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Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Leadership Drives Successful Turnaround

By David B. Cohen — January 16, 2015 5 min read
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I recall picking up my morning newspaper, almost exactly four years ago, and reading an article about the impact of federal school turnaround rules in nearby San Francisco Unified School District; to qualify for much-needed funding from school improvement grants (SIG), schools were required to adopt one of four reform options for low-performing schools. All of the options sounded harsh, and the article demonstrated how the policy was frustrating to the superintendent, adminstrators, teachers, parents, and students. No one seemed to like the conditions attached to SIGs, but the amount of money was too significant to pass up.

I wrote at the time expressing my doubts about these turnaround models, and also posted extensive comments from a San Francisco school board trustee, Rachel Norton. We both questioned the rigidity of the policy and speculated about the potential ineffectiveness of such radical but unproven methods. After all, many of us intuitively understand or know from experience that teacher turnover tends to impede learning, and there’s some research that confirms negative effects of teacher turnover on students.

After a review of its own program yielded mixed results in effectiveness, the Education Department proposed changes to the SIG program as well, adding more options and higher expectations regarding research-based choices for reform.

I recently spent a day at Encina Prepartory High School, a grade 6-12 public school in Sacramento’s San Juan Unified School District. A few years ago, Encina was a SIG recipient, and by all accounts, a school in need of serious improvement. Their grant was predicated on completing the federally mandated steps in a school transformation process - replacing the principal and at least half of the teachers (I heard 70% eventually left), and redesigning the academic program.But four years after my first reactions and blog posts regarding the reform options for school improvement grants, I’m re-examining my assumptions about the policy as well. Don’t get me wrong - it’s not that I feel my concerns have all been assuaged; rather, I’ve now seen how a school transformation has some chance of success - especially if teacher leadership is central to the effort.

And now? Encina seems well on its way to achieving a turnaround, and largely as a result of teacher leadership at the core of the redesign. Of course, key challenges haven’t gone away: the school continues to enroll a sizable number of students who are homeless, or experiencing housing insecurity. Many of them move in and out of the school multiple times over the years, even within a school year. Encina also enrolls a large percentage of English language learners and students with special educational needs. Grade levels are not particularly large, making it harder to offer a wide variety of courses that meet all student needs and engage their interests. And yet, the atmosphere of the campus and the array of supports for students have improved considerably, I learned.

For starters, Encina High School absorbed a closing middle school and now enrolls grades 6-12 on a single campus. This is not a co-location; the while some programming and administration is divided by middle and high school grades, the school overall has one staff and one academic program. Overall enrollment is still under 1,000 students, however. Teachers I spoke with said that older students have been accepting of their much younger schoolmates; in most classes, they don’t see each other much anyways, though they do mix in physical education classes. Teacher Dan DeJaeger came to Encina to embrace the challenge of creating a physical education program that would work for this school. He told me the older students actually look out for the younger students, and explained how the department has collaborated to create a system that provides more student choice while knocking down barriers to participation and success in physical education.

I learned about other supports for students, including an “advocacy” class that provides students with study time, guidance and advising from teachers who meet daily with students and loop with the same group of students for multiple years (if the students stay at the school). There are efforts to establish or strengthen partnerships with parents and community organizations, to provide food and clothing donations to families through the school, and even conduct outreach to local landlords to help disseminate important information to families living in apartment buildings and complexes.

What stood out to me from the start was how eager my contacts in the district were in guiding me to visit Encina. Even before I went on campus, as I was in the process of arranging my visit, it was clear that the teachers feel pride in their work, have taken ownership of the process and the outcomes. Most of my conversations, not surprisingly, were with staff members who had come to Encina since the turnaround. But there was consensus among the teachers from both sides of that SIG process that the school has made significant improvements.

The glue holding together various improvements at Encina seems to be teacher leadership. The redesign effort has put teacher leadership into every phase of the academic program, and noticeably flattened the usual administrator-faculty hierarchy. English department chair, Dr. Ed Burgess, is a union leader whose recently completed dissertation focused on teacher leadership; in conversations with him, other teachers, and principal Richard Judge, I learned how the staff has collaborated with the administration and taken on leadership roles in every facet of the school. Teachers lead the work in redesigning the academic program, improving the site governance, developing the professional learning plan, and building the parent and community partnerships.

Not surprisingly, the redesign has put the school in positions where typical union contract provisions don’t necessarily fit. Encina has been able to work out plans at the site between labor and management, and then capitalize on the productive relationship of the union and district overall in order to formalize necessary agreements that work for the school. So in a way, the success for this turnaround was partially secured by the prior years of effort put into strong labor-management relationship within the district.

I wouldn’t say I’m a convert yet. The Education Department itself couldn’t call the SIG program an unambiguous success, and I still question the rigidty and severity of the requirements. However - if a school is going through a transformation model, the Encina model suggests that a focus on teacher leadership might improve the odds of actually turning a school around.

Photo: Dr. Ed Burgess, English teacher and department chair at Encinca High School, speaks at a meeting of the California Teacher Union Reform Network. Shannan Brown, President of the San Juan Teachers Association, stands at left; by David B. Cohen.

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