Passing Year-One Milestone on Improvement
Kentucky high school takes stock after first phase of federal turnaround effort
Keith Look has come to the end of a very turbulent year.
As the principal of the former Shawnee High School, he’s had to replace half his staff, cope with unprecedented scrutiny from his district, and learn to work with a trio of turnaround specialists sent in by the state of Kentucky—all the while knowing his job was on the line if the school failed to make academic progress.
The school’s test scores won’t be out for another few months. But, by many measures, the school, now called the Academy @ Shawnee, is on the right track toward its goals under the $3.5 billion federal School Improvement Grant program.
Attendance is up. Suspensions, for the most part, are down. Nearly all the teachers will be back next year, reversing a longtime trend of high staff turnover. And Mr. Look’s own contract is slated to be renewed for at least another year.
Now Mr. Look and his team must show how they can handle a curveball.
Throughout the school year, Education Week is chronicling Principal Keith Look and his team at the Academy @ Shawnee in Louisville, Ky., while they work to transform the long-troubled campus as part of a $3.5 billion federal push to turn around thousands of low-performing schools. For previous installments in this series and multimedia features, read the rest of the series "Tackling Turnaround at Shawnee High School."
State lawmakers voted in 2009 to completely revamp Kentucky’s education accountability system. That means new academic standards, new assessments, and a new baseline for student achievement—a tall order for a school that’s already under enormous pressure to demonstrate gains.
Mr. Look thinks the changes, which take effect in the 2011-12 school year, are a step in the right direction for Shawnee and for Kentucky, but he’s wary about how the state will gauge the school’s performance.
“The whole game is changing,” Mr. Look said recently. “I’m not opposed to that at all. ... But to have such high stakes around a school when you’re already vulnerable makes for some unsure footing right now.”
Shawnee enters the uncertainty of its School Improvement Grant’s second year with plenty of company. It is one of 10 turnaround schools in Kentucky and among at least 730 SIG schools nationwide, part of a federal effort intended to improve the nation’s lowest-performing schools that was supercharged by funding from the economic-stimulus legislation passed in 2009.
Schools that receive the three-year grants must choose one of four highly prescriptive models. Shawnee is using the “turnaround” option, which requires a school to remove at least half its staff and implement instructional changes.
The SIG schools are being asked to show major improvements at a time when many states are embracing new curricula, new assessments, and new systems for judging teachers.
In fact, in some cases, SIG schools are serving as guinea pigs for new policies. In Massachusetts, SIG schools will be among the first to experiment with a retooled educator-evaluation system that will eventually be implemented statewide.
Right now, Mr. Look said, Shawnee’s teachers are starting to learn about a key change in their own state—new common academic standards in English/language arts and math adopted by Kentucky and 44 other states, including the District of Columbia, as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Mr. Look and his team have tried to introduce the changes to staff members slowly. “You could make this really overwhelming” for teachers, he said.
The standards are a central part of Kentucky’s new accountability system, ultimately aimed at ensuring students are ready for college or a career. The system will be based in part around the act college-entrance exam and the series of tests that precede it. Schools will be judged on students’ college or career readiness, as demonstrated by an act cutoff score or progress on career-readiness assessments.
And there will be a new emphasis on graduation rates, which have been perennially dismal at Shawnee. Just 57 percent of Shawnee students graduated from high school in 2009, compared with 71.7 percent across the 98,000-student Jefferson County school district, which includes the city of Louisville. Eventually, the school will also be held accountable for students’ progress on end-of-course exams, which haven’t been created yet.
“We’re going from keeping score at a baseball game to keeping score at a football game,” said Debbie Powers, who works with Shawnee as part of a partnership with the University of Louisville.
Terry Holliday, the state commissioner of education, said in an interview that the state will have “some transition” between the old system and the new one, and will have to come up with some model under which to make comparisons.
“If they’re making growth, it doesn’t matter what the test is,” he said of the schools.
Meeting the Challenge
There’s no doubt that the newly adopted literacy standard, in particular, is going to be more rigorous, said Bill Philbeck, a former elementary school principal and one of three veteran educators brought in by the state to oversee Shawnee’s transformation.
But he said the staff members—most of whom were handpicked by Mr. Look—are up to the challenge.
Alison Philpott, 2011’s valedictorian at the Academy @ Shawnee, could tell this school year was going to be different when she helped move a few of her new teachers into their classrooms last summer.
