Turnaround High School Ratchets Up Improvement

By Alyson Klein — February 23, 2011 10 min read
Keith Look, the principal of the Academy @ Shawnee, in Louisville, talks with members of the school’s Navy Junior ROTC before the corps’ annual inspection. He is seeking ways to sustain the school’s gains.
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The test scores aren’t in yet, but by almost every other measure that matters—school climate, instructional strategies, staff satisfaction—the former Shawnee High School isn’t the same place it was just a year ago.

More than half the teachers are new to the persistently low-performing school. Those who remain say they no longer feel that their own classes are the only ones that push students. The school has stepped up its focus on using data to pinpoint students’ weak points and to adjust instruction. It even has a new name: the Academy @ Shawnee.

The three turnaround specialists sent in by the Kentucky Department of Education to oversee Shawnee’s transformation—part of a nationwide, federally financed school turnaround effort—are confident the school will meet the goal set by the state: raise test scores by 10 percentage points this school year.

Last year, just 4 percent of its students were proficient in math, and only 22 percent were proficient in reading. Those statistics leave Shawnee with almost nowhere to go but up.

Formative assessments, whose student-performance results are collected regularly and scrutinized daily by Shawnee’s teachers and the state education department team, appear to show that the school is on track to meet, and maybe exceed, the state’s expectations, becoming an early success story for the $3.5 billion federal School Improvement Grant, or SIG, program.

State Specialists' Team Offers Aid in Turnaround

By Alyson Klein
Louisville, Ky.

In Kentucky, becoming part of the School Improvement Grant Program meant more than just getting federal money for a rigorous turnaround plan: It meant that Principal Keith Look and his staff had to get used to the idea of having three officials from the state education department stationed right in their school, working with them daily.

Mr. Look was initially dubious about the arrangement. Having worked as an administrator in struggling schools in other states, he’s seen firsthand the friction that can develop between school staff members and specialists sent in by a state education agency.

Some of his teachers were also anxious at first...

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But the school’s principal, Keith Look, whose job is on the line if Shawnee fails to meet its goals, has his sights set farther ahead, and not just to the next school year. He’s wondering: Is this momentum sustainable for five or 10 years? Can Shawnee ever become the kind of school to which any parent would be happy to send a child? What will it take to get it to that point—and to stay there?

“I have assembled an all-star team,” Mr. Look said recently of his hand-picked staff of experienced educators, including six teachers who formerly held district leadership positions and took pay cuts to come to Shawnee. “If we only make modest gains, what is that going to say about what is realistic” for other low-performing schools, he wonders.

Mr. Look said he has examined similar schools around the country and has yet to find one that has continued to make significant strides for years without becoming a charter or magnet school. “The data says that we’re going to plateau eventually,” he said.

Keeping Momentum

Mr. Look is already worried about losing momentum after this school year and, particularly, farther down the road. The three state education department officials—one former assistant superintendent who serves as a mentor to Mr. Look, plus specialists in math and reading—were supposed to stay for the three years of the federal grant. But now they are slated to leave at the end of this school year unless the state can rustle up the money to keep them in place.

Shawnee, like roughly 20 percent of schools in the SIG program, is using as its improvement plan the “turnaround model,” one of four options spelled out in U.S. Department of Education regulations. Under that model, schools are required to get rid of half their staff members and adopt new instructional approaches, among other strategies.

Most of all, though, Mr. Look is worried about Shawnee’s future once the three-year turnaround grant is over.

About This Series

Throughout the school year, Education Week is chronicling Principal Keith Look and his team at the Academy @ Shawnee 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. For previous installments in this series and multimedia features, read the rest of the series “Tackling Turnaround at Shawnee High School.”

The board of education for the Jefferson County school district, which includes the city of Louisville, is poised to delay, indefinitely, a plan to turn the high school into a K-12 school. The proposal, which predates the school’s participation in the SIG program, would have given Mr. Look and his staff a chance to reach students—and their parents—early on.

By the time the students got to 9th grade, they wouldn’t have had such disparate middle school experiences, and they wouldn’t be so far behind academically, Mr. Look believes.

“Our families haven’t understood the habit of how to ‘do’ school,” he said. But the K-12 structure, he said, would help Shawnee “teach parents how to be good education parents” early in their children’s schooling.

Without the change, or some similar intervention, he’s worried that Shawnee is destined to improve only incrementally.

National Problem

It’s an issue that schools nationwide are struggling with and one that the SIG program is intended to address. The Obama administration’s revamped version of the program, which was originally created under the No Child Left Behind Act, didn’t kick into high gear nationally until last spring, fueled by a $3 billion boost under the federal economic-stimulus program.

Shawnee’s own transformation began unofficially two years earlier, when Mr. Look left his position as principal of Meyzeek Middle School, one of the highest-performing in Louisville, and took over at the high school.

Shawnee differs from many other SIG schools in at least one important way: Mr. Look is still its principal. Under the SIG rules, the principal must be replaced, unless he or she has been on the job less than three years. Mr. Look met that criterion, and he got a public endorsement from district Superintendent Sheldon H. Berman. The principal also received necessary approval from a team of state auditors.

If the school hadn’t been working to get on track for the past two years, it likely wouldn’t be feeling such a positive, immediate impact from the SIG program, said Debbie Powers, the executive director of the Kentucky Principals Academy at the University of Louisville, who has an office in Shawnee, right down the hall from Mr. Look.

Billie Travis, a mathematics educational recovery specialist, works with Shawnee 9th grade students Savannah Clary, left, and Alexis Wright.

Although the SIG program remains controversial nationally, mainly because of its highly prescriptive improvement models, the nearly $1.5 million given to Shawnee under the program and the dramatic changes required by the turnaround model seem to have come at an ideal moment.

