In School Turnarounds, the Human Element is Crucial

—Robbie Lawrence
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As we dig into school turnaround work, the haul of education data is getting, well, exciting. The things we can know, extrapolate, and rate—from multiyear subgroup test results by school, to value-added teacher scores across a district—have provided a delightful (if sometimes controversial) plate of information.

There is much that can—and should—be read into data now available to parents, community leaders, and educators. The drive for tangible improvement, the bad-to-great transformation that is the hope of school turnaround, demands transparent assessment. We need to know: Which schools aren’t cutting it? Who’s got it figured out?

The numbers, however, project the illusion that turnaround is more straightforward than it is. The quest for number targets and replicable models fuels a sense that test scores will rise and transformation will happen if you find the right leadership strategy, curricular reboot, or genius structural rubric (or combination thereof).

This is not to say that there aren’t good ideas being generated right now. There are. But turnaround is not simply about pushing the right buttons on a complicated machine. At the heart of all reform efforts are the people who bring the strategies to life.

Turnaround is not simply about pushing the right buttons on a complicated machine. At the heart of all reform efforts are the people who bring the strategies to life.

And one of the most powerful tools—one that has taken an inner-city Cincinnati high school from absolute failure, by any measure, to being named a national Blue Ribbon SchoolRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader—is embarrassingly plain and lacking a data column: It’s about relationships.

In 1999, University of Miami researchers described Cincinnati’s Taft High School as a “dark and impersonal building,” and signs posted at school entrances practically begged parents to care: “Proficiency Tests March 2-13. Must pass to graduate. Talk to your child”; “200 students absent or tardy daily! Is this your child? Come in and see.”

In 2001, Anthony G. Smith became the principal of the renamed Taft Information Technology High School and began turning it around. Over the past decade, Taft’s graduation rate has risen from 25 percent to 95 percent. In 2010, the percentage of 10th graders scoring proficient or higher in math is up from 33 percent to 96 percent, and from 68 percent to 96 percent in reading. The school, once in “academic emergency,” the state’s lowest designation, has moved to “effective”—and, just recently, to “excellent,” Ohio’s highest rating.

This is real progress. How did Smith do it?

There were the obvious fixes, like ending chaotic two-hour-long lunch periods and a badly organized tutoring program. But what has defined Smith’s success is his focus on the value of relationships. When he took the job, he went door to door in the neighborhood and asked for residents’ support. “My covenant was with the community, not necessarily with the board of education,” Smith said, explaining that, yes, the school is technically part of the district, but it is more powerfully a part of a neighborhood and of people’s lives.

Smith also did something counterintuitive: He kept the staff he inherited. Old teachers, the thinking goes, resist change and prevent transformation. In many turnarounds, much of the staff is let go as a “fresh start” message. Instead, Smith met individually with teachers in their classrooms and spent an hour hearing from each of them about what was working and what wasn’t. At his first staff meeting, he laid out the reality. “I asked them, ‘How do you feel about possibly being the worst school in the entire state?’ ” he recalls.

Real turnaround may require more labor intensive relationship-building than advertised.

Before a midday break, Smith told teachers that if they weren’t ready to sign on to do what was needed to help kids succeed, they shouldn’t come back after lunch. To his surprise, they all returned. “I believe they were good teachers,” he says. “They had lost their confidence. They had lost their spirit.”

From the start, Smith also built a key relationship with an outside stakeholder: Cincinnati Bell. This partnership has offered his students an alternate vision to what they see in their neighborhoods (only 55 percent of adults in this census tract have a high school diploma, and 53 percent of households live below the poverty line). Cincinnati Bell’s chief executive officer, Jack Cassidy, has become so personally involved that he gives every Taft kid his cellphone number. (And, yes, kids call.)

Cassidy’s mantra, “Go big or stay home,” reflects his commitment. His company provides use of a cellphone and laptop to every Taft Technology student who maintains a 3.3 grade point average; it also wires the students’ homes for high-speed Internet because, says Cassidy, “poor families can’t afford broadband, but college exists on the Internet.” Bell also runs a tutoring program in which employees prepare students to pass state tests—during work time. Cassidy sounds altruistic, but he explains that supporting these students is good business, ensuring future workers and customers.

On his end, because Smith knows many students come from homes that don’t presume college or even a career, he keeps them at school for as many hours as he can, connecting them with teachers, coaches, and even with himself through a study club he runs. He uses sports to push academics (if you want to play, keep your grades up) and combines afternoon practices with homework time, ingraining work habits. He serves breakfast and lunch and wants to add dinner.

Too many education success stories celebrate chance relationships: a struggling kid connects with a mentor, finds a passion, and works hard because—suddenly—effort has purpose. Why break down in excruciating detail academic-content strands, yet leave the acquisition of adult mentoring and guidance to happenstance when it has become so critical for success? For turnaround to be meaningful, it must be deeper and more durable than test results.

Real and sustained improvement—the kind that begins to close achievement gaps in a significant way and gives urban kids access to the same opportunities as their suburban peers—depends on building bridges that allow students to grasp the reward of hard work. It must be rooted in relationships throughout the process of change and in a recalibration of expectations that students have for themselves.

Yes, numbers and test scores matter. But real turnaround may require more labor-intensive relationship-building than advertised. After all, this is not just about improving school report cards, but about improving students’ lives.

Vol. 30, Issue 09, Pages 20, 24

Published in Print: October 27, 2010, as The Neglected Topic in School Turnarounds
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Clarification: An earlier version of this commentary said Cincinnati’s Taft High School had been nominated as a Blue Ribbon School. It should have noted that Taft High had been named a Blue Ribbon School.

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