“They were excited to be here,” said Ms. Philpott, who will enroll in a pre-veterinary program at Western Kentucky University in the fall. “They really wanted to teach at Shawnee.”
Raven Smock, another senior, agreed. “Last year, we had teachers giving up on us,” she said, recalling one who walked out of a class because she was frustrated with the students’ behavior. “Nobody was pushing me.”
But late last year, as part of the requirements of the federal School Improvement Grant program, the long-troubled Shawnee High School lost more than half its teachers. They were replaced by educators handpicked by Principal Keith Look. Most were experienced teachers who wanted the challenge of working at Shawnee ...
“He hired some thoroughbreds,” said Mr. Philbeck, who works with Shawnee’s teachers to improve literacy instruction.
It initially looked as if Mr. Philbeck and the rest of the team weren’t going to return next year, because of a lack of funding at the state level. But the Kentucky education department was able to find the money, and now they’ll all be back.
In fact, Mr. Philbeck and the mathematics specialist, Billie Travis, are slated to stay on for the next two years, to the end of the school’s federal grant. The team’s leader, Leesa Moman, a former assistant superintendent for special education in Owensboro, Ky., may have to split her time between Shawnee and another school in Jefferson County.
But Mr. Look was worried earlier this year that he might lose what he considers to be the No. 1 tool in his turnaround arsenal: freedom from the Jefferson County district’s staffing requirements.
Last year, for instance, he was able to persuade six resource teachers who worked at the central office, helping educators districtwide with professional development, to leave those higher-paying positions and come to Shawnee. He also was able to recruit experienced educators from outside the district, including the new math department head, Dion vonAllmen, who had spent the first two decades of his career at a Catholic school across the Ohio River in Indiana.
As a second-year SIG principal, however, Mr. Look faced the prospect of losing that flexibility because of local rules.
But now, Jefferson County is addressing the issue, said William Eckles, the district’s executive director of human resources. The district has worked out an agreement with the local teachers’ union—subject to school board approval—that would allow Mr. Look to retain the recruiting flexibility he wants.
Mr. Holliday, the state schools chief, said he encouraged the district to make the change. “I think you should have that flexibility for at least three years minimum,” he said. Turnaround is “a three- to five-year process.”
Serving ‘Two Masters’
The back and forth between the district and the state on staffing underscores another flaw critics point to in the SIG program nationally: The program is very prescriptive when it comes to what schools must do, but less clear on just what the state and district roles should be. Many of those questions are largely left up to local officials.
Mr. Look feels that the SIG program can sometimes leave turnaround leaders caught between “two masters.” For instance, he has asked himself “Who do I keep happy?” when there is a disagreement between Jefferson County and the state education department over which of two formative-assessment systems the school should use.
The confusion is understandable: Mr. Look is employed by the district, but the state could pull him from his position at any time.
Mr. Look still doesn’t feel as if he’s gotten a clear answer to a key question: Just how much progress does Shawnee have to make for him to keep his job?
Generally, Mr. Holliday said, the state of Kentucky wants to see schools in the SIG program meet the “safe harbor” requirement in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which essentially requires schools that don’t meet state proficiency targets to show growth of at least 10 percent every year.
But scores on state tests won’t be out until fall. So in determining whether SIG principals stay on next school year, the state looked at factors such as student performance on formative assessments, attendance, and disciplinary data, as well as failure rates in core classes, such as Algebra 1 and 9th grade English.
The state also relied on the first-person accounts of principals’ leadership from the educational recovery specialists placed in the schools—Ms. Moman and her team in Shawnee’s case.
Mr. Holliday doesn’t want to remove a principal after just one academic year if the school seems to be on the right track. “We’re looking at a more holistic approach to support schools,” he said.
Education Week is collaborating with education news sites in Chicago, Colorado, New York and Philadelphia on a collection that chronicles school turnaround efforts across the country. Read the collection.
In fact, the commissioner added, the state did not call for the removal of any of its 10 SIG principals following the first year of the grant, although some are leaving for other reasons.
“Still, the state reserves the right to remove a principal if the assessment data are particularly bad, Mr. Holliday said.
But he doesn’t expect that will be necessary in Shawnee’s case. In fact, he has high hopes for the school.
“Keith [Look] is a great leader,” Mr. Holliday said. “If anyone can do it, they’ll do it there.”
Vol. 30, Issue 33, Pages 1, 16-17Published in Print: June 8, 2011, as Passing Year-One Milestone on Improvement