“Turnaround was perfect,” Mr. Look said. “Without it, we wouldn’t be where we are now.” Mr. Look already knew which teachers were likely to buy into his vision for the school and which would be happier elsewhere. To fill the vacant slots, he recruited a cadre of teachers he calls “a team of Michael Jordans.”

K-12 Model in Doubt

But Mr. Look is concerned about the potential impact on Shawnee’s long-term success from district officials’ inclination to table the plan to convert the school to a K-12 model. The proposed conversion was part of the school’s redistricting plan, put in place after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Jefferson County’s race-based student-assignment system.

Under a new assignment plan, approved during the 2008-09 school year and still being implemented, schools are supposed to have a balance of students from areas of the city and county with varying socioeconomic characteristics. The district strives to ensure that each of its schools draws at least 15 percent—and no more than 50 percent—of its students from neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and lower levels of parent education.

Right now, about 87 percent of Shawnee’s students are from such areas. Shawnee is not the only district school without the desired demographic mix in its feeder neighborhoods. But it’s the only one without a clear plan to change its makeup.

Mr. Look, who dreamed up the K-12 model for Shawnee, sees reaching students early as an alternative way of combating the challenges schools with homogeneous high-poverty enrollments often face.

But at a December school board meeting, Superintendent Berman said he didn’t think the shift to a K-12 model was “feasible” for Shawnee right now, in part because of the work needed to carry out the turnaround process.

So, for now, instead of allowing the school to become a K-12 campus, the district is planning to attract a broader socioeconomic mix of students by beefing up the engineering and aerospace magnet programs at the school.

Dion vonAllmen, the math department head at Shawnee, uses incandescent lights in his room instead of overhead fluorescent lighting, aiming to create a more calming atmosphere and reduce math anxiety.

“What we wanted to do was buy some time to create these solid programs—create a much more vibrant reputation that would attract students from around the county,” Mr. Berman said.

By some measures, Shawnee, which has just under 500 students, has major advantages. The district just this school year opened the new Challenger Learning Center on its campus, complete with a mock mission-control room and a model spaceship that looks like something straight out of a “Star Wars” set. Students from around the district—and the state—can take part in simulated space-shuttle missions.

Aviation Program

And Shawnee shares a campus with the aviation program at Jefferson Community and Technical College. That enables the school to run an aviation program that its freshmen and sophomores can participate in—some even get to fly planes. Once they are juniors, they can enroll full time in the aviation programs run in some cases by the college and in other cases by the district. They can even graduate with pilot’s licenses and the potential to earn comfortable wages right out of high school.

But few students have done so. The Federal Aviation Administration-mandated curriculum is rigorous, Mr. Look said, and only a handful of students each year enroll and stay with the program. Most of the slots are filled with students from nearby Indiana, who pay tuition to Kentucky.

There are similar problems with a new engineering program, which also has a challenging curriculum that most Shawnee students aren’t prepared to tackle.

Students from outside the neighborhood aren’t coming, either. Even with the glitzy new facilities, the magnet program has failed to draw a significant pool of applicants from wealthier areas. As of December, just 13 students had applied for next school year—not nearly enough to bring the school up to the socioeconomic mix that Jefferson County is going for.

District officials acknowledge it may take time for the magnet program to pick up steam. “A lot of things are done by word of mouth,” said Barbara Dempsey, a specialist in the district’s parent assistance center.

Jack Jacobs, the district’s interim executive director of student assignment, health, and safety, said the district is committed to Shawnee. “Our goal is to make Shawnee High School one of the finest schools in Kentucky,” he said.

Community leaders, though, say the magnet programs aren’t a substitute for a comprehensive plan to ensure that Shawnee has the same socioeconomic diversity as other schools in the district—or for a shift to the K-12 model.

Keith Look, the principal of Shawnee, makes a point during a presentation by a University of Louisville graphic arts student. Graphic-design students at the university were asked by the principal to design a new identification package for the school, including signage, website, and billboards.

“I thought [the K-12 plan] was really going to put Shawnee on the map. … We looked at it as a way of saving the school,” said Rudy Davidson, the vice president of the Shawnee Neighborhood Association and a 1959 alumnus of the school. He thinks the plan was delayed in part because local elementary schools were worried about losing enrollment to a redesigned Shawnee.

If the proposal isn’t put in place, said Mr. Davidson, a retired city government employee, he will fight to get the district to include Shawnee in its socioeconomically-based student-assignment plan so that it can be “just like the other schools” in Jefferson County.


Although Mr. Look sees changing Shawnee’s makeup and converting it to a K-12 school as vital to sustaining the progress he’s beginning to make, he doesn’t view those steps as the federal or state role. A demographically diverse student body is “the district’s theory of action,” he said, and the district should be the one to follow through.

Justin Cohen, the president of the School Turnaround Group at the Boston-based Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, has a different take.

“All of the SIG models ask a lot of schools, a lot of individuals, but very little of systems change. … It’s a missing piece of the federal school improvement framework,” said Mr. Cohen, whose organization is working with six states on school turnarounds. “The principals and leaders that get results are the rulebreakers.” That means, he said, that the rules themselves have to change.

Susan Perkins Weston, a consultant for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide citizens’ advocacy group in Lexington, Ky., agrees. “District leadership matters,” she said. “We have been building accountability systems that have skipped over that issue.”

She acknowledged the political pitfalls of approaches that force students to attend schools with shaky reputations, far outside their home neighborhoods. She is hoping the district and the school can work out an arrangement that will assure Shawnee’s continued academic growth.

She added, “Louisville is strong enough to be solving these problems instead of denying them.”

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Ky. School Ratchets Up Improvement


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