Instead of focusing on dramatically changing the structure of a school, officials should invest in improving teaching, learning, equipment, and community engagement, which happens more often at schools in white, affluent neighborhoods, Brown said.

“But the response of the school district is to throw a grenade into our schools,” Brown said.

Reformers say civil rights complaints are misguided because school failure disproportionately affects minorities in the first place. School turnarounds are efforts to improve that, said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

However, he noted that turnarounds are often a “Band-Aid solution. Most of the turnarounds aren’t going to succeed because the school continues to exist in a dysfunctional school system. Radical change at the district may be what’s needed.”

Federal officials said they are open to working with communities to lessen the impact of school turnarounds.

“On the ground, these policies can have an impact we don’t see,” Briscoe said. “But there’s no promise that we’ll be able to satisfy all people.”

Overhauling the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s education policy. To do that, the federal government revamped the existing School Improvement Grant program, boosting it from a $125 million annual initiative in 2007 to $535 million for the current school year.

Under the renewed program, which launched in 2010 with a one-time $3.5 billion infusion, districts receive grants to institute one of four school jumpstart models. They can turn the school over to a charter or other operator, replace at least half of the staff and principal, transform the school with a new principal and learning strategy, or simply close the school. Improvement schools can receive up to $2 million annually for three years.

Results have been mixed.

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In Chicago, where the nation’s third largest school system has undertaken one of the more extensive school turnaround programs, a study of 36 schools by the University of Chicago found some improvement in academic achievement in elementary and middle schools—but not until the second or third year of either a principal or staff replacement or a charter conversion.

“They’re closing the gap, but it’s taking some time to do so,” said Marisa de la Torre, who directed the study.

With high schools, researchers did not have academic data to parse, so instead they looked at attendance rates, which are often a good indicator of performance, de la Torre said. Attendance rates improved in the first year of a school turnaround, but then reverted to pre-turnaround rates. “We can’t really say if the glass is half full or half empty,” she said.

A study released last May found graduation rates and college-prep course participation increased dramatically at a Los Angeles high school in the Watts section taken over by charter Green Dot Public Schools in 2008. The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing called the new Locke High School “an impressive success story in many ways,” but noted overall achievement remains low.

To boost academic performance, Green Dot now plans to revamp its ninth-grade curriculum to offer more remedial help and open a middle school to better prepare kids for high school.

With no guarantee that school turnarounds produce solid results quickly, some question whether drastic reform is worth the disruption, and whether less radical changes could work as well given adequate time and funding.

“We take issue with experimental reforms such as these when it is only children of color who are the subject of the experiment—and especially when the experiment has already failed,” wrote Jonathan Stith of Empower D.C. in his federal complaint about Washington, D.C., schools.

(Next page: Why replacing teachers is a problem)