Tackling Turnaround Takes ‘Art’ and ‘Science’

By Dakarai I. Aarons — October 25, 2010 2 min read
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What does it look like to turn around a high school in a neglected and isolated part of town? How does a staff of teachers and administrators show students they are cared for and haven’t been forgotten, while pushing them hard in a bid to improve lagging test scores?

I set out inmy story posted this morning to capture a slice of this tricky balance at work at The Academy @ Shawnee, a high-school in Louisville, Ky., that carries a distinction it soon hopes to shed: Shawnee is one of Kentucky’s 10 worst-performing schools.

I experienced a strong cognitive dissonance as I spent time in Shawnee over four days this month and last. The hallways were quiet except for when students were transferring between classes, students seemed mostly engaged in each classroom I walked in, and teachers were consistently overheard in deep discussions of practice and learning strategies.

A school that looks so well-knit is in odds with the abysmal test scores the school posted last year and the year before, but represents the complexity of turning around a low-performing school. There are far more moving pieces at odds than raising the test scores that make their way into blaring newspaper and television headlines.

Diane Baker, Shawnee’s special-education coordinator, said in some ways, the turnaround was “the best thing that could have happened to us.”

“We would have never been able to make the progress we have without being able to move teachers,” she told me. “There’s an art and a science to teaching. Some people have that science, but not that art.” Ms Baker said at Shawnee, it takes more than just a knowledge of instruction and curriculum, it takes heart.

When Keith Look took over the school, he focused first on consolidating the nearly 500 high schoolers in a single place.

Shawnee, a sprawling complex of 360,000 square feet, (yes, you read that number right), is likely the largest school building in Kentucky. The high school is just one part of what exists at 41st and Market streets. The building also hosts a preschool, a city social-service office, a branch of the local community college and one of the Jefferson County school district’s schools for students new to the United States.

The school is also the district’s aerospace and energy technology magnet, and home to aviation and aviation mechanic programs. Shawnee’s students can attend one of the few Federal Aviation Administration ground schools in a public high school and earn their flying licenses.

Having each program in its own place, and operating at its own pace helps make sure kids are always on track.

“If a kid is out of place, it’s obvious,” he said.

And once students are in class, teachers are aiming to be creative in getting kids up to speed academically.

“We try to make everything we do meaningful,” science teacher Imogen Herrick told me. That includes using the analogy of organizing a grocery store to help her students understand how the Periodic Table of Elements is organized, and using Chemopoly, her own version of the Monopoly board game, to reward students as they progress through the lessons.

Making the abstract come to life for students, she said, pays big dividends—and is a reason why the long days and nights seem worthwhile.

“For me, it’s a sheer love for these kids. The growth you see in them when you focus your efforts is phenomenal.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.