School & District Management

Kentucky High School Launches Turnaround Journey

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 15, 2010 10 min read
Ann Thiemann rolls up a world map in her classroom on the last day of school as she prepares to transfer from Shawnee High School in Louisville, Ky. The underperforming school is being shaken up under an aggressive school improvement plan.
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Keith Look really wants to hire the math teacher fidgeting nervously across the conference table.

“My math scores are going to kill me next year,” the Shawnee High School principal tells her. “I need a team of All-Stars. I really need you here.”

He is not exaggerating.

Mr. Look, 37, must steer his 82-year-old high school on the far west side of this river city through an aggressive, federally mandated effort to reverse a decades-long decline in student achievement that has given Shawnee the label of one of Kentucky’s worst schools.

He is one soldier in an army of principals being tapped by state and district leaders to carry out U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s $3.5 billion bid to turn around thousands of chronically underperforming schools over the next three years.

About This Series

Over the next year, Education Week will chronicle Principal Keith Look and his team at Shawnee High School 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 across the nation.

A lot is riding on Mr. Look’s efforts.

Already, half of Shawnee’s teachers won’t be back next year. They’ve been transferred to other schools in the 98,000-student Jefferson County school system, which includes the city of Louisville. Mr. Look’s own job is on the line: If he doesn’t produce “considerable progress” in the first year, he could be removed.

And then, of course, there’s the imperative to increase academic proficiency, raise graduation rates, and produce Shawnee graduates who are credible candidates for college and careers.

That won’t be easy. Consider Shawnee’s 2009 math scores: More than half the school’s students scored at the lowest level, called “novice” in Kentucky. The graduation rate for the class of 2007 was 56 percent, according to district data. The class of 2008 made a modestly better showing, at 61 percent. The school serves some of the city’s poorest students—white and black—who come from a community isolated in many ways from the rest of Louisville.

All of which makes Mr. Look’s job of selecting every teacher who will work at Shawnee this coming fall an even higher-stakes process.

Special Education teacher Kamlin Black, also transferring, sits in her empty room on the last day of school. Shawnee High and five other schools in the district are considered to be failing, and major steps are being taken to improve them.

The principal had been eyeing the math specialist—who floats among several district schools to coach other math teachers—all spring. So, he asks her in their recent meeting, will you come?

The teacher hedges slightly, saying that she admires Mr. Look’s plans to overhaul Shawnee. But the answer is no. Only a year into her current job as a resource teacher, she wants to stay put.

Her rejection is a small setback to Mr. Look’s strategy for fixing Shawnee, a school where 88.5 percent of the 477 students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price school meals. Every other teacher he has recruited for the turnaround mission—19 so far, most of them high-performing veterans from other schools in Louisville—has said yes.

“I am very excited about my staff,” said Mr. Look, a Louisville native who was a Teach For America instructor in Baltimore in the early 1990s before moving on to teaching and administrative jobs in Philadelphia. “Ultimately, that’s where the difference is made. If you put good people in the classrooms, the rest is easier.”

Debate Unsettled

As the Obama administration invests $3.5 billion over the next three years—most of it coming from the 2009 economic-stimulus package—in turning around large numbers of the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools, Education Week will follow Shawnee High School’s journey.

Mr. Look and his team at Shawnee must meet the challenges of changing a school’s culture and raising student achievement on a very rapid timeline, even as a larger debate about school turnarounds is far from settled.

Most controversial are the four turnaround models that Secretary Duncan and the federal Department of Education are requiring as a condition for schools to receive even a penny of the stimulus-funded Title I School Improvement Grants.

The first option, called simply “turnaround” by the Education Department, requires that at least 50 percent of a school’s existing staff be replaced. The second option, turning a school over to either a charter school operator or some other nondistrict manager, is known as “restart.” Option three is closing the school and transferring students, while the fourth method, dubbed ,”transformation,” focuses on providing professional development and coaching to teachers and making changes to curriculum and teacher evaluation.

All but the closure option require principals to be replaced, except for those leaders who, like Mr. Look, have been in their assignments less than two years. In those cases, states and districts have discretion over whether the principal should be replaced.

Charles Woods III dances on stage after receiving his diploma at graduation ceremonies.

The four methods have been criticized by some state and local superintendents, as well as members of Congress, as too rigid and unworkable, especially in rural districts, where recruiting and retaining top-notch teaching and administrative talent can be difficult. While the Obama administration hopes to codify those models in a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it’s far from certain that members of Congress—even those who are close administration allies—will go along.

In the meantime, schools like Shawnee High that are in the first batch slated for intervention must proceed.

Lengthy Process

For Shawnee, the turnaround process started in February, when the high school was identified as one of 10 in Kentucky most in need of aggressive intervention. That put Shawnee and the nine other schools at the head of the line for a piece of the $50 million in Title I School Improvement Grants that began flowing to Kentucky this spring. A new state law also forced action on the low-performing schools.

The school was marked for a big shake-up, as Sheldon Berman, the superintendent of the Jefferson County schools, decided that Shawnee would use the, “turnaround” model, better known in Kentucky as “restaffing.” That effort comes on top of restructuring already under way to convert the high school into a K-12 campus, re-energize an aviation and aerospace magnet program, and add an engineering magnet.

