School Turnaround

Student Voice: The Most Important Sound in the School

Guest post by Bobby Bennett

In 2012, I became principal of my alma mater—only the second alumnus since the 1890s to have such an opportunity. No pressure! Eager to begin the work of serving my community and school improvement, I held a series of meetings with staff and the school community over the course of the first three months. These meetings would shape our work for the next five years. In fact, what we learned and put into practice not only yielded academic success, it transformed the culture of our school. (more…)

How One School Went from Struggling to Thriving

Guest post by Jessica Ainsworth, Garrick Askew, and Lee Collins

In 2011, Lithia Springs High School (LSHS) needed help. The Douglas County, GA, school had been lagging behind state and national benchmarks long enough to be identified as a Priority School (schools among the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools in terms of academic achievement).

But with the arrival of a grant, a new principal, and a dedicated administrative team, LSHS turned things around and has seen increases in the graduation rate, job placements, and college acceptances.

The Background

LSHS serves an urban, majority-minority, socioeconomically disadvantaged population of students. The tie binding LSHS’s students to the urban sprawl is its free and reduced lunch population, which hovers around 78 percent. (more…)

Reaching All Students Through Career and Technical Education

A rigorous career and technical education (CTE) program and high expectations for all students guide the success of Worcester (MA) Technical High School, led by NASSP National High School Principal of the Year Sheila Harrity.

Worcester Tech, which was also named a MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough School in 2011, has 1,400 students in 24 technical programs within four small learning communities. Once the lowest-performing high school in the city and the poorest performing vocational school in the state, the students are graduating at high levels and performing well on state assessments, and the achievement gap has decreased significantly for all student subgroups. (more…)

Ignite ‘14 to Feature Turnaround Principals

Is your school currently in ‘turnaround mode’? For all but a very few high-performing schools the answer is a resounding yes.

Schools are in the center of a vortex consisting of three major, long-term change initiatives; 1) new, higher standards with accompanying assessments and accountability measures, 2) new teacher evaluation systems, which include data from student test scores, 3) new state data systems for holding schools more accountable, which include attendance, school discipline, and graduation rates.

To further complicate matters, many schools have faced multiple years of tight budgets and are being asked to do much more with larger class sizes and less experienced teachers. At the same time school leaders are being asked to address a twenty-five year low in teacher satisfaction brought on, in large part by the ‘fire our way to Finland’ reformer mindset, an all-time high student poverty rate, and an increasingly diverse student population.

This so-called ‘perfect storm’ of school reform places dramatically increases pressures on school leaders to enter into ‘turnaround mode’ to improve student achievement by increasing rigor, changing staff expectations, and enhancing teaching practice. It is not surprising that 75% of principals say their job has become too complex.

Turning around a school—simultaneously raising student achievement in the face of more rigorous standards, (more…)

Attendance and Absenteeism: What School Leaders Need to Know

By Mel Riddile

Author’s Note: In keeping with our observation of September as Attendance Awareness Month, this is Part 3 in a series of articles on Attendance and Absenteeism.

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball—it is hard work, requires effort and persistence, and it often goesunrewarded and unrecognized, but schools cannot be successful without it.

As I recently pointed out, having the right attendance laws and procedures in place is important in the short-run. However, in the long-run, our school had to build a safe, orderly, and student-centered school culture that attracted students. We had to become a place where students felt wanted and where they wanted to be. We had to be the kind of school in which each and every student was both known and valued. We had to be the kind of school that students wanted to attend and hated to leave. We had to be a school that had to work to get students to leave the building at the end of the day, not one that had to work to get students to attend.

To be that school, we had to provide a safe, clean, orderly, warm and inviting school environment built on quality relationships. In addition, we had to create a culture of success in which students came to school expecting to succeed while knowing that their teachers would not stand bye and allow them fail.

We learned from experience that when kids miss school they miss out, and when kids miss out, we all suffer. In our school, attendance, along with school wide literacy, was a priority. We served large numbers of under-resourced students who needed extra support and encouragement in order to attend school on a regular basis.

USA Today reports that research suggests that as many as 7.5 million students miss a month of school each year, raising the likelihood that they’ll fail academically and eventually drop out of high school.

The findings, from education researcher Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University and supported by Attendance Works estimate that 10% to 15% of students nationwide are “chronically absent” from school, (more…)

Attendance: A Foundation of Improving Student Achievement

By Mel Riddile

“Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.”—Stuart L. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

“Strong instructional leadership is essential for a school to be successful.” Research into how principals spend their time points out that effective instructional leaders focus on “organizational management.” These school leaders understand that they must first create the conditions in which teaching and learning can occur. Strong instructional leaders seek first to create a safe, orderly, and inviting school environment that supports learning, encourages regular attendance, and promotes positive student behavior.

