Videos highlight successful school reform

The films aim to show how difficult changes in schools can lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement.
The videos aim to show how difficult changes in schools can lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement.

To help local leaders with their own school-reform efforts, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has produced a new series of online videos highlighting successful school improvements from districts across the nation.

The videos illustrate how several school districts have successfully turned around their low-performing schools using the four models endorsed by ED’s $3.5 billion Title I School Improvement Grant program.

This program makes funds available to states by formula, to help them target the bottom 5 percent of U.S. schools—or approximately 5,000 chronic underperforming schools nationwide, ED says.

Local school districts compete for the funds after identifying the schools they want to overhaul and then determining which of four models is most appropriate:

1. Transformation: Replace the principal and improve the school through comprehensive curriculum reform, professional development, extending learning time, and other strategies.

2. Turnaround: Replace the principal, screen existing school staff, and rehire no more than half the teachers; adopt a new governance structure; and improve the school through curriculum reform, professional development, extending learning time, and other strategies.

3. Restart: Convert a school or close it and re-open it as a charter school or under an education management organization.

4. School Closure: Close the school and send the students to higher-achieving schools in the district.

Through interviews with school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, these short online films aim to show how sometimes difficult changes in school leadership, personnel, curriculum, and culture can lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement, ED says.

“Chronically underperforming schools are a national problem,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “States and districts must rise to the challenge. When a school continues to perform in the bottom 5 percent of the state and isn’t showing signs of growth, or has graduation rates below 60 percent, something dramatic needs to be done. We all have a moral obligation to do the right thing for our children.”

According to ED, the Title I School Improvement Grant program’s models were informed by successful examples from across the country. As of press time, 19 states have received School Improvement Grant funds to turn around their persistently lowest-achieving schools.

In total, $3.5 billion will be made available to states this spring from money set aside for school improvement in ED’s 2009 budget and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), with an additional $500 million from ED’s 2010 budget to be distributed in late summer or fall.

ED’s new video series highlights the following schools where these four models are at work and showing positive results for students:

George Hall Elementary School. Beginning in 2004, George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Ala., implemented dramatic changes to turn around the school, including hiring a new principal and extending the school day by an hour. Prior to 2004, George Hall was one of the lowest performing schools in the state. The school experienced declining test scores, a lack of community and parental involvement, low student engagement, and student disciplinary concerns. After turning around George Hall, more than 90 percent of students were performing at or above proficiency in both reading and math. In 2008, ED named George Hall a “Blue Ribbon School of the Year,” and in 2009, Education Trust awarded the school its Dispelling the Myth Award.

Pickett Middle School. In 2007, Pickett Middle School in Philadelphia was closed and reopened under an independent charter organization, Mastery Charter Schools. Prior to undergoing this change, Pickett experienced severe student disciplinary problems. Student suspensions were high, and academic performance was low. Under Mastery management, the Pickett campus established a learning environment focused on producing college and career-ready students. In just one year, student violence went down dramatically, while student performance increased by double digits in both math and reading.

Hamilton County School District. In 2000, the Hamilton County School District in Chattanooga, Tenn., teamed up with a community partner to transform eight of the 20 lowest-performing grade schools in the state. The county built leadership teams to establish staff development and incentives programs to attract and retain talent. After the transformation, third graders’ performance on state exams increased from 53 percent in 2003 to 78 percent in 2008 in reading and language arts, and from 50 percent to 72 percent during that time in math.

Click below to watch George Hall, Pickett, and Hamilton County

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Harvard School of Excellence. In 2006, Harvard was ranked among the 10 worst schools in Illinois. To turn the school around, the school hired a new principal and mostly new faculty. By the end of its first year, Harvard reduced absences by an average of five days per student. After two years, Harvard students that meet or exceed state testing standards increased by 25 percent.

Click below to watch Harvard’s video

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James Johnson Public School. In 2008, James Johnson Public School in Chicago teamed up with the Academy for Urban School Leadership to turn the school around. Prior to turning around, James Johnson was plagued by student disciplinary concerns, and only 40 percent of students were meeting state standards in reading, math, and science. Today, James Johnson teachers, parents, and students credit the turnaround with improving student behavior, increasing student performance, and enhancing parental engagement.

Click below to watch James Johnson’s video

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Locke Senior High School. In 2007, Locke Senior High School in Los Angeles came under the management of Green Dot, a nonprofit charter organization. Prior to 2007, Locke sent only 5 percent of graduating seniors to four-year colleges. Today, 71 percent of Locke’s graduates have gone on to attend college. Teachers and students once described Locke as a “chaotic” environment where teachers would let students “walk out of school and … wouldn’t say anything.” The environment led to a violent school riot in 2006. Since then, Locke has decreased student suspensions involving drugs or violence from 21 percent to 5 percent, and the school has implemented small learning communities to improve performance and accountability; built strong relationships among principals, teachers, and students; and created a safe environment where students pursue academic success.

Click below to watch Locke’s video

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ED’s school improvement models are somewhat controversial, especially the school turnaround model. Earlier this year, the Central Falls, R.I., school system made headlines—and turned heads—when its school board voted to fire the entire staff of its underperforming high school. Under the federal turnaround model, no more than half the teachers could be rehired. The situation was resolved when the district announced May 17 that it had reached an agreement with teachers that would avoid the need for layoffs.


U.S. Department of Education

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