One District’s Path: Turnaround or Takeover

Type: Article
Topics: Curriculum & Assessment, District & School Operations, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

August 01, 2021

Five lessons shared by the superintendent who led the effort to resuscitate a failing system
Pia Durkin in Science Lab
Pia Durkin (right), a leadership consultant for Research for Better Teaching in Acton, Mass., generated a playbook of five lessons of leadership during her time as a superintendent in New Bedford, Mass. PHOTO COURTESY OF PIA DURKIN

Principals commonly share stories about their efforts turning around teaching and learning in their schools. School district stories reflecting big-picture turnaround ideas are more difficult to capture and summarize.

District scope, complexity and an ever-changing context reduces the “how” of turnaround work to dense plans that cause superintendents to get lost in myriad details that can mitigate their leadership skills. In 2013, I learned the extent of that challenge when I became superintendent for the New Bedford Public Schools, a struggling urban district on Massachusetts’ south coast. With 13,000 students, it is the state’s sixth-largest district.

Upon my entry, eight of the 25 schools had no principal and those in place had not been evaluated in years. The state-mandated teacher evaluation system had been adopted, but with weak supervisory feedback, instructional improvement in the district was minimal. Teaching materials were either hopelessly outdated, as in a decade-old reading program, or unavailable for math and science, leaving teachers on their own. Technology and the arts were limited in most schools and nonexistent in others.

In addition, elementary students lost 90 minutes of weekly instruction due to a long-standing agreement with the teachers’ union that dismissed students early on Fridays so teachers could have planning time. The burgeoning population of English learners was woefully under-reported due to limited testing, which resulted in the employment of only two English as a second language teachers in a district where about 23 percent of the students’ first language at the time was not English.

Affecting every aspect of the district was the operating budget’s $3 million shortfall, discovered in the middle of the 2013-14 school year, leading to the elimination of 150 staff positions and no plan for how that work would get done in the coming year.

The then-commissioner of education, Mitchell Chester, was publicly considering a state takeover of New Bedford, while a newly elected mayor was calling for major reform. With the clock ticking, I struggled how to begin. I had to focus energy and effort on the right work to directly change how schools worked.

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Pia Durkin

Former superintendent and current leadership consultant

Research for Better Teaching in Acton, Mass.