School & District Management

In Struggling Schools, ‘Turnaround’ Leaders Off to Promising Start

By Jeff Archer — December 06, 2005 6 min read

Leading a school on a state watch list for low performance isn’t at the top of most principals’ wish lists. But when Wayne Scott found out that the school he’d just been named to lead was in that category, he was elated.

“I want to be part of the group that made the change and can say: ‘We did that. We actually did that,’ ” said the principal at George Mason Elementary School here. “I like to know there’s nowhere to go but up.”

Wayne Scott, the principal of George Mason Elementary School in Richmond, Va., looks over the shoulder of 5th grade students as they take a pop quiz.

Mr. Scott is part of an experiment in Virginia to groom “school turnaround specialists” who can thrive in the most challenging circumstances. Launched 18 months ago by Gov. Mark Warner, the initiative is showing impressive early results.

Seven of the first 10 schools in the program met their improvement targets for the federal No Child Left Behind Act last year. None had made adequate yearly progress in the two years prior to the program, and even the three schools that didn’t make their achievement goals posted significant gains on some state assessments.

Principals in the program receive special training, additional compensation, and are eligible for a state credential as a “turnaround specialist.” A second cohort of 10 principals was added this school year.

At George Mason, which made its academic targets, the proportion of students scoring at the proficient level on state reading tests shot up last year from 58 percent to 93 percent. In mathematics, it rose from 69 percent to 96 percent.

“I’m going to feel much better when I see a trend line across three years, but I feel damn good at this point,” said Daniel Duke, an education professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, where the colleges of business and education jointly run the training for the turnaround specialist program.

Plenty of Backup

When the program was unveiled, some skeptics questioned its focus on individual leaders and quick results. Principals in the program say what made their success possible was the added support they received from their central offices, the state, community volunteers, and members of their school staffs. (“Va. Principal Cadre Aims To Fix Schools,” April 28, 2004.)

“It’s not a one-man or a one-woman show,” said Catherine Thomas, the principal at Berkeley Elementary School in Spotsylvania, Va., and a participant in the program, which now operates in 13 Virginia districts, up from seven last year.

“It’s about developing the leadership capacity in the building,” she said, “so that you start to back away from it, and turn the school back over to itself.”

The program is the brainchild of Gov. Warner, a Democrat who is finishing his four-year term next month and is considered likely to run for president in 2008. A telecommunications-company executive before entering politics, he borrowed the idea from business, where turnaround specialists often are hired to restructure failing companies.

To create a similar specialty for school leaders, the state contracted with the University of Virginia to craft a summer training regimen that covers such skills as team building, strategic planning, and data analysis. Participants study leadership models from business, education, and other sectors.

The state helps pay for the turnaround program with part of a grant from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites coverage of leadership in Education Week.

Chance for Bonuses

Deborah Jewell-Sherman, the superintendent of the 25,000-student Richmond system—which had three principals in the program’s first year—said the university’s coursework helped speed up the process of change.

“Usually, when you are a principal, it takes two or three years before you’re hitting your stride,” she said. “In these schools, you can’t wait.”

Participants agree to lead a low-performing school for three years. The state gives them $5,000 bonuses at the end of the summer training, on top of their regular district pay. If their schools meet certain improvement objectives, they get an additional $8,000 after one year, and up to $15,000 after that.

Organizers say they recruited principals who already had proved themselves as administrators in high-poverty schools. Seven of the 10 leaders in the first cohort, in fact, were already running their current schools before joining the initiative—although on average for less than two years.

“We were really looking for people who were strong decisionmakers, who were willing to take risks, and were very action-oriented,” said Tierney T. Fairchild, the executive director of the Partnership for Leaders in Education, the university program that provides the training.

A prime example is Rosalind Taylor. A veteran Richmond educator, she had been the principal at Woodville Elementary here for one year when she applied for the new turnaround-specialist program at the end of the 2003-04 school year.

Rosalind Taylor, top right, the principal of Woodville Elementary School in Richmond, Va., watches with 5th grade teachers as Assistant Principal Derek Mason explains a new assessment-scoring program. Ms. Taylor, one of the state's "turnaround specialists," is using such common planning time as a strategy to boost achievement at her school.

With 480 students, almost all of whom live in poverty, Woodville sits in the state capital’s highest-crime area. Ms. Taylor recently saw one of her students on a local news show describing a dead body that he’d found in the neighborhood.

Inside, Woodville Elementary is a haven of quiet and order, where pupils know to stay on the third row of floor tiles from the wall when walking down the hall. Youngsters who exhibit good behavior earn “Woody Bucks,” which they can cash in for rewards such as movie tickets.

Last year, Woodville saw the percentages of its students scoring as proficient on state tests in reading and math go from the 70s to the 90s. A major accomplishment was helping special education students to make enough improvement to meet their goals as a subgroup under the No Child Left Behind law.

Key strategies included a common planning time for teachers, frequent use of assessments to determine which students needed what type of remedial help, and the inclusion of special education students in regular, instead of self-contained, classrooms.

Ms. Taylor doesn’t shirk from hard calls. She’s moved teachers from one grade to another based on their strengths and weaknesses. When she encounters resistance, she holds what she terms “a come-to-Jesus meeting.” She once dissolved a classroom at midyear when a teacher wasn’t performing.

“If you see something that’s not working, you can’t sit around and let it fester,” she said. “I’m all about teams, but the tough decisions rest on you.”

Expansions Eyed

Participants have had outside help, too. Each school led by a principal in the program received an extra $50 per student from the state for discretionary spending.

District leaders, who were included in part of the program’s summer training, also had to sign memorandums of understanding with the principals, promising to provide enough personnel, technical help, and other resources to carry out the building leaders’ improvement plans.

Kasaundra Long, a student from Virginia Commonwealth University, tutors a kindergartner at the school.

Catherine Thomas, the principal in rural Spotsylvania, said having her superiors’ support when making difficult staffing decisions was critical. “I think we all have authority to do those things,” she said. “But they’re really boat-rocking kinds of things, so it helps when central office backs you.”

Lew Smith, an expert on school leadership at Fordham University in New York City, said the Virginia program is right to focus not just on the individual principals, but also on the environments in which they work.

“My contention, based on a whole lot of study, is that three things are necessary: context, capacity, and conversations,” he said.

Still unknown is whether the schools can continue to improve. Participants are to get additional training throughout their three years in the program. A major focus will be on succession planning and the creation of permanent management structures that last beyond one leader.

In the meantime, the University of Virginia’s education-leaders partnership plans to spread what it’s learned so far. With a $3 million gift from the Microsoft Corporation’s Partners in Learning initiative, it has just published a compendium of case studies of the first year of the program’s inaugural cohort. Researchers are following a control group of schools to make comparisons.

Ms. Fairchild, the executive director of the university partnership, said her group is in discussions with other states and districts to expand the turnaround initiative outside Virginia. The hope, she said, is to get similar programs up and running for school systems in at least two other states by the 2006-07 school year.

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