Education Opinion

7 Strategies to Turn Around a Struggling School

By Starr Sackstein — June 16, 2019 5 min read
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Guest post by Sarah Sanchez

In the summer of 2017, my Title I elementary school landed on Florida’s list of the 300 lowest-performing schools after earning a D year-end grade from the state.

Needless to say, we were all devastated by the news, which felt like a punch to the stomach. I was the assistant principal at the time, having spent the past 11 years in various roles at the school, including classroom teacher and reading interventionist.

Soon after those results came in, I took the reins as principal. It was my job to set a bold, new direction for the school— and fast.

As I began to plan for the new school year, it was clear to me that our teachers needed to come together as a unified team in order to drive students’ core academic growth.

Moreover, our students needed to engage far more with their learning, and we wanted our parents to be more involved, as well. The challenges were many, but by the summer of 2018, our school grade jumped to a B.

Here are seven strategies we used to make significant improvements over the course of that year:

  1. Set schoolwide goals: First, we established and clearly communicated several ambitious schoolwide goals. At the start of the year, only 37 percent of our students had achieved reading proficiency, so we were determined to increase that to at least 50 percent by year’s end. The tool we’d been using to support reading instruction, i-Ready, had been available in our school the past two years, but we recognized we hadn’t been using it consistently across classrooms. Accordingly, we set out to increase our “time on task” with reading instruction and intervention, from approximately 50 percent up to 100 percent, while simultaneously improving our pass rates from 25 percent to 70 percent.

  1. Build confidence: We needed to dispel the notion that our students were unable to achieve and build teacher confidence at the same time. To that end, we devoted considerable time to professional development and leadership training, both at school and outside of school. We offered PD on a variety of topics including literacy learning, standards-based planning, and goal-setting workshops. We also created ample opportunities for team-building by planning fun, themed activities on a regular basis. Soon, teachers began to gel as a team, collaborate effectively, and, most importantly, take ownership of our reading goals.

  1. Use data to inform instruction: We also began to pay much closer attention to the information made available to us through the i-Ready Diagnostic. This adaptive tool drills down on students’ individual performance and growth and provides specific guidance and insights to meet individual needs. By leveraging this data and pairing it with i-Ready Instruction, we were able to both differentiate instruction and maximize student learning in a blended learning environment. In addition, we amplified our teacher-led lessons using resources available through the accompanying Teacher Toolbox. We also provided students with individual, private folders where they could view their own data, evaluate progress, and set specific growth targets for themselves.

  1. Ramp up reading time: By using some of the additional state funding we received and combining it with creative scheduling, we were able to add a full hour of dedicated reading time to our school day called “Power Hour.” This meant students and teachers were now spending a total of three hours each day on reading and literacy activities. We used a program called Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) and trained all the adults in the school on how to deliver the lessons, which include leveled books on high-interest topics, modeled reading, sustained silent reading, and a focus on vocabulary development and fluency.

  1. Celebrate progress: To draw more attention to our reading goals, we created colorful bulletin boards where students and teachers could see their class’s collective progress as compared with that of other classes in the building. These visuals helped foster much higher levels of participation, inspire friendly competition, and ultimately instill a sense of pride as classes began to meet and exceed targets. Indeed, by December, our students’ midyear scores showed considerable improvement, validation that our efforts were already making an impact.

  1. Make math fun: Since students and teachers were already spending a great deal of time each day working on reading, we decided to make math the focus of our after-school programming. We formed an after-school math club that met twice a week, and it soon became an extremely popular component of our program. This program offers core math instruction plus a variety of fun and engaging math games and activities. Importantly, our math club includes both transportation and a snack at no additional cost to students. Almost all of our students participate, and we’re seeing the results—we have seen a 75 percent increase in math proficiency in just two years.

  1. Increase parent involvement: Due to the fact that our evening parent-teacher conferences were only drawing about 30 parents each time, we brainstormed new ways to encourage parents to come to school and began offering parent activities at different times of the day and in different formats. We had nearly 200 parents participate in our most recent “Data and Donuts” morning meeting—a before-school event where students showcased their current projects to their own parents. We have also greatly expanded our social-media outreach to provide parents with an additional window into their children’s activities at school, as well as offer tips on reading at home and other suggestions to enhance learning outside of school.

Assessing our progress

By being willing to examine our practices, try out new approaches, and create conditions where teachers are leading the charge, our school is no longer defined by failure but rather fueled by hope, pride, and goal-driven aspirations. Last year, our overall reading scores rose from 37 percent proficiency in the previous year, up to 55 percent. We spent the latter part of this school year tweaking what is working to make it the most effective and efficient practice available.

Teachers met regularly to share their successes and their challenges, and students provided valuable feedback in the form of self-assessment. By keeping a close eye on the data and using it to continuously improve our instruction, we worked on maintaining our positive momentum and closing out another successful school year.

How can schools ensure that success becomes a part of the culture? Please share

About the author: Sarah Sanchez is the principal of Eastside Elementary School in Hendry County, Fla. She is a dedicated principal who inspires leadership in her school daily. Connect with Sarah by email at sanchezs@hendry-schools.net Also, see what's happening at Eastside Elementary on the school's Facebook page. *picture created using pablo.com

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.