Column: How to fix failing schools

Alabama first lady Dianne Bentley, left, toured Mobile’s George Hall Elementary in 2011, a school touted as a national turnaround model. But even its numbers plateaued.
Alabama first lady Dianne Bentley, left, toured Mobile’s George Hall Elementary in 2011, a school touted as a national turnaround model. But even its numbers plateaued.
Published May 4, 2013

An elementary school teacher called me a few days ago, distraught at the recent news that eight area schools face severe state intervention. Under Florida law, which aims to mold them into "turnaround" schools, the whole staff must go — or justify why they should be rehired. • Last week, Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego announced that 11 more schools could face the same fate next year. The teacher on the other end of the line has worked in one of those schools for years. • She says she will cry on that bittersweet June day when the kids in her class move on to the next grade. They've been through a lot together this year, and she wants the best for them. • She says that the staff members band together, work their guts out every day and see progress, but not nearly enough to satisfy the state's accountability system. • More than 80 percent of the students in her school were born into families in poverty. Some of their parents are drug addicts, or they've been in and out of jail, or they are simply worn down. Some days, there are kids who doze off in class — not because they are lazy but because the adults in their homes have been partying all night. • After all that, the teacher says, it is insulting and degrading and deflating for the state to waltz in and talk about cleaning the place out. This teacher has a question: How would her replacement keep those kids awake any better than she does? • You know she's speaking the truth because you've heard it so often from so many other teachers. It shows through in the statistics. You see her point. • And yet, these schools — by reasonable measures — are falling short. It's not just state bureaucrats who say so. Too few of these students will go on to graduate from high school, let alone to successful careers. • It is hard to ignore the voices in education who understand the teacher's frustration but hear resignation and unwarranted hopelessness and excuses in her words. These are the voices who invented and nurtured the idea of turnaround schools. And they believe in the mantra that every child can learn — deserves and has a right to learn — and that schools should be up to the task no matter what kind of home a child comes from.

The tension between that very desirable goal and the grinding reality that teachers in high-poverty schools face every day is pervasive. It is the elephant in the room as school superintendents in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties start the turnaround process in the next few weeks.

Our eyes will fix on Grego in Pinellas, MaryEllen Elia in Hillsborough County and Kurt Browning in Pasco County. We will watch to see whom they hire as principals, how the staffs at each school are reconstituted, how the curricula change and what results are gained.

Together this year, they will have eight opportunities to pull off something special, and eight chances to flop.

Elia has indicated that she, not the state, will dictate staffing changes at Sligh Middle School and Potter Elementary, and that the district not only knows how to turn schools around but already has been hard at it.

Grego and his staff have started looking at replacement principals and teachers for Pinellas' five turnaround schools — Melrose, Fairmount Park and Maximo elementaries, and Azalea and Pinellas Park middle schools. He also says they'll get more fulltime coaches in literacy, math and science.

In Pasco, Browning already has advertised to replace the principal, assistant principal and teachers at Lacoochee Elementary. But no one outside the current administrators has applied yet to run the school, and most of the 42 people who responded to fill the 35 teacher openings already work at Lacoochee. The district expects to keep trying.

What does a failing school look like?

Nearly 90 percent of last year's fifth-graders at Potter Elementary were reading below grade level, according to their FCAT scores. At Fairmount Park Elementary, the figure was 77 percent, and at Lacoochee Elementary, 71 percent. That translates to 158 kids who can't be doing well in middle school this year.

Such schools are filled with poor children who are likelier to start kindergarten behind their peers and struggle to catch up. So high-poverty schools must do more with their students than other schools just to keep from failing.

A successful turnaround begins with the right principal, said Christina Theokas, head of research at the advocacy group Education Trust and author of the new book, Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools.

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The turnaround principal must strongly believe that "all students can learn to high levels" and have the ability to rally others behind that ideal, Theokas said. Such a person would never think to voice frustrations we hear in everyday conversation about trying to teach students from poor families, she said. And they would confront other educators who talked that way.

In a study of 33 successful turnaround principals, Theokas found there was no single type that is right for the job. They all performed well, whether soft-spoken or gregarious or stern.

"On the surface they had quite different personalities," she said. "What we did find is that most of them had a deep experience in the classroom … and through their own experience as teachers they learned essentially what kids were able to do. One of them said, 'I realized that students were capable of just about anything I was capable of teaching.' "

The research also found that the quality of the principals' mentors as they rose through the ranks mattered more than the years of experience they had.

