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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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’

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Don’t Just Listen to the Loudest Voices: Resources for Ed. Leaders
These resources can help school and district leaders communicate with their communities.
Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Jenny Portillo-Nacu
5 min read
A pair of hands type on a blank slate of keys that are either falling apart or coming together on a bed of sharpened pencils.  Leadership resources.
Raul Arias for Education Week
School & District Management The Harm of School Closures Can Last a Lifetime, New Research Shows
The short-term effects on students when their schools close have been well documented. New research examines the long-term impact.
5 min read
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020.
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020. A new study examines the long-term effects on students whose schools close.
Jessie Wardarski/AP
School & District Management Video 'Students Never Forget': Principals Call for Help After School Shootings
School leaders are lobbying Congress for more financial support for schools that experience gun violence.
2 min read
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Doug Engle/Star-Banner via AP
School & District Management Opinion In School Leadership, Busy Is a Given. Chaos Is a Choice
There will never be enough time, money, or resources to solve every problem in education, so we must learn to operate within constraints.
Kate Hazarian
3 min read
Two hands attempt to hold chaos.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva