Facing a School Turnaround Or Restart? We Have Expert Advice For You.

We say it every year: the summer flew by! That’s certainly how I feel about my summer at Bellwether Education Partners as a Strategic Advising fellow. As I get ready to go back to graduate school, I’m reflecting on my work with a group of school leaders taking on the critical task of school turnaround, who we supported with strategic planning.

This group was eager for guidance from the field, so we put together a panel of amazing leaders experienced in school turnaround: Rebecca Bloch at DSST Public Schools, Mike Kerr at Match Education, and our very own Tresha Ward. Across the three of them, they have more than 40 years of experience working in education.

Here are a few high-level lessons from the panelists for school turnaround leaders:

Build trust from the beginning and listen to the community

To build trust and learn from the community, go on a “listening tour.” This should be one of the first things you do when taking on a new school, with an emphasis on listening rather than asking a long list of questions. As you listen, a few big themes will likely emerge, which will help you develop your strategy and action items. A listening tour will also give you a sense for whether the school has a defined culture. If there’s no clear culture, you are closer to starting from a blank slate, which might be easier than working against the grain. And if there are community must-haves — like access to the school pool on the weekends — figure that out early on.

Figure out the community must-haves, whether that’s a community garden or pool, and maintain those. Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Know your focus areas

Don’t try to change everything at once. Instead choose one high-leverage instructional priority for the year and keep coming back to it. Create a sense of urgency, rally the team around it, and celebrate quick wins. When you see wins — even small ones — celebrate them in your school and in your community. This can help to change the narrative about a previously struggling school.

Build the capacity of your leaders

Your school should always be bigger than you as the leader. For each activity in your day — e.g., school rounds, greeting families at the door, parent meetings, data meetings — bring someone along with you and use an “I do, we do, you do,” model with constant debriefs. In an “I do, we do, you do” model, first demonstrate how to do the activity, then do the activity in partnership with the individual you are coaching, and finally ask the individual to do the activity on their own. For the “we do” portion, pre-plan meetings and events together, observe as the individual executes, and debrief afterwards. Narrate your moves during your modeling and provide both affirming and constructive feedback when it’s your leader’s turn.

Have patience

Lastly, remember that this takes time. Turnarounds don’t happen in a year but rather take multiple years. Have patience with your school and yourself, and encourage the broader community to have patience too, which might include managing what your school board, district, or central team expects for your work. Mike Kerr’s parting words for all of his leadership team meetings:“Do your best today and do better tomorrow.”

Additional resources

And for those last few weeks of summer, we asked our panelists to recommend their favorite books on this topic:

  • The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin
  • Leadership for Low-Performing Schools by Daniel L. Duke
  • The 2R Manager by Peter E. Friedes

As I head back to school, I’ve added these to my list, too!

Are you in the midst of or thinking about a turnaround? Contact our Strategic Advising team at strategy@bellwethereducation.org or reach out to Tresha directly at Tresha.Ward@bellwethereducation.org.

Lea Nieuwoudt was a 2018 summer fellow with Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team.