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Principal John O'Neill has earned his chops as a turnaround expert. In the past ten years, he has helped turn around two schools in two different states--no mean feat for a man who once struggled in school.

As principal of Forest Grove High School in Oregon, he has presided over a dramatic surge in test scores and graduation rates. In addition, many more low-income students have been signing up for challenging AP courses since O'Neill arrived in 2002. (Read our story about Forest Grove here.)

O'Neill recently told us about his school's journey from mediocrity to distinction. Some big lessons emerge from his story of school turnaround:

  • Create a climate of personal attention to student needs.
  • Do not remediate. Accelerate.
  • Build broad commitment to change.
  • Go for early, visible successes.
  • Create reforms for the long haul.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of talk recently about school turnarounds. I understand you have actually turned around two different schools. Is there some kind of a broad prescription, do you think, for a successful turnaround strategy?

O’Neill: I think you need to have a clear plan of action and clear targets that you want to impact. For myself, in ...

Frankforddictionaryweb.jpgFrankford Elementary School in Frankford, Delaware has garnered national attention for bringing almost all of its overwhelmingly low-income student body to grade-level proficiency in reading, mathematics, science and social studies. In fact, Frankford far exceeds state averages for students reaching proficiency. (See our story about the school here).

We recently caught up with Frankford principal Duncan Smith, who described what’s been working in his remarkable school.

Public School Insights: I understand that Frankford Elementary continues to exceed state standards by a long shot, but that wasn’t really always the case and that in the mid-1990s, there was a very different picture. What happened?

Smith: The change came along with my predecessor, Sharon Brittingham. She came to Frankford and really set things in motion, bringing higher expectations for kids and higher expectations for teachers.

In the past, the school had a reputation of having a high percentage of minority students and a high percentage of low-income students. The expectation was that those kids couldn’t know things at the same levels as the students at other ...

A decade ago, Interlake High School was the lowest-performing school in the Bellevue, Washington school district. Now, students thrive on a rich diet of demanding core courses. Student achievement rose steadily as more and more students opted for challenging AP and International Baccalaureate coursework. (See our story about Interlake here)

Principal Sharon Collins chalks her school’s success up to the ambitious de-tracking effort she launched when she became principal. The school eliminated the lowest-rung courses and urged students into the more challenging AP and IB routes. Key to this strategy was early and sustained support for struggling students.

We recently chatted with Collins by phone:

Public School Insights: I understand that about ten years ago, Interlake was the lowest-performing school in the district. What changed?

Collins: Well, there were quite a few components that came into it. One of them [is that] the school went through huge remodel. We got an opportunity to reinvent ourselves when we moved into the new building.

When I first came there, I met with every staff member for a 20-minute interview. We talked a lot about curriculum and climate. Those two things were the focus for the school. I instituted a whole committee to work on the ...

With school turnarounds near the top of the administration's agenda, one turnaround model is getting the lion's share of attention: Close the school, get a new principal, hire a new batch of teachers, and start from scratch. Unfortunately, it is not clear that this model is more feasible or effective than any other.

Evidence on effective turnaround strategies is scant, to say the least. To favor any one model is, at least to some degree, to fire a shot in the dark. School reconstitutions will founder if few qualified teachers and leaders are waiting in the wings to replace those who have been dismissed. This is no trivial problem as ...

Many educators speak at a frequency inaudible to pundits' ears. Perhaps that's why pundits almost always prefer broad, simple solutions to the nitty-gritty processes of improving schools.

The venerable education pundit Jay Mathews recently exhibited this tendency in his review of a book about the success of Montgomery County Maryland. Leading for Equity, he opines, is all about process, and process is too often ponderous, impenetrable and uninspiring. For Mathews, exhibit A is the cryptic set of lessons the book outlines in its first chapter. For example: "Implementing a strategy of common, rigorous standards with differentiated resources and instruction can create excellence and equity for all students." Poetry it's not.