When it came to hiring new teachers, Theokas said principals and district officials looked for people who could work together, compensating for each other's weaknesses and building on strengths. They were teachers who took responsibility not only for their own classrooms, but were interested in — and felt responsible for — their colleagues' kids as well.

They were up on education research, studied data on students and had no qualms when administrators popped in to evaluate them.

"They understand that teaching is a constant improvement game," Theokas said. "You're never done. They're willing to constantly reflect on their practice and find ways to improve."

And they were more motivated by a school's culture and leadership than they were by the bonus money that comes with teaching in a turnaround school.

The turnaround strategy for the nation's lowest performing schools has been embraced by the Obama administration and is run through federal School Improvement Grants. It can take several forms, from closing schools to having charters or private companies take them over. The least restrictive option is the restaffing plan that the eight local schools are getting ready to try.

Fans of the turnaround strategy say it can be a game changer. But a recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Education came away with some puzzling results when it compared the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.

Sixty-five percent of the 730 schools studied showed gains in math and reading in that one-year span, many of them in double digits. But the analysis also showed that more than a quarter of the schools saw decreases in math and reading performance after the turnarounds started.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said it is far too early to put much stock in either number, though that hasn't quelled the ongoing debate over the program.

Those who follow turnarounds often point to George Hall Elementary in Mobile County, Ala.

Like Melrose, Maximo, Fairmount Park and Potter elementaries here in Tampa Bay, close to 100 percent of its students are from poor and minority families.

And like Lacoochee Elementary, it is geographically isolated. For years, parents showed little interest in helping out at George Hall, and the only thing lower than the school's performance numbers were everyone's expectations.

After Alabama declared George Hall a failing school in 2004, Mobile County began a turnaround effort. The new principal hired teachers with a good work ethic and lots of training, and who shared her philosophy that every child can learn.

Strangers at first, the staff got to know each other over the summer. Teachers got a bonus for signing on, and yearly bonuses for meeting performance goals. They revamped the curriculum, tested often to get a real-time look at how well students were grasping the material, and added time to the school day for more learning and "enrichment activities."

Test scores soared.

The story of George Hall Elementary is told in an inspiring five-minute video on YouTube. But when the U.S. Department of Education logo flashes up at the end, you wonder how much of it is spin.

So I checked the data. Indeed, George Hall's numbers took off. In math, for example, 54 percent of its fourth graders did not meet state standards during the 2003-04 school year. But just one year into the turnaround, only 14 percent were in that category.

Four years later, 96 percent of the school's fourth-graders were performing at the state's highest levels in math and reading.

However, the numbers also show that after hitting extraordinarily high marks from 2006 to 2010, the school's numbers have begun to inch down.

Small percentages of students have started to fall back into the lower performance ranges. The drop is slight so far. But after years of eye-popping gains, the slippage is hard to overlook.

This can be one of the pitfalls facing turnarounds, said Theokas, the Education Trust researcher. Some schools hit a plateau even when educators are working their hardest.

"It does happen even in these really great schools," she said.

It also can happen long before schools get to high performance. Some are so accustomed to low performance that a 20 percentage-point bump can be exhilarating to the staff, even as more than half the school is still performing below grade level.

Theokas says those are the moments when a good turnaround principal needs to come forward and say: "That's a good first step but we need to make five more steps and do it even faster than we've been doing."

She added: "That's a hard position to be in but it's really essential to really distinguish between excellence and mediocrity."

New principal and staff. Teacher bonuses. An attitude that all kids can learn. Lots of training, team building, collaborating and number crunching. The turnaround recipe seems pretty straightforward.

Some schools stir in all or some of those ingredients but don't see the results. That's because the trick is in the execution. By all accounts, it is a long, slow slog that requires principals and teachers to keep on task, stay inspired and fight through times when things don't seem to be working.

Nothing about it is sexy or quick or easy.

"It's hard and the improvement process, it takes time," Theokas says. "And until you have that consistency across the school in the instructional culture ... you're going to have ups and downs."

No one wants to see a failing school. That's why the many people who follow education in Tampa Bay will be rooting for superintendents Grego, Elia and Browning to make sound decisions on their turnarounds. But the public will be scrutinizing them too.

Superintendents, this is a moment when your skills and intuition will make all the difference. We count more than 5,000 students in our area's eight new turnarounds, 5,000 young people who need rescuing. When it comes to school, you're all they've got.

Contact Tom Tobin at