What a Successful School Turnaround Looks Like

Improving struggling schools is really, really hard. Just last week, the U.S. Education Department released an analysis of the Obama administration’s signature School Improvement Grants initiative, which provided states with $7 billion of federal funding to turn around their lowest performing schools. It found that the money had no measurable impact; schools that received it were no more likely than others to show improvement in student performance, graduation rates, or other indicators.

That doesn’t mean school turnarounds are impossible, though. In August, when Louisiana released test results for the 2015-16 school year, Andrew Wilson Charter School stood out. Just a year after its performance was so poor that management was transferred from one charter operator to another, Wilson students showed sharply better performance across subjects and grade levels. It’s great news – but how did Wilson do it? And what can other schools learn from it?

My fellow Navigator Karen Johnston and I recently visited Wilson to learn more and what we found was nothing short of astounding. It started at the front office. We arrived shortly after the day started, a time that is traditionally chaotic with late buses, tardy students, and a host of other distractions. Yet, to our surprise, the front desk check-in was calm and peaceful—a small sign of the school’s stable footing.

Our tour with Wilson’s principal, Lee Green, began during the school’s “Innovation Hour,” a time where students are taught in homogenous groups different from the ones they travel in by homeroom. While schools often begin the day with “easier” classes to allow students to warm up, these classes were robust and rigorous, with a clear objective for the period based on previous benchmark data. Nearly every class was focused and had great participation. By the end of the period, we’d looked over a few students’ work, and their responses were thorough. A cursive note written on a dry-erase board caught our eye on the way out of our last class visit: “Ms. Broussard, you rock! Yesterday’s lesson was inspiring.”

Wilson is onto something. After reflecting on our experiences that morning and during the remainder of our visit, three things stand out as likely contributors to the school’s recent short-term success: (1) A very sustained focus on a set of specific results; (2) consistent follow-through of academic and behavioral norms and expectations throughout the building; and (3) a constant presence and strong sense of teamwork among adults in the building. These are things you hear ambitious schools talk about all the time; the difference is that the quality of execution at Wilson is far above average.

A Focus on Specific Results

There’s no doubt that transitions to turnaround status are traditionally plagued with obstacles, and those in leadership sometimes try to tackle a lot at once to make up for time. The latter did not seem to be the case for Wilson. The school identified its “low-hanging fruit” and evidence of their focus on results was clear in just about every corner of the school.

Wilson specifically has targeted English Language Arts (ELA) instruction and mastery as its number one growth area. It’s evident in the language and behaviors around the school. Each classroom had an objective posted with the verbs highlighted, making it easy for visitors to hold them accountable for what they should see from students. The students, on the other hand, could easily be reminded of their class-wide and individual goals from multiple sources of performance data posted throughout many classes. Teachers have designated time and space each week to craft assessments, review data, and collaborate on lesson-planning. A bulletin board in the hallway tracked students’ small but steady gains in ELA performance since August.

Consistent Follow-through on Academic and Behavioral Norms

While it was great to see how deliberate the adults in the school had been about shedding its past reputation, we were curious to see more of the students and how they had responded to all of this change. Faced with the urgency of setting a struggling school on a different path, many turnaround operators rely on a kind of lockdown approach to ensure an orderly environment. Would this be the case at Wilson?

We saw clear expectations and consistency creating a healthy—not heavy-handed—school culture. After our tour of the first floor, we witnessed the first middle school transition of the day, which was completely silent but not in an oppressive way. Students transitioned as if they were on an urgent mission. They seemed almost joyful, curiously waiting to see what journey they would embark on next. Anywhere we went in the building, any free student or adult would greet us and many asked if we had any questions. Students smiled as they saw us, but mostly because we were accompanied by Principal Green. One of them cracked a joke at him, and he responded, “You know you love me,” as other nearby students burst into laughter.

As the start-of-class-bell sounded, nearly all classes began smoothly, with silent students in seats working on a Do-Now. Many of them had “green-cards” on their desks that were used as their weekly sheet for restroom/hall passes and signatures from teachers that showed how close they were to earning an incentive for positive behavior. Most important, the green card served as a constant reminder of the school’s values (“Leadership, Excellence, Accountability, Determination”) since they were posted very clearly at the top of the page.

But the values seemed to be more than a sheet of paper for the students; they were a way of life. There was hardly any evidence of major student misbehavior. One student called out in class, and the other students swiftly and silently scolded him with their expressions, causing him to fix his mistake. They were all accountable and held each other accountable to the classroom’s objective.

Hypervisibility and a Strong Sense of Teamwork

This kind of school culture – and the results it encourages – doesn’t happen by accident. It comes about only with consistent attention and energy from all the adults in the building. Rarely is the difference between an improving school and a struggling one any single instructional strategy or intervention. Instead, it’s about execution and follow through. It’s about how much falls through the cracks. At Wilson, we saw a school that was committed to seamlessness, and they seemed to accomplish it by ensuring that all the adults, from teachers and instructional coaches to principals and custodians, were constantly present for students and actively working together to promote the school’s culture, values and goals.

No matter where we went in the school, adults were visible and nearby. Instructional coaches sat in the hallways rather than stuffy offices and actively helped any teacher on their planning period work through their previous lesson’s challenges. In fact, no one was in an office. All of the assistant principals had desks in the hall, making them readily accessible. It didn’t take long to see why the school was so unified around shared goals, why students and adults shared such strong relationships, or why its culture seemed to hit the sweet spot of feeling orderly but not rigid.

These are some of the things we believe Andrew Wilson Charter School has gotten right. No doubt there are others, and the school is poised to perform substantially better than in years past. We look forward to their end-of-year results and the impact these changes will have on their students, families and community, and to seeing whether other schools that have struggled in the past can adopt the same approach, with the same success.

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