Education Opinion

Turnaround School: Dream or Nightmare?

By Nancy Flanagan — July 05, 2013 12 min read
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If you’re a regular reader of Teacher in a Strange Land, you know that I have been privileged to work with and write about a turnaround school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (See here, here, here and here.)

Doing so has drawn some reprobation from folks I truly respect. I have been told that the Turnaround Model--one of four ways Race to the Top mandates as approved fix for “failing” public schools--was nothing more than another way to say “We tried!” while ultimately pushing a school community toward a label of data-documented failure and privatization. Turnarounds are designed to crash, I heard--and the teachers and school leaders who believe their expertise and commitment will make a genuine difference are naive.

But--I knew the strength of the school leader, my friend and personal hero, Jill Saia. If anyone had the vision, intelligence and dedication to rebuild a school, it was Jill. And what I saw in that first year of the turnaround was so promising, so exciting...

Unfortunately, what you’re about to read is the rest of the story, in Jill’s words. I thank her for having the courage to share her story.

I have deleted the “Dream School” folder on my computer. I am hoping that enough time has passed since our school was closed that I can write about it clearly and rationally, even though what was done to us was neither clear nor rational. For the last ten years that folder on my computer has contained all our plans, hopes, and ideas for a school run by professional educators for children who need it most. We knew that if we could put the highest-quality team of teachers together that we could affect true change in the lives of children in an at-risk school.

Two years ago when I was given the opportunity to become principal of Delmont Elementary School, I cautiously accepted the position. You see, I never wanted to be a principal. My graduate work in Educational Administration and Supervision confirmed this for me: being a school principal was too stressful and too far removed from teaching and learning. So I finished my degree and became certified, although I was certain I would never use this credential.

After 28 years in public education, I was offered the chance to become the Instructional Leader of Delmont. This would give me the chance to put into practice everything I had learned about high quality instruction and ongoing professional development. The position had been very carefully designed so that I would have autonomy in decisions and would be able to focus my time on classrooms and instruction instead of administrative duties. I would never have accepted this position if those guidelines weren’t clear.

Those guidelines remained in place for about two months. I was able to hire a very skilled staff, six of whom were National Board Certified Teachers. But my request for an Assistant Principal and Dean of Students was denied, even though there was money in the budget for it. I very quickly encountered resistance at all my personnel suggestions, and it began to seem as though the district didn’t really want us to succeed. The next two years were the most rewarding of my educational career, but also the most disheartening.
A change in top-level leadership at the district caused the team that had written the plan for Delmont to be totally dismantled. The new administration did not seem to know or understand why we were designated a “turnaround school” and what that meant in terms of academic freedom. I started carrying the SIG plan around with me when I went to meetings so I could explain what we were trying to do and show what the guidelines spelled out. Yet I increasingly encountered resistance from the Director of Turnaround Schools, who was a former superintendent of the failing Recovery School District. Looking back on it now, I think that this was all by design; “leaders” in the Central Office really didn’t think we would be able to turn Delmont around, so they created obstacles to keep it from happening.

One such obstacle presented itself in our first year. After having spent the summer hiring a top-notch staff and building a collaborative team, the district swooped in on October 10 to move two teachers and one aide out of our building. My plea to stop this from happening fell on deaf ears, and I was even cited for insubordination when I tried to show them what the SIG plan said about staffing. (That we were entitled to additional staff because it was a turnaround effort). So we said goodbye to three valuable staff members, shuffled kids into new classes, and kept going.

We did not make tremendous progress on test scores in the first year. We did change the culture and climate of the school, increase enrollment, and foster a high level of parental involvement. At the end of our first year, we packed everything up and moved out, because the district had chosen to remodel our 60-year old building. It is hard work to pack up an entire school, but we hoped that the renovations would make for an even better learning environment.

We were allowed to move back in two days before school started. We began the move and the readjustment to new classrooms, then had to stop for a half-day district “convocation” called by our new Superintendent. After district officials, community leaders and politicians had all given us their “rah-rah!” speeches about what a terrific year it was going to be, we boarded our yellow school bus back to Delmont and got back to work getting set up for the first day of school. Office staff and I stayed until after 10:00 p.m. that night to make sure we had everything ready for kids and parents the next day.

What a joy when the kids returned on the first day of school! They were so excited to see all of us again, to know that we were still here, and now in brand new buildings and classrooms. Hugs and high fives everywhere, and all the hard work of the summer instantly paid off when we saw their smiles. These children had suffered through tremendous staff turnover in the past, and it took a toll on their academic achievement and emotional well-being.

There were still the usual battles with the central office, but we were finally granted our extended day program that was in the plan the first year, but that the district chose not to fund. In the second year we convinced them that it wasn’t really their choice not to do it - it was written in the federal grant. So after Labor Day (and after Hurricane Isaac, which caused us to lose a week of school), we began doing extended day four days a week, with half a day on Wednesdays for team meetings and professional development. This gave us extra time to do targeted interventions, and also time to meet with each other and plan collaboratively.

We began to turn the corner - more children were reading, asking questions, and flourishing. Fewer behavior problems, more time on task. Children were communicating with each other, with teachers, with staff. They understood what the parameters were for being a student at Delmont, and they rose to our challenges. We planted our vegetable garden, had choir concerts, and participated in the Kennedy Center for the Arts program to integrate arts into the curriculum. We partnered with the local hospital’s health program to host the “Big Blue Bus” every week, which provided medical and mental health care to children and families. We were awarded a sizable grant from a local foundation to adopt a parenting program, and worked with a local university to design a new playground.

