Friday, May 20, 2011

How Are The Schools In Your Area?

5 Steps To Fixing A "Broken" School
Author of Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School

Fixing a neighborhood high school with a quarter of its kids not showing up every day, single-digit test scores, 40 percent graduation rates, and extremely low morale is one of the hardest, least desirable jobs in education. The chances for glory are few and far between, and miracles are rare. And yet, there’s really no choice. Leaving things the way they are at deeply dysfunctional schools isn’t right, pulls down neighborhoods, and can affect an entire school system.

And yet, turnarounds can be done. Disorderly, dreary buildings can become safe, warm, and engaging places for kids to learn. Teachers frustrated and disillusioned with far-off administrators and over-stressed building leaders can become re-energized, hopeful guides and mentors. I know this because I’ve studied the research on school turnarounds and spent three years reporting on the effort at Locke High School. Located in a rough area of South Central Los Angeles, Locke was rescued by a dedicated group of teachers, an outside organization that took on the massive responsibility of running the school, and a lot of very, very hard work. There were mistakes and setbacks along the way, and the effort appeared to be on the rocks several times, but three years later the school is, well, a school again. The students who go there have a legitimate chance to get an education and go on to college.

So how do you start on the path to fixing a broken high school? Here are five not really very easy steps you should take:

1) Where Does Your School Stand?: One of the most important steps is to take a careful look at where things really stand – how students, teachers, and community members feel about the school, and how the school performs compared to other similar schools. What’s the pass rate for students taking key math and English classes? What’s the attendance rate for teachers and kids? How many freshmen make it through to graduate four years later? You’d be amazed how often parents, teachers, and even administrators don’t know where a school stands compared to its demographically-similar counterpart in another part of town.

2) Find Inside Allies: Ideally, a school improvement effort will at least partially come from inside the school itself – involving the teachers, parents, and community members who are part of the school and want change just as much as you do. That’s what happened at Locke, where a group of teachers tried everything they could and then, determined not to give up, circulated a legal petition to hand the school over to an outside education organization. It was a controversial and risky maneuver, but no one could ignore it because it came from a genuine desire to show that the kids and school could do better, and it came from inside the building. Parents, alumni, or community members can do the same.

3) Make the Building Calm and Safe: You want to make the campus safe and welcoming – without turning it into an armed camp or kicking all the so-called knuckleheads out at the first sign of trouble. That “lockdown” mentality won’t work for long and will actually undercut student achievement. You need to show that you can make things better with the same group of kids as before, treat everyone with the utmost respect and restraint, and demonstrate patient persistence during the early months when the new rules and systems are being tested by the kids.

4) Make Changes as soon as Needed: No matter whether you have months or a full year to plan, be prepared to adapt on the fly because there will be mistakes, bad hires, and plans that don’t work out. That's OK. The key is to be prepared to revisit and re-route along the way – whether it’s two days into school or halfway through the year. As long as problems are being addressed rather than being left as they are, the kids, parents, and teachers will generally understand. Problems that aren’t addressed – teachers or administrators who aren’t up to the task, for example, or rules that aren’t being implemented evenly, will create problems and undercut confidence in the effort.

5) Make a Clear Break with the Past: It’s tempting to avoid making big changes, but a turnaround can’t just be new paint and a new set of textbooks or computers if it’s going to have any real chance. It’s got to include new leaders, a certain number of new staff, new rules, and a new way of doing things. The key is to create a balance of familiarity, coordination, and accountability. You don’t want everyone off doing their own thing, or losing sight of the serious task of improving results. A core group of teachers and staff will want to stay and help with the turnaround. Another handful will be deeply opposed and likely to leave. But that’s OK. The veterans will create continuity and help orient the new teachers and administrators.

What’s it like to try and turn around a broken school? It’s deceptively simple at the beginning. It’s a trickle of halting, incremental success -- totally unlike the instant results and heroic figures who dominate the Hollywood version. And at times it may seem like everyone wants you to fail. But you’re not alone in doing this. The federal government is investing $3.5 billion and there are roughly a thousand schools around the country being turned around this year. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said, "We're not going to stand idly by where you have populations that are being poorly served, where we are in fact perpetuating poverty and social failure. Our country can't afford that."

© Copyright Alexander Russo, 2011.

Author Bio
Alexander Russo, author of Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School is an education writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Miller-McCune, Washington Monthly, Chicago Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. He's the author of three blogs: This Week In Education, District 299, and Hot For Education. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Please connect with Alexander on Facebook and Twitter, and visit for more information.

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