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A few weeks before a new team of teachers was to report to the former Shawnee High School in Louisville, Ky., Principal Keith Look discovered the master schedule for the 2010-11 school year to be in total disarray.
More than 100 Shawnee students—all of them juniors and seniors—had been enrolled in classes with no connection to the credits they needed to stay on course to graduate on time. Mr. Look and a team of three others spent nearly two weeks rewriting the schedule from scratch, scrutinizing, transcript by transcript, every 11th and 12th grader’s record to make sure the students were placed in the right courses.
But even with corrected schedules, Mr. Look realizes, those students still may not graduate on time, putting them at a risk for dropping out.
It’s a big blow for a school with a graduation rate that, at best, hovers around 60 percent. And it’s a setback that has complicated an already high-pressure summer for the 38-year-old principal.
Education Week is following Shawnee High through its quest to move off the bottom of Kentucky’s list of low-performing schools and remake itself into a school that produces high numbers of graduates who go onto college and careers.
Since late spring, Mr. Look has been overseeing a dramatic shakeup at Shawnee—now known as the Academy @ Shawnee&mdashthat is meant to turn around years of anemic academic achievement at the school and help fulfill U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s $3.5 billion mandate to fix the nation’s most chronically underperforming schools over the next three years. If Mr. Look doesn’t produce improved academic results in the school year that commences Aug. 17, he will lose his job at Shawnee.
“Some days, I’m feeling like I need performance-enhancing drugs to make the kinds of changes that people say will take at least three years to do,” said Mr. Look, a Louisville native who has led Shawnee since August 2008. “Well, I have one year.”
Keith Look, the principal of Shawnee High in Louisville, Ky., discusses his efforts to turn around one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools.
Mr. Look’s superiors in the 98,000-student Jefferson County school district—which includes the city of Louisville—have similar misgivings about what, realistically, can be delivered, especially on such a compressed timeline and using what many educators argue are unproven strategies. Six of the city’s schools, including Shawnee, are undergoing the turnaround interventions.
“We don’t disagree that something has to happen in these schools and that we’ve got a great opportunity with more urgency, funding, and potentially more-focused support,” said Joseph C. Burks Jr., an assistant superintendent who oversees the 21 high schools in the district. He is Mr. Look’s boss.
“But why not give people more than a year to start?” Mr. Burks said. “Very few people, if any, know how to turn a school around dramatically in one year. We are in desperate need of good training on how to do this.”
The most disruptive change—replacing half of Shawnee’s teaching staff—took place last spring, though those teachers who aren’t returning to the school were not fired, and most transferred to other campuses in the district. The turnover in faculty was required by the federal rules of the “turnaround” model that Shawnee is using as its method for school improvement. Mr. Look recruited nearly all of the 25 teachers who will be new to Shawnee this fall. Most of them are experienced instructors. He still has a few openings left to fill, though, including an instructional assistant and someone to run the school’s ROTC program.
With the teaching team mostly assembled, Mr. Look planned a retreat for them late last month to lay out the school’s priorities for the next 10 months and get the teachers fired up for the high-stakes year that awaits them. But first, they have to learn one another’s names. The entire social studies department is new to Shawnee. Five of six English teachers are new.
Roderick Pack, 28, is Shawnee’s new chairman of the social studies department. He taught for three years at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, another campus that will undergo a similar turnaround process. He decided not to reinterview for his job there, opting to work instead with Mr. Look, who recruited him.
“The amount of intensity in how all of us at Shawnee care about the students and what’s at stake is really amazing and has me very optimistic about the school’s prospects,” Mr. Pack said. “At the same time, we can’t just get caught up in the monitoring that will be going on and worrying constantly about what the test scores are. That won’t work. We’ve got to really teach these students and have expectations for them beyond a score on a state test.”
Early last month, Mr. Look began reviewing the school’s achievement data with the three people assigned to Shawnee by the state to provide instructional coaching support and capacity to him and his faculty: a principal to mentor Mr. Look, a reading specialist, and a mathematics specialist. There was a slight hiccup in that process when the first mentor tapped to help him was moved to a different position. The state assigned a new mentor late last month.
Mr. Look has had the more workaday tasks of running a school to deal with, too. Assigning office and desk space for the new people. Overseeing construction work at the campus. And finding a new sign for the school now that it has changed its name from Shawnee High School to the Academy @ Shawnee. That detail is key to Shawnee’s new identity because the school is supposed to transition to a K-12 campus over the next several years, a decision that predates the school’s turnaround process.
