Which way to turn

It’s notoriously difficult to change a chronically low-performing school, but the promise of $3.5 billion in federal turnaround funds is motivating states and districts to try. Ed Week’s District Dossier summarizes the turnaround stories, while EdWatch notes that the softest federally approved turnaround strategy, transformation, is by far the most popular.

In D.C., an ultra-competititve new principal has transformed a “dumping ground” middle school in a low-income black neighborhood, reports the Washington Post. Dwan Jordon drove out many of Sousa Middle School’s teachers.

Two years ago, 23 percent of its students were proficient in reading, 17 percent in math.

Described by a former colleague as “very, very, very, very, I-can’t-say-enough-verys competitive,” Jordon fired most of the staff and pushed through other changes his first year. The union fought him. Some parents asked for his dismissal. Then the test results came in: Reading proficiency rose to 39 percent, math to 42 percent.

Sousa employs two instructional coaches, a psychologist, two counselors and two social workers — in all, 56 adults for 230 students — the Post reports.

In “weeks of eight-hour meetings,” Jordon and his leadership team “mapped out what would be taught in every grade, every subject, every day.” They decided how students should move in the halls and the best way to retrieve lunch trays. The team believes that structure prevents discipline problems and makes it possible to teach.

Jordon also believes in data.

In a room around the corner from his office, Jordon has plastered the walls with rows and columns of tiny handwriting: test scores broken down by grade, by teacher, by student, each name in green for advanced, orange for proficient or red for basic. Jordon calls it “the war room.”

In San Diego, a low-performing elementary school is trying to change without drama or disruption, reports Voice of San Diego.

Burbank avoided controversial strategies that are promoted by the feds but disliked by the teachers union, such as paying teachers more to work at troubled schools. Instead, Burbank says it will meet the requirement to retain teachers by simply making the school a more appealing place to work.

Burbank teachers try “to figure out exactly what each child is missing and make sure they get it,” such as reteaching present, past and future to confused kindergartners.

Burbank also added time for students to temporarily split up into smaller groups based on how well they were faring academically and what they were struggling with. They rotate between teachers who give them quick lessons aimed at their specific needs, such as sounding out words or story structure. Doing so is supposed to provide more personalized, targeted help for each child.

. . . Teachers will get together to plan lessons more often and with more training, enabling them to learn from each others’ successes and struggles.

Even in the transformation model, if scores remain low, the principal will be replaced.

Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice school was so bad it was handed over to the See Forever Foundation, which also runs a two-campus charter school. The school is now a model, says the court monitor.

LA’s Fremont High has reopened (it’s on a year-round schedule) with a majority of new teachers, reports the Los Angeles Times.

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