Then in November things started changing. Our new Superintendent announced his “Family of Schools” plan, which restructured many of the schools in the district. He called me into his office for a meeting on the afternoon of the first community forum held to discuss the changes. He told me that he was going to close Delmont. I remember being so stunned that I couldn’t even react at first. We did not see this coming; we were on our way up. But Dr. Taylor didn’t want to hear that, didn’t want to be reminded of how much he loved our school when he visited earlier in the year, or how endearing the kids had been to him. This was a business decision, and he preferred to keep emotions out of it.

Much of our staff was in disbelief when I told them, and when they heard it later that evening at the forum. Many had been at Delmont for ten years or more, and had not planned on leaving. They loved the fact that Delmont was a true neighborhood school with a family atmosphere, and just couldn’t understand why or how that family could be disintegrated. And I had trouble explaining it, because honestly I still don’t know why this decision was made.

At the next set of community forums, the family of schools plan was tweaked, and Delmont was now going to remain open as a K-2 school. This of course would remove us from state scrutiny of test scores by getting rid of the high-stakes test grades. Then in the next proposal, Delmont was going to be a Pre-K center. This is the proposal that the school board voted for, which somehow changed before the next day to it being a PreK - K center.

The March School Board meeting had a packed agenda, and at around 9:00 p.m. they finally got to the item about Delmont. Several school board members spoke out about how much they supported our efforts, and knew that we were doing great work. But when the vote came, they all voted for the motion to turn Delmont into a PreK-K center. The Superintendent had successfully convinced them that we were going to be taken over by the state if they didn’t make this move. No mention was made of our 3-year SIG plan and the fact that we were only in year two...

The school board member representing the region Delmont is in declined to speak, and abstained from the vote.

On the Wednesday of state testing week, the district sent the deputy superintendent to Delmont to meet with parents and staff to tell them of the decision to close the school. Yes, in the MIDDLE of STATE TESTING WEEK! The insensitivity was astonishing. Parents who walk their children to school were the most upset, because the school that their children were now assigned to is three miles away. (It is also an “F” school.) Teachers and staff members were assured that the district would do everything they could to find new positions for them, and that many of them would follow their students to the assigned school. No surprise here - not a single Delmont teacher or staff member has been hired at that school. They all found their own jobs, without help from the central office; many have moved out of state or at least out of the district.

As for me, well, because I stood up for my school and tried to keep it open, I was given another letter of insubordination. I was also rated “ineffective” at midyear because of my refusal to change my ratings of teachers to match their pre-identified quota in the value-added system. Their assumption was that if test scores were low, then the teachers must be ineffective.

Therefore, I must not know how to evaluate teachers. I was placed on an Intensive Assistance plan. Two months later, I turned in four binders full of data, observations, meeting notes, mentor reviews, etc. My mentor was a local award-winning principal who was part of the original “Dream School” team. Needless to say, she loved Delmont and what we were doing there. She even brought her assistant principal with her on one visit so she could have another perspective. After looking at all of my documentation, the director said that it “looked complete”, but then a week later told me that I was still ineffective and would have to wait for his final evaluation.

I chose not to wait for that final evaluation. I began the job search, had several very promising interviews, but it soon became clear that no public school district in this area would hire me because of my track record in a “failed” school. I really wanted to stay in public schools, because it is where I have spent my entire career, and because I truly believe in them. But in this case the system let me down. After 29 ½ years in the state retirement system, I was looking at having to retire with less than full benefits - a sizable financial difference. And up until this last year, I have had a stellar record in public education. No blemishes, no letters, no confrontations.

I can’t begin to describe what this last year has done to both my physical and mental health. I have been bullied and blackballed, all because I stood up for the children and families that needed us most. I knew I could no longer work for a system that is so dysfunctional, whose superintendent has already threatened to quit a few times when he didn’t get his way. (He, by the way, does NOT have a stellar track record.) Our dream school turned into a nightmare.

I have now resigned from the district and accepted a position as Dean of Instruction at a public charter school about ½ mile from Delmont. Many of the parents have heard that I am here now, and have enrolled their children. This is a brand new facility with a young faculty and plenty of opportunities for me to build instructional leadership. Their test scores rose dramatically last year, and they have begun to stabilize after a few rocky starting years. I am looking forward to the challenges of this new school, but also can’t help but look back.

The two years at Delmont profoundly changed my life, and I would like to think that it changed the lives of some of the children. I cannot begin to describe the last week or day of school. It was a blur of tears, hugs, graduations, celebrations, and uncertainty. I moved through it on auto-pilot; no one ever trained me how to say goodbye to 400 students and families, not to mention a beloved staff. We are now all scattered - students to at least three different schools, and teachers and staff to many more. We vowed to keep up with each other, but I know that we will eventually move on.

By the way, test scores in year two were outstanding. While we don’t yet have a final SPS from the state, preliminary data from our chief of accountability show that we made AYP and would no longer be a “failing” school. Our fourth-graders had a 20% jump in the number of students rated proficient; the district average growth was 6%.

So, this is what “reform” has done; it has transformed our dream school into a nightmare. I hope that we all wake up from it soon in a better place, but I know that for a few years, there was no better place than Delmont.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.