School & District Management Opinion

Turnarounds Take Leadership, Humility

By Marshall Tuck & Colleen Oliver — August 20, 2013 6 min read
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There is a connotation of simplicity that comes with the phrase “school turnaround,” as if it involved a business merely in need of better management and modern marketing. There is also at least a hint of arrogance.

But for anyone who’s attempted to increase results significantly for students at low-performing schools, the reality brings a lot of humility. It is hard work, and results don’t come overnight.

Together, we run the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa assembled six years ago to manage the lowest-performing schools in the city. Today, the partnership oversees 17 schools serving almost 16,000 Latino and African-American students, all of them living in poverty in three of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles: Watts, South Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights.

The partnership represents a political compromise among adults. The mayor originally wanted responsibility for all of Los Angeles’ schools, similar to the authority his counterparts in New York and Chicago have. The California legislature approved the proposal, but the courts didn’t. The mayor then focused on improving the city’s lowest-performing schools, and he worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to create the partnership, a unique entity that brought together the resources of City Hall, the LAUSD, and the local private sector.

Academic Performance

Partnership Schools vs. Others

Last year, the 17 schools run by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools saw higher gains on the California Academic Performance Index than those of the Los Angeles public schools as a whole and public schools across California.


SOURCE: Partnership for Los Angeles Schools

The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools was launched in 2007 with a 10-year, $50 million commitment from local philanthropists Richard and Melanie Lundquist. The organization is an independent nonprofit with a board of directors that today includes two teachers, one parent, and several community leaders. The partnership has a staff of nearly 40 education professionals with deep experience in turnarounds and urban education, and it is one of the largest school turnaround organizations in the nation.

Partnership schools are not charters. We are largely free of the policies of the LAUSD, but we still work within the parameters of employee contracts and the complex California education code, and we coordinate our strategies and programs with those of district Superintendent John E. Deasy and his staff.

This structure was by design. It was our feeling that we must face the same conditions as other urban districts if we were to develop a model that could be used at all low-performing public schools.

Like most who manage schools, we’re judged by things easily measurable: test scores, attendance, dropout rates, graduation rates, and discipline. And on all of those measures, we are showing steady improvement.

Partnership schools are moving up on California’s Academic Performance Index faster than most other schools in the state, and we just posted another strong year of test results that show our students are improving at rates faster than LAUSD and state averages.

Over the past five school years, the percentage of our students scoring proficient on the state-standards tests has nearly doubled in English, mathematics, and science, and more than doubled in social science. This is real progress, but not nearly enough, given how far we have to go.

Consider that despite this growth, only 29 percent of the students in our 17 schools have been deemed proficient in English/language arts; 26 percent in math; 29 percent in science; and 26 percent in history and social science.

Needless to say, we must continue to find ways to accelerate achievement faster. Indeed, we will need to double the district average for improvement every year for at least seven years just to bring our schools up to the same proficiency levels as district schools overall.

What lies ahead is daunting but doable. We have four basic strategies for turning around our schools—strategies we believe are the foundation for any school turnaround:

Leadership. We invest heavily in great school leaders because the toughest schools require excellent principals. We recruit and select principals who can manage complex schools in contentious communities and serve as true instructional leaders. We pay our principals 10 percent to 20 percent more than other Los Angeles principals with comparable experience and credentials, and provide intensive professional development and coaching.

Effective teaching. We build capacity and improve the effectiveness of current teachers through a robust teacher-development program. Our administrators are observer “certified” and in classrooms regularly; we fund more time for teacher training and collaboration; we provide incentives and develop a cadre of teacher leaders who invest time outside the classroom to work with peers and lead instructional-change initiatives; and we leverage an in-depth teaching and learning framework to guide teachers’ self-reflection, development, and growth. We are leading the way toward an evaluation system built around multiple measures.

Targeted student supports. Our students represent a wide range of levels, even within the same classroom, so our schools create programs that allow for extended time in areas where individual students have needs. Additionally, we integrate blended learning programs with face-to-face teaching to personalize instruction.

For anyone who’s attempted to increase results for students significantly at low-performing schools, the reality brings a lot of humility. It is hard work, and results don’t come overnight.”

Family and community engagement. We won’t make it without the support of parents and the community. Our schools call parents, visit homes, and hold events, over and over. We created the Partnership Parent College to help families help their children achieve, and almost 1,500 parents have joined.

Moreover, we do our work side by side with the district so our successes and insights have an impact on the nearly 16,000 students we serve.

Improving low-performing schools is formidable work, yet to be successful, we also must stay connected to the politics of schools, which in Los Angeles, as in many cities, can be a challenge to educational stability.

Mr. Villaraigosa, who started the partnership, left office earlier this summer. We’ve worked to ensure that Los Angeles’ new mayor, Eric Garcetti, understands our work, and he is supportive—but there isn’t certainty about what the future holds.

Our relationship with our partner, the LAUSD, is good, but with school board elections every two years, our support could shift. It is critical for the success of our students that we maintain strong alignment with the mayor, the district school board, and the superintendent.

These past several years, we’ve learned many lessons, including:

• Although the politics of the time demanded scale, we started with more schools and students than could be handled with just a few months of planning time. We either needed a smaller scale or a longer runway.

• We initially committed to do and deliver too much. The needs in our schools are great, and our impulse was to want to meet as many of those needs as possible. That proved impossible. We have since refined our model to focus on the core areas affecting student performance.

• We underestimated the capacity in our schools and just how demoralized many inside them were. Our supports, particularly in our first year, were not always enough or directed to the right areas. We have fine-tuned our work school by school to address this situation.

• It took more time than expected to partner effectively with the school district, although that has changed with the reorganization and realignments brought on by Superintendent Deasy. We now have systems for collaboration in place and better relationships with our district partners.

For all of the challenges, we are renewed daily by the fact that life is getting better steadily for our students. They are achieving at record levels and gradually grasping an education that prepares them for life beyond high school. As hard as this work is, we know it can and must be done.

A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2013 edition of Education Week as Turnarounds Require Work, Humility


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