6 School Turnaround Strategies for Success In Your School

6 School Turnaround Strategies for Success In Your School

school turnaround strategies for success

Over the past fourteen years, School Turnaround has established a proven track record of helping leaders of low-performing schools and districts significantly improve student achievement.  School Turnaround was the first initiative expressly created to address the concept of turnaround in schools and over the years we have created core elements of school turnaround strategies and behaviors to assist school leaders.

Our program is designed specifically for districts where leaders understand that current failure requires urgent intervention.

While most educational initiatives geared towards demonstrating student achievement take place over a long time period, School Turnaround is designed to address urgent needs and produce immediate, impactful change.

In this article, we will discuss the six key strategies that anchor our school turnaround design.  But first, let us dissect more about the basics of a turnaround school. 

What is a turnaround school?

Turnaround schools are also commonly referred to as under-performing or low performing schools, although there are additional factors that determine a turnaround school. In addition to low student performance, there could be issues among staff and school leadership which further hinders the overall success of the school.

There has been significant research, advanced practices and funding directed toward the turnaround school methodology over the years. Most notably the Title 1: School Improvement Grants funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. 

What is a turnaround principal?

Teachers play an instrumental role in helping to turnaround schools, however, the success of the school’s performance is also heavily dependent on school leadership as well, the principal specifically. 

A turnaround principal is a unique leader who focuses on not only improving student achievement but adult performance within school leadership as well. Turnaround principals are known for having a track record of improving low performing schools and struggling schools. However, principals may set out with high goals and never achieve them due to a myriad of factors.

A challenging job with core competencies such as relationship building, resiliency, and public advocacy, school turnaround principals are also called upon to inspire and motivate students and staff. According to The Atlantic, research shows that when black students feel the faculty cares about them, the more likely they are to experience academic success. 

Overall, turnaround principals lead the school’s vision and ensure the goals align with a positive learning environment to achieve student success.  

Strategies to Improve Failing Schools 

1. Diagnosis 

When diagnosing what’s preventing your students’ high performance, it’s useful to think of the medical analogy. When a patient is ill it’s important to have an accurate diagnosis. 

Think of all the education programs that offer services and support without any idea of the particular situation or circumstances regarding low performance at a given school. Would you want a doctor to prescribe medicine – or worse, surgery! – without an examination first? 

On the other hand, when a patient is critical, time is of the essence. If you wait for all the information you need you are likely to lose the opportunity to make a good decision. 

Be quick, be honest, be personal and more importantly, be data-driven. 

2. Targets

Experience is clear: people with targets outperform those who pledge best efforts to do better. One reason is that with the best efforts approach, we tend to hallow the activity (e.g. certain instructional practices) and let the results vary (too bad test scores did not go up, but we know this was valuable nonetheless).

With targets, one sticks to the results and takes permission to change the activity.

High performing non-profit organizations have discovered that nothing helps to increase performance more than targets set for activities. One reason why targets help is that they literally provide the aiming point. Without a target, most of us hallow the process and let the results fall where they may.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting targets.

  • Offer straightforward statements about results rather than activities
  • Represent personal commitments not general hope and aspiration
  • Set at sufficiently high levels that they motivate everyone to do some things differently

3. Message and Brand

We all know that stories and anecdotes are more telling in creating and sustaining commitments than is data alone. Nowhere is this truer than in the image of yourself. There is a “rap” out there on all leaders, including principals. 

“She hasn’t got a clue” or “He’s too busy with paperwork to help anyone” or “He’ll leave you alone unless you rock the boat or really screw up” OR “She’s here to help and it’s great!”

You say you’re all about kids – but are you spending your time out in the community or in your office instead of classrooms (where the kids are)? The trick with brand is to know what the rap is on you – and how that differs from what you want it to be.

For your turnaround design, you need for your own “positioning” to be purposeful and in many cases different from the brand you now have.

Start with your turnaround message. Decide how you want to be seen to others and determine a strategy for how you will spread the word. 

4. Data Use

Education has jumped on the bandwagon of organizations that measure themselves by the size of their data. The presence of information, nicely wrapped up in that euphemism called the “database” and the subsequent arrays and displays that may be generated from it abound in district offices and in schools. 

Regrettably, the collection and display of information in an organization is no assurance of high performance. The reason is the awesome discrepancy between database and data use.

Here are a few guidelines for data use:

  1. Analysis: Ask yourself, “What do these numbers mean?”  You’ve already used available data to help you diagnose the problems in your school and you’ve also relied on it to set the targets for achievement. 

Now it’s time to take a much closer look at what the data is saying to you not in terms of trends or generalities about your school – but about the specific classes and students.

  1. Address your target audience: Address your target audience first. Now that you know what your targets are, it’s time to be sure you know the target audience – your students. 

But not just surface-level information.  How many are there, how many of them are already helping you meet targets, how many are close (above and below), and how many fall way short?

  1. Who uses the data and how? Once the data means something to you and the core people that have helped you analyze it, you’ve got to put it into use. This means getting it out to all the people for whom it has meaning – everybody! 

They need to be clued in and in gentle or forceful ways held accountable for the new knowledge and plans that you are sharing with them.

5. Resource Alignment

Before you get started in aligning your resources to your target you need to know two things. The first is – what’s your target? The second is – what are your resources? 

When it comes to resources, we often only think in dollar amounts of various funding streams and maybe a little beyond into personnel lines and what’s in the supply closet. That’s a grossly limited way to look at what we’ve got at our fingertips. The key here is to start by mapping all of your resources. 

Once you’ve got a clearer picture of what there is to work with, then it’s time to be brutally honest about what’s already aligned toward hitting your target.

6. Successful Classrooms

There are core elements of classroom success that we believe apply to any school, any teacher, anyage, any subject. The principal’s view must focus on these three elements as he or she is out and about.

  • 1. Targets & Methods: 

All good lessons have structure and rationale that begin with an answer to this question: What should students know and be able to do at the end of this lesson? Good lesson targets are typically multi-faceted – covering more than one learning idea.

  • 2. Physical Space:

All classrooms regardless of student age should have key elements. The first is that they should explicitly reflect without further explanation what the students in that room are learning.  

The second key element is to motivate students to keep learning. Rooms that promote learning have work that is current and exemplary, a minimum of commercially – produced products and a bevy of student work – which sends a clear message about whose work is really important.

  • 3. Student Connection to Learning:

Connecting means that students are doing something with content. They may be writing, speaking, watching, and listening. More illusively, but even more critically, they may

be thinking. Engagement is not always easy to gauge.

School Turnaround

School Turnaround – In association with the Rensselaerville Institute, School Turnaround is a leadership development model aimed at dramatically and immediately accelerating student achievement in underperforming schools. This initiative borrows effective strategies and characteristics of successful turnaround leaders from the world of business as well as the demonstrated successes of educational leaders from around the country.  

Qualities such as high levels of energy, commitment to action and relentless focus on results are a key focus.  School Turnaround provides an intensive one-year program for the principal and key team members.  In partnership with experienced turnaround specialists these teams set targets as part of a turnaround plan.  

Their plans use strategies such as diagnosing roadblocks to high performance, developing outcome-based messages for success, aligning resources, and effectively using data. 

Our specialists are not theorists, but principals and superintendents who have personally turned around failing schools and who know how to help others do the same. So successful are these strategies that School Turnaround guarantees money back if the objectives are not met within one year.  Participation is partially underwritten by various foundations throughout the country.  

For more information please contact Gillian Williams, Director at (518) 797-3783 or Gwilliams@Rinstitute.org.  You may also find more information at our website www.schoolturnaround.org.

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