helps kids take advantage of all resources available to them and helps the community to be more invested in the success of their schools and students.
- Kate Westrich, Cincinnati, Ohio

A: I work in a poor industrial city just north of Denver with a high percentage of immigrant families. Our work with the community has been focused on improving communication with our parents and seeking to build a strong partnership with them. They are our community. We don’t have corporate or community leaders showing interest in our work. This takes a lot of time and energy. Our main emphasis has been delivering a series of three parent workshops each year. These workshops teach parents how to support their students’ academic growth. We host them in each classroom for 90 minutes in the evening and offer childcare, and the teachers conduct the workshops.
- Nelson Van Vranken, Boulder, Colorado

Q: Do you think outside consultants are needed to help turnaround schools, and are they adding sustainable value to the school’s efforts?

A: People know what their schools need. Give them the resources and let them build the school how they want it. Once a school is fully funded and functioning, then, if consultants want to offer advice or services then that is fine.
- Cindy Walsh, Baltimore, Maryland

A: I think outside help can often be critical to turning around a school.
- Kate Westrich, Cincinnati, Ohio

Q: How much of a school’s progress can be attributed to simply having more money?

A: When you speak of underserved schools, I say a considerable amount would be attributed to money.
- Cindy Walsh, Baltimore, Maryland

A: Money helps facilitate solutions but it in itself is not the solution.
- Kate Westrich, Cincinnati, Ohio

A: Money doesn’t solve problems. The problems in the lowest performing schools are way too complex.
- Nelson Van Vranken, Boulder, Colorado

A: Schools need money, but it has to be well managed.
- Jose Soto, New York, New York

 

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