Student attendance is the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room when it comes to discussions of school improvement. How can teachers be held accountable for student achievement when students have poor attendance? How can school and principals be held accountable for student achievement when states allow students to quit school at age 16 and/or have weak attendance laws? How can schools be held accountable for student achievement when law enforcement agencies or the courts are reluctant to enforce existing attendance laws? Finally, how can schools be held accountable for student performance when they have no resources like school attendance officers to assist in improving attendance.

Upon arriving at a new school, I proceeded to ask the teachers a simple Peter Drucker-type question. What do we need to do in order to improve? Although simple in structure, this question contains some critical underlying presuppositions. First, we believed that our students were capable of learning at much higher levels. Second, our school needed to improve. Third, our school can improve. Finally, our school will improve.

When I asked the question, I had a number of teachers give me similar answers, but I will always remember what our Science Department Chair, Sherry Singer, said to me. “Mel, our students don’t come to school, and, when they do, they can’t read.”

It was from that simple question and Sherry’s straightforward response that our (more…)

School Attendance Myths

September is Attendance Awareness Month

Ask any educational reformer for a list of the most critical problems in our schools today and the topic of student attendance will inevitably end up near the top.  The logic is simple—if you are not there, you are not going to learn.  Let’s begin by examining  five significant myths about student attendance .

Students don’t start missing a lot of school until middle or high school.

National research has determined that 10% of all kindergarten and first-graders miss at least a month of school each year.  In some places, such as New York City, the number of students is twice as high.  Obviously, the vast majority of these absences are excused—children at this age are unlikely to be staying home without some parental supervision.  The ramifications are potentially immense:  “…the bad attendance habits that lead to skipping school can become entrenched in the early years.”

Absences in the early grades don’t really affect academics.

Not surprisingly, studies show that chronically absent kindergarten students do not perform as well in the first grade as those who were consistently present.  It is not unusual to have these deficiencies continue throughout elementary school.  Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments was found in Chicago where the attendance of ninth-graders proved to be a better predictor of dropouts than eighth grade test scores.

Most schools already know how many students are chronically absent.

Unfortunately, most school data concerning absences only revolve around the total school attendance patterns and “unexcused” absences.  Consequently, many individuals who are missing large portions of class time remain under the educational radar.  For example “an elementary school of 400 students can have 95 percent of its students showing up every day and yet still have 60 children missing 18 days—or 10 percent of the school year.”

There’s not much that schools can do to improve attendance; it’s up to the parents.

While certainly the traditional path of parental involvement and truant officers needs to be taken, there are often unique concerns that an individual school can incorporate into their programs.  Many causes of chronic absenteeism can be mitigated.  In one school, students were frequently absent because a number of parents who were shift workers and were not awake when their children should have been leaving for school.  The school opened the building early to allow parents to drop off their children after work and before going to bed.

The federal  or state government has no role in reducing chronic absenteeism.

Test scores may be important but one of the major reasons for poor test scores is bad attendance.  A number of states are now reporting on student attendance rates, strengthening attendance laws, and providing resources for effective enforcement.

The Bottom Line

Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.  Every day that is missed is a lost opportunity regardless of whether the absence is excused or not.  Consequently, strategies need to be created to maximize student presence. In one school the administrative team recognized the importance of this problem and employed a number of techniques to reduce “excused” absences.  For students who were chronically absent, an automated callout system was used to make 6:00 a.m. wake-up calls.  These kinds of interventions need to occur at the very beginning of a student’s education.

For every K-12 school the overriding need is to acknowledge that all absences -excused or unexcused – are detrimental. They have both short- and long-term negative consequences.  A culture establishing excellent attendance must be created in the earliest grades.  To that end, careful and consistent attention must be given to the analysis of the attendance record of each individual student not just school-wide data.  Every reason given for missing school should be examined and methods devised to prevent them from becoming chronic. If such an approach is started in the primary years, the continuation of such policies at the high school level will become far more effective.

The Wrong Basic Instincts

By Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader, and author of The Algebra Miracle.

It was a lesson learned on the frontlines of education.

As the 2013-14 school year unfolds across the country that experience compels a retired teacher to repeat the sentiments of Mel Riddile: school leaders will see significant improvement in academic achievement if they trade absolute control for cooperation. The validity of that philosophy delineated by both success and failure can be found at a school that was an aberration in an extraordinarily affluent district.

The fundamentals

The socio-economic demographics of the student body were astounding. The percent of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch was more than the ten wealthiest schools combined.  The mobility, ELL and absentee rates were equally disproportionate. Local street gangs exerted a strong influence within the building. Virtually every measure of academic success matched those negative statistics. Into this difficult situation a new principal made a stunning decision—relinquishing control in the hope that it could translate into improved educational achievement.

The story of this school is chronicled in my book “The Algebra Miracle”. The unwritten chapters of the years that have followed those related in the original story are a powerful reminder of the danger of creating (more…)