School Solutions                                             Page 49


The Good News About Leading

Turnaround Schools     



 Alan Blankstein

The Jackie Robinson and Renaissance schools were headed for closing, yet within three years both received an A rating from New York City’s board of education. These schools are among those that generated a knowledge base for transforming failing schools.

My own knowledge of school turnaround stems from my role as president of the Hope Foundation, which helps school leaders bring change to schools nationwide where children are languishing. It is also informed by fellow champions of under-served children, including Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew professor of education at New York University.

Noguera captured essential knowledge about leading successful school turnarounds in his Jan. 18, 2012, commentary in Education Week. His analysis of “what works” mirrors my own lessons, and I believe will guide you in more productive efforts.

Establish that a “new day” has begun. Whether the change process begins with a new principal, a newly formed leadership team or the entry of an external partner, the idea that things are changing is conveyed in positive terms. The Jackie Robinson School in Brooklyn was struggling when Marion Wilson was hired. Wilson began by forming a cadre of people she trusted. She used ideas from my book Failure Is Not an Option as the basis for building trust and cohesion among staff.

Assess what internal dynamics are driving the school. Interviews with each individual help build the relationships necessary for short- and long-term success, and for determining the best way forward.

Build credibility with early wins. Frontload your plan with early wins to build trust and confidence for the more intricate work to come. Wilson quickly adopted simple procedures to restore order, minimizing fights by drawing a line down the hallway indicating two flows of traffic.

Create a new vision of what’s possible. Provide opportunities to visit successful schools serving similar populations of students. This provides staff with a clear sense of what success looks like. It also helps overcome the “normalization” of failure, in which there is a belief that the problem is that “our” students simply can’t achieve.

Find the answer that is “in the room.” Tap the most effective teachers and make that performance level the norm for the district. By using the principles outlined in my book The Answer is in the Room: How Effective Schools Scale Up Student Success, entire districts and regions of districts have excelled, and low performers have turned around.

Engage your students. Students know which teachers are most effective in challenging them to learn. The Renaissance Middle School in New York City has the prospective teacher give a lesson. Principal Harriett Diaz then asks the students: “Could you learn from this teacher?”

Develop a clear, deliberate strategy for improving instruction. Professional development must be directly related to the skill areas where assessments show students are weakest. It should be site-based and ongoing.

The work is hard. But districtwide success and turning around low-performing schools are within reach. For more information, see www.HOPEFoundation.org.

Alan Blankstein is the president of the HOPE Foundation in Bloomington, Ind. The author acknowledges the contribution of Pedro Noguera in writing this article. Blankstein is a featured speaker at AASA’s 2013 National Conference on Education. E-mail: ablankstein@HopeFoundation.org


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