Mr. Look had expected that he would already have hired a school administrative manager, known around the district as a SAM, to handle such matters, but the candidates he has seen so far only have worked in elementary schools. He’d prefer someone with high school experience.
Debbie Powers, the executive director of the Kentucky Principals Academy at the University of Louisville, has a front-row view of the challenges ahead for Mr. Look and Shawnee. As part of a partnership between the university’s school of education and Shawnee, she has been working closely with Mr. Look since shortly after he arrived at the high school.
The magnitude of the school’s problems are daunting, she said. Some of Louisville’s poorest children are enrolled; close to 90 percent of the roughly 475 students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Students’ scores on the state’s reading and math exams in 2009 (2010 test results don’t come out until September) were among the lowest in Kentucky.
Ms. Powers and Mr. Look have mapped out “action strategies” that Shawnee’s team will follow, quarter by quarter, to address the academic deficiencies and who, exactly, is responsible for executing those steps.
“Everything that we are going to do must be aimed at improving literacy and numeracy for our students,” Ms. Powers said. “At the same time that we have a laser-like focus on improving those skills, we have to support all of our teachers who are working in this very demanding context.”
Setting the Pace
If Mr. Look and his colleagues in Kentucky are feeling pressed for time and not entirely prepared to plan for and carry out major changes in their schools, they are, in many ways, well ahead of their peers in other states.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Education approved Kentucky’s application for $50 million in Title I School Improvement Grants in April, while many states had to wait until June or July to get the green light from Washington. In fact, eight states were still waiting for final approval as of late July, even though the low-performing schools slated for turnaround in those jurisdictions must be ready to enact the required parts of their school improvement plans on the opening day of the new academic year.
Once Kentucky education officials identified in February the first 10 schools that would be targeted for turnaround, they conducted leadership audits in each one to size up and describe the problems that would need the most attention and focus. Some required a change in principal, though the auditors found Mr. Look to be the right leader to oversee Shawnee’s turnaround.
The state education department then began making plans to hire specialists to work inside the targeted schools and to design a training course for the principals, like Mr. Look, who would be charged with overseeing the aggressive interventions. For that training, state officials turned to the Kentucky Association of School Administrators and the Kentucky Cohesive Leadership System, a special division within the state’s education department, said Lisa Y. Gross, a spokeswoman for department.
Mr. Look, who finished the two-week training course late last month, said it offered little in the way of concrete advice or specific steps he can apply at Shawnee.
“My main conclusion is that folks still don’t know what to tell us to do,” he said, “and part of the problem is that there’s not much of a pool of people to draw from who do know what to do.”
Mr. Burks, the assistant superintendent in Jefferson County, had a similar take on the training, in which he also participated.
“Maybe the state did the best they could given the short amount of time they had,” Mr. Burks said. “But it really was just a shopping mall of resources that we could select off a buffet about achievement-gap strategies, how to connect with parents, and how to create plans for the first 30, 60, and 90 days.”
But Ms. Gross said that other participants found the training to be valuable.
Debbie Daniels, who is the director of the Kentucky Cohesive Leadership System, helped design the curriculum for the training and recruit the speakers, which included school leadership expert Joseph F. Murphy, an education professor at Vanderbilt University, and other specialists who came to share strategies on literacy, mathematics, and working in high-poverty schools.
“I think we gave them solid information and a toolbox of resources to help them begin the challenge of turning around a school,” Ms. Daniels wrote in an e-mail. “There is no silver bullet or step-by-step program that will serve the needs of all of these schools. Each is unique and must take from all of the information and training and apply what will work in their schools.”
As the days march by, Mr. Look is mostly worried about the time he spent away from Shawnee during the training course. As important as preparing for the new year, he said, has been keeping in touch with community leaders in the West Louisville neighborhood that surrounds the school. He has worked hard to convince the community that the dramatic changes in store for Shawnee—the turnaround process and the conversion to a K-12 campus—offer real hope for improving achievement, and sustaining it, at the long-troubled school.
“He has really sold himself and his leadership for the school,” said Rudy Davidson, a 1959 Shawnee graduate and the vice president of the Shawnee Neighborhood Association, which he helped found in 2007.
“Making sure that Shawnee stays open and succeeds academically is of utmost importance to the survival of our community,” Mr. Davidson said. “And we know that the school has got to change to do that.”
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 August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as Turnaround Team Racing Summer’s Clock