Special Report
School & District Management

Inside a School District’s ‘Transformation Zone’

By Daarel Burnette II — September 27, 2016 9 min read
Third graders in Brook Tilley’s class at Glenwood Leadership Academy pair up with partners. The school is part of the Evansville Vandenburgh district’s transformation zone.

Just a few years ago, Indiana’s department of education was breathing down the neck of administrators in the Evansville Vanderburgh district for repeatedly landing at the bottom of the state’s accountability system. So, rather than follow many school turnaround approaches across the country that focus heavily on principals and teachers, Superintendent David Smith in 2012 reorganized his tidy central-office staff that oversaw this 241-square-mile district of 23,000 students tucked into the southwest corner of Indiana.

“We spend too much effort on improving individual schools, whereas districts are the ones in need of help,” said Smith, who was born and raised in Evansville and took over the district after 29 years there as a teacher and district administrator. “We cannot improve schools in isolation.”

Working with Mass Insight Education, a consulting firm based in Boston paid with $600,000 from the federal School Improvement Grant program, Smith placed his five most-struggling schools under a staff of three central-office employees, those he thought most qualified to write curriculum, set budgets, and design new hiring practices.

Overseeing the team was Carrie Hillyard, a longtime Evansville administrator with a knack for rapid change. She had recently read a widely distributed paper issued in 2007 by Mass Insight called “The Turnaround Challenge” that detailed what, in its view, was wrong with the typical school turnaround model, especially in the No Child Left Behind Act era: It had become oversimplistic, too prescriptive, and unsustainable.

Taking Charge

With the Indiana school board’s go-ahead, Hillyard began instituting sweeping changes to the district’s infrastructure.

Members of the newly hired Evansville Transformation Zone moved their offices from the administration building, located miles away from the cluster of five schools with the most needs, and set up shop in them, down the hall from the principals. As each principal laid out a plan, the staff helped execute it, rewriting the school’s curriculum, coming up with a set of new discipline strategies, and helping to pay for tailored intervention strategies.

“It was time for us to roll up our sleeves and get dirty just like everyone else,” Hillyard said.

Four years later, the district has risen from a D on the state’s accountability system to a C, and the schools’ scores in the transformation zone have modestly risen. The transformation schools’ suspension and expulsion rate has dramatically declined and at least two of the schools have gotten off the list of schools in the bottom 5 percent.

In 2015, the state legislature decided to write the transformation zone into law, allowing other Indiana districts to take a similar approach with the state board of education’s permission.

The state school board, which temporarily delayed taking over several of the schools in Evansville, expanded the experiment known as the “transformation zone” to Indianapolis last year.

Superintendent David B. Smith, head of the Evansville Vanderburgh district in Indiana, stands with Carrie Hillyard, left, the district’s chief transformation officer, and Kelsey Wright, director of school transformation.

That program has struggled to get off the ground in Indianapolis, according to local reports. Administrators in that city didn’t respond to requests for an interview but recently asked the state board to give the district time.

Across the country, state education departments have taken a greater role in recent years in dictating school turnarounds.

Under the Obama administration, the federal SIG program required prescriptive and sweeping strategies that involved firing schools’ staff members, handing over the school to a charter operator, or shutting the school down. That program was ended last school year.

Multiple States

There are now at least five states that operate their own districts, with the most prominent one being Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Louisiana is in the process of returning several schools to the oversight of New Orleans officials after running them for several years.

Since 2012, Indiana has taken over five schools and either handed them over to charter operators or directly run them itself.

Left out of this process, Smith and Mass Insight say, are district administrators.

“When we look nationally, a big question about school turnaround is: Is it sustainable?” said Susan Lusi, the president of Mass Insight. “We need to put in place the capacity to do the work and make sure the system has the resources to do the work.”

Ashley Jochim, a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education who will soon release a paper on the pros and cons of state-led turnaround efforts, said there are benefits to having states being involved in school improvement efforts.

While local administrators may understand local context, state departments can help them navigate local politics, provide resources, and properly vet charter-management operators and turnaround consultants.

“As much as local control is a cherished tradition, states ... can serve as a backstop for incompetence,” said Jochim, of the academic think tank.

An inspirational message on a classroom door at Glenwood Leadership Academy.

Evansville administrators dodged the state takeover by designing the transformation zone.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, provides districts with more voice in coming up with their own turnaround strategies. The U.S. Department of Education says state departments can accept district-designed turnaround strategies as long as they are “research-based.”

