Turnaround Schools

Turnaround Schools

As districts nationwide struggle to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education has shifted its focus to turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools.

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In 2009, the federal government overhauled the Title I School Improvement Grant program, increased its value to $3.5 billion with money from the recovery act, and spelled out four turnaround options from which perennially failing schools would have to choose to get a share of the funding. (Roll over the chart at right for descriptions of each model and the breakdown of SIG money-receiving schools that chose to use it).

In the past, school improvement grant money had come with little to no strong direction from the federal government, and never with so much funding attached. Some education leaders have complained that the federal models are too inflexible and don't put enough emphasis on parent involvement, but a little more than a year later, some turnaround schools are starting to show gains.

Education Week, Catalyst Chicago, Education News Colorado, GothamSchools, and The Philadelphia Public School Notebook have been following turnaround efforts in five regions.

In Philadelphia, for example, which has experimented with outside management of schools for over a decade, the new SIG funding is helping to fuel difficult changes through the Renaissance Schools Initiative, which identifies chronically low-performing schools for both internal turnaround and overhaul by external organizations. In Colorado, the state's 2008 Innovation Schools Act is giving approved schools greater flexibility by waiving certain state statutes, district policies, and union contract provisions to help boost student achievement—but it is also getting pushback.

This collection chronicles the changes in turnaround schools as teachers and administrators work through the challenges of overhauling their systems in a bid to improve student performance.

Background on SIG: The federal plan, SIG schools map, progress so far.

Keith Look, the principal of the Academy @ Shawnee, in Louisville, talks with members of the school’s Navy Junior ROTC. (Pat McDonogh for Education Week)

Kentucky Turnaround

Education Week has been following Principal Keith Look and his team at the former Shawnee High School in Louisville, Ky., as they work to transform the long-troubled campus. More than half the teachers have been replaced, the school is using data more to pinpoint students’ weaknesses and to adjust instruction, and the school even has a new name: the Academy @ Shawnee. Will their efforts be enough for a successful turnaround and the “considerable progress” necessary for Look to keep his job? The stakes are high for everyone.

During Peace Day at Marshall, students participate in sessions on conflict resolution, and those who lost friends and family to violence let go of balloons in remembrance. (Jason Reblando, Catalyst Chicago)

Last Chance for Chicago's Marshall High?

Chicago is considered a national model for its turnaround program, which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched while CEO of the district. Chicago’s elementary turnaround schools have had some success in raising test scores. But turnaround high schools have yet to make significant inroads with academics and face hurdles such as declining enrollment, lack of rigorous curricula and a disproportionate number of students with special needs. At Marshall, one of four Chicago turnaround high schools, the strategy could be the school’s last chance to make a comeback.

Kaylah Brantley, a student at Smedley Elementary School, which was "restarted" by Mastery Charter Schools. (Benjamin Herold, Philadelphia Public School Notebook)

Philadelphia's 'Renaissance Schools'

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman began aggressively reshaping the Philadelphia School District, turning to charter operators to "restart" more than a dozen struggling schools and pouring resources into another 18 District-managed "Promise Academies." But while local groups like Mastery Charter Schools have seized the opportunity to expand their reach, the dizzying pace of reform—as well as complaints about backroom deals, skyrocketing costs, and a lack of transparency—have led to protests. Can Philadelphia's Renaissance Schools improve quickly enough to win over a divided public?

New York City Reforms Follow Many Others

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City school officials are not shy about radically reforming struggling schools. Initially they signaled they would use federal school improvement funds to pursue at least some “turnarounds,” which resemble the city’s own school closure strategy. But that model required the approval of the teachers union, and even with extra time, the city could not negotiate a deal. Ultimately, the city moved to “restart” nine schools in September and delay changes at three others for a year. The big questions in New York City are whether federal funds can improve schools when so many other attempts have fallen short and whether the “restarts” will even register in an environment of constant change.

A Denver Montbello High School student asks questions about reform plans in Far Northeast Denver at a recent crowded community meeting. (Nancy Mitchell, Education News Colorado)

Denver Turnaround Plan Steeped in Controversy

A sweeping and ambitious turnaround plan for schools in the newer neighborhoods around Denver International Airport led to a failed recall effort against the school board president this spring. It also became a major issue in the mayoral election, even though the Denver mayor holds no legal authority over the school district. The plan passed Denver’s divided school board on a 4-3 vote in April, but the battle is far from over. Denver holds pivotal elections for three school board seats in November, and the Far Northeast Denver turnaround plan is sure to be a major issue.

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