• A “new day” begins. 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 going to change for the better is conveyed in very positive terms. The Jackie Robinson School in Brooklyn was struggling for several years when Marion Wilson was hired as the school’s principal in 2006. She knew she would have to do something different and began by forming a small cabinet of people she trusted. Wilson used ideas from Alan’s book Failure Is Not an Option as the foundation for building trust and cohesion among the staff.
• The school status is assessed. While there often isn’t time for an in-depth external review, it is essential for the key agents of change to understand the internal dynamics 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.
• Create a new vision of what’s possible: Provide opportunities to visit successful schools serving similar populations of students. This is important because it provides the 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.
• Engage and listen to your students. Students know which teachers are most effective in challenging them to learn. Schools cannot improve unless students are invested in learning. The hiring process in the Renaissance Middle School, another formerly low-performing school now winning accolades in New York City, includes students’ receiving a lesson from the prospective teacher. Principal Harriett Diaz then asks the students: “Could you learn from this teacher?”
• There must be a clear and deliberate strategy for improving instruction. Professional development must be directly related to the skill areas where assessments show students are weakest. Professional development is effective when it is site-based, ongoing, and draws upon the expertise of the most effective teachers in the building. Creating a climate of collaboration among teachers is essential.
• Problem-solving becomes the norm. In Central High School in Newark, N.J., the school day was extended to provide more time for differentiated instruction for students who needed more support. If a teacher were having trouble meeting the needs of his/her students, the student would be reassigned to a class that was a better fit.
• Establish clear measurable goals, and avoid trying to do too much at once. There must be clear priorities and strategies and procedures for implementing them. Adopting a consistent approach to teaching is essential for changing student learning outcomes.
• Build partnerships with parents and community organizations. In many cases, schools can’t address student needs by themselves. Nonprofits, businesses, churches, and civic groups will often provide support. A sense of accountability must be generated within the school to the parents and the community it serves.
• Sustain communication and collaboration. Often, low-performing schools are islands, and their interventions are administered in isolation from their neighboring schools. Just the opposite is needed. Sustaining a school’s success includes processes for sharing strategies, support, and accountability across many schools.
The list above appears long and time-intensive. Yet results can be seen early on. Within the first year of implementation of the School Improvement Grant, Central High School results from the New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessments show a 32.5 percent growth in English/language arts and a 25 percent growth in mathematics. 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. In September, The New York Times reported that the Jackie Robinson School was among the top five highest-performing elementary schools in the city.
Our political leaders would do well to listen to the educators in the trenches who are getting results. There are many successful turnaround schools, but there could be many more. Closing schools should be the last option. We should instead focus on transforming schools by following the example of schools that have done so already.
Alan M. Blankstein is the president of the HOPE Foundation, based in Bloomington, Ind. His latest book is The Answer Is in the Room (Corwin, 2011). Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew professor of education at New York University and the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. His most recent book is Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving From Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap, with A. Wade Boykin (ASCD, 2011).