Still, I have to agree with Elena Silva's judgment that Matthews' "critique of the book as too process-oriented is wrong. Process has tripped up many a reform, and understanding what sequence of events and efforts leads to change is key to ...

When Daniel P. King came to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in 2007, the district’s dropout rate was double the Texas state average. Now, it is half the state average.

How did the district do it? Dr. King and his colleagues created a College, Career and Technology Academy to steer dropouts--some as old as 25--back onto a path towards graduation. Not only do those students gain the skills and course credits they need to graduate, they also gain college credit along the way. (See a story about the Academy in our success stories section).

King recently spoke with us about the district’s remarkable success.

Public School Insights: What prompted you to create the College, Career & Technology Academy in the first place?

King: I was entering new into the district. I was moving from a small district to a large district, and I was overwhelmed when I saw that the district had a dropout rate that was twice the state average. The prior year had seen approximately 500 dropouts.

When I asked for an analysis of the 500 dropouts from the previous year I found that not only was there the typical freshman bubble (where students don't make it past the ninth grade, get stuck there and ultimately drop out), but there was [also] a relatively new phenomenon that I call the “twelfth grade bubble, ” [caused by] exit testing and rising standards.

In a small district I had dealt with [the dropout problem] very successfully, simply through ...

The Teacher Leaders Network just hosted a fascinating discussion on creativity in the classroom. A number of teachers involved in the discussion zeroed in on a matter that has again been looming large in debates about national standards: The tension between standardization and personalization. They wrote about the challenge of teaching basic information all students need to know "whether they find it creative or not" while engaging students' individual interests.

In other venues, similar discussions have drawn extremists like flies to honey. In the comments section of one top blog, for example, a privatization zealot credited the lack of common standards in private schools with those schools' alleged success: "No one argues that private schools are failing," Of course, we don't exactly have common measures for determining a private school's success or failure. And comparisons of private and public school NAEP scores show essentially no difference between private and public school performance.  By why let data cloud ideology?

On the other side, the most immoderate critics of ...

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When Money Matters

Just in time to help education leaders who must decide how to spend the stimulus money, the Century Foundation is publishing a book on the impact of extra funding on student achievement in poor school districts.  The book focuses on New Jersey's Abbott School Districts, which benefited from court-mandated efforts to close funding gaps between poor and wealthy communities.

The book's findings are, by the author's own admission, unsurprising. Citing "fairly dramatic" improvements in New Jersey test scores, the book concludes: ...

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There Will Be Blood?

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher reminds us today that school improvement does not necessarily require a death-match between high-profile "reformers" and the education "establishment."

Fisher tells the story of a once struggling elementary school that has dramatically raised the achievement of its overwhelmingly disadvantaged student body: "Broad Acres did this without Rhee's reform tactics: no young recruits from Teach for America, no cash for students who come to class, no linkage of teacher pay to test scores."

In other words, Broad Acres made great strides without any of the capital "R" reforms that dominate national discussion about education. Nor did they make their gains over the dead bodies of recalcitrant teachers, administrators or community members.

What did Broad Acres do? The school fostered on-going faculty collaboration, gave strugging students individual attention, offered engaging out-of-school enrichment activities, and supported students' physical and mental well-being.

This is not to argue that we should abandon important discussions about those capital "R" reforms, which focus mainly on incentives and ...

ObamaFamily.jpg Just over a week ago, education blogger Corey Bower wondered whether a Barack Obama victory could narrow the achievement gap.  Among the reasons he cites: Obama could be a role model for African American students; Obama could unsettle traditional stereotypes that reinforce low achievement among students of color.

One possibility Bower's thoughtful and cautious analysis does not consider: Schools have an opportunity to use Obama's victory as a teachable moment. Without descending to partisan politics, schools can capitalize on a new sense of civic empowerment among students who, rightly or wrongly, have long felt disenfranchised.  In her recent Public School Insights interview, Harvard researcher Meira Levinson put it this way: ...

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