That gives hope to Smith, who’s warily watched as both the federal government and state departments have lost patience in recent years with district superintendents in charge of schools with disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students and abysmal academic outcomes.

“The rhetoric and the practicality of school turnaround don’t often meet,” Smith said. “When there’s the threat of school takeover, there’s no incentive whatsoever of keeping or obtaining the great talent that’s needed in our neediest schools. ESSA provides districts the latitude for a more diverse collection of schools to tell their story in a more accurate way.”

Complexity of Problems

Smith said superintendents are often dealing with a complex series of problems that include a mobile student body, a young and unstable teaching force, and limited financial resources.

It often takes state departments and charter operators several years to figure out the cause and the solution to turning around underperforming schools.

Indeed, in Indiana, only one of the five schools taken over by the state has gotten off its failing list since 2012 when the state issued its first list of failing schools.

Smith says central-office administrators know their schools and their students best and are best suited to execute turnarounds.

Glenwood Leadership Academy Principal Tamara Skinner helps 2nd grader Ameir Rembert with classwork.

“I find it difficult to believe that local officials aren’t more passionate for the students that they serve,” said Smith, who in 2012 decided, along with his board, not to fire any staff members at the low-performing schools but, rather, to retrain them and provide them with better support. “They’re our kids, and after the experts leave, they’re still going to be our kids. We owe it to them to provide the very best opportunities.”

Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., as the district is known, has about 39 virtual, magnet, and neighborhood schools in urban, rural, and suburban settings. (Evansville is a city in Vanderburgh County.) That means a wide variation in student outcomes, culture, and day-to-day problems between schools. Despite those facts, the district’s central-office staff had for decades been organized to oversee schools regionally, with each school getting an equal amount of support from central-office staff.

That left principals who oversee failing schools with little to no office support, Evansville administrators say. “The central office’s intent is to be fair and to treat everyone the same,” said Camera Skinner, the principal of Glenwood Leadership Academy, one of the schools in Evansville’s transformation zone. “But sometimes we all can’t be treated the same. Some of us need more help than others.”

Evansville’s transformation zone involves district administrators and school principals identifying problems and coming up with solutions tailored to those problems. About 90 percent of the administrators had worked in the district before being hired to work in the transformation zone.

In 2013, the district asked teachers to recommit to the school. More than half left, a sobering and disruptive process, said Hillyard.

But it provided an opportunity to press the reset button on many of the school’s practices, administrators said.

Unlike in turnaround programs that give principals full autonomy and flexibility to turn schools around, principals in Evansville’s transformation zone are surrounded by central-office support.

“We’re now so much closer to where the decisions need to be made,” said Hillyard. “We are now the critical thought partner with them that they didn’t have in the past. It’s made us, as district officials, more effective and efficient.”

Before, while teachers going through the hiring process were only interviewed, they’re now asked to perform in the classroom as well, and principals give them sample problems they could run into throughout the day.

“Some people can talk about teaching, and some people can teach,” Hillyard said.

At Glenwood, where more than 25 students a day were once being sent to the office for disciplinary problems, the transformation team re-evaluated the schools’ discipline rules, came up with a new list of school rules, and clearly displayed it in the hallways so students had a clear and consistent message on what is and isn’t tolerable. They categorized discipline violations as high or low level so that the schools’ principals and vice principals had a better sense of what they needed to respond to. An average of two students a day are sent to the office these days, Skinner said.

One of the biggest assets to the transformation zone, Skinner, the Glenwood principal, said, is the budgeting process. Central-office administrators are experts at figuring out how to best utilize Title I funds. Administrators figured out a way to pay for resources Skinner said her school couldn’t previously afford.

“Full autonomy with zero support can be chaos,” Skinner, the Glenwood principal, said. “This allows me to be an instructional leader and be the lever to change culture and academics.”

Renewed Attention

The program isn’t perfect, administrators concede. They’re constantly rebooting and redesigning their methods based on new data, said Hillyard.

For example, the district last year instituted a new compensation program that rewards teachers in the transformation zone incrementally for returning the next school year. This fall, more than 95 percent of the teachers returned, up from just half two years ago.

Evansville’s transformation zone, meanwhile, has gotten renewed attention in recent months from turnaround experts because of both its incremental success and innovative approach. The challenge now may be one of continuity.

“When a school seems to have made dramatic improvement, and then the intervention supports go away, the school falls back to where it was,” said Lusi. “Districts have to have the capacity to keep continuing the work going forward, even after we leave. “

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2016 edition of Education Week as Inside a District’s ‘Transformation Zone’

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