Mr. Look, who was assigned to Shawnee in 2008 after a successful run at a Louisville middle school, knew his job was at risk, even though Mr. Berman publicly insisted that he remain to lead the school’s turnaround.

But that decision was up to a team of state auditors, who, after spending several days in the school observing instruction and interviewing every teacher and administrator, agreed that Mr. Look should stay. He was the only Jefferson County principal to get such an unequivocal endorsement.

The state audit team found plenty of problems at Shawnee. Chief among them were a culture of “low academic expectations” and a “general lack of rigor in the instructional program”—classic hallmarks of low-performing schools. The team also found fault with the lack of “formal” processes for analyzing student data.

At the same time, the auditors concluded that Mr. Look “is a holistic, systemic thinker” who is ”widely respected and trusted by a wide variety of stakeholders,” and they credited him with having already made a positive mark on the school’s culture. Attendance is up. The building is clean, teachers report getting the resources they need for instruction, and discipline problems have diminished.

The auditors said Mr. Look would need help, however, in managing the details of Shawnee’s day-to-day operations so that he could focus on the bigger revitalization efforts. To that end, they recommended that Mr. Look hire a “school administrative manager” to handle the more mundane aspects of running Shawnee.

He hopes to find his own manager, but may have to pick from a limited pool of candidates that the central office provides.

Building a Team

With the audit finished in early May and his job secure for at least one more year, Mr. Look moved immediately to rebuild the Shawnee staff. Every teacher, counselor, or other employee whose job directly affected classroom instruction had to re-interview with him and with an official from the Jefferson County teachers’ union for his or her job. Of the school’s 42 academic staff members, 29 elected to re-interview, while 13 opted to retire or transfer to another campus.

Keith Look, Shawnee's principal, seen under portraits of former principals at the school, has the task of building a new team to turn the school around academically. The stakes are high both for him and the school.

The situation created some unease and hard feelings.

“Sometimes it does feel like we are expected to work miracles,” said Crystal Darensbourg, a 12th grade English teacher who was rehired by Mr. Look. She is losing all but one of her English-teacher colleagues.

Still, Ms. Darensbourg said, “I think there were teachers here whose niche is just not working with some of our kids.”

Imogen Herrick, a 10th grade science teacher who left a private girls’ school in Louisville a year ago to teach at Shawnee, was more direct.

“I think some of them had just been here too long and didn’t believe that these kids could ever learn,” said Ms. Herrick, who was also rehired.

None of the “overstaffed” teachers from Shawnee is losing a job. All of them have already been, or will be, placed in other Jefferson County schools, and it’s possible that principals at the other five schools targeted for turnaround could elect to hire them.

Mr. Look has mostly had a free hand to hire the teachers he wants, though he did agree, at the central office’s request, to hire one teacher he had not recruited. He’s also been able to cultivate a key ally in Debbie Powers, the executive director of the Kentucky Principals Academy at the University of Louisville, who helped prepare him for the audit and has worked with him almost daily on planning, budgeting, and strategizing for the turnaround.

But Mr. Look will have no control over the people state education officials will be sending to work with him and his teachers on a daily basis. And his bosses in the school district’s central office will also be sending reinforcements.

“How do you manage a bunch of people who’ve been told to come into a school building and make change?” Mr. Look said. “It’s June, and I don’t know yet who these people are going to be. I have no idea if we are even going to have the same philosophies.”

As part of the state’s role in overseeing and supporting the targeted schools, the Kentucky education department will assign a math specialist, a reading and language arts specialist, and a mentor for every principal in each of the 10 schools, said Sally Sugg, an associate state commissioner of education.

In addition, the state agency is creating three centers in partnership with universities—to serve schools in the east, west, and central sections of Kentucky—to provide an additional layer of support for the low-performing schools.

“These are the best of the best in our state who will be in these buildings, every day, working alongside the principals and teachers,” Ms. Sugg said. ”This is different than anything we’ve done before around school improvement. We have had to find tougher-skinned people to go into these buildings to help build capacity.”

French teacher Tracy Evans hugs school valedictorian Scott Brickey, while fellow senior Chad Rhyne walks past. Ms. Evans is among a number of teachers at the school transferring to other Jefferson County, Ky., public schools.

And with the state able to withdraw the roughly $440,000 grant that Shawnee and the other schools will receive annually for the next three years, schools will have much more at stake if they don’t proceed with their turnaround plans and meet the benchmarks that they set, Ms. Sugg said.

Defining Success

But exactly how much progress Shawnee must make, and how fast it must demonstrate those gains, is still not clearly defined, something Mr. Look worries about.

Ms. Sugg said Shawnee and the other schools will have to submit quarterly updates that will report, at the very least, student outcomes on interim assessments. To some extent, the schools themselves will define their progress when they propose goals in the improvement plans they must submit to the state education department, Ms. Sugg said.

But she conceded that there’s not a “very clear-cut measure of what success is.”

“We are defining it as ‘considerable progress’ toward the goals that the schools outline in their applications,” she said.

Despite all the loose ends with only three months until Shawnee High reopens its doors to students in an era of “turnaround,” Mr. Look is hopeful about the school’s prospects.

“I’m actually nervous about having to be a principal for a staff that’s this competent and this committed,” Mr. Look said. “And I’m flattered as hell that some of them would risk their careers in some ways to come work here.”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Tough Task of School Improvement Begins


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