Turning around a low performing school is a monumental challenge. It is a challenge that is filled with failure, one that will be met with much resistance, and an experience that will be very uncomfortable. However, it is something than can be done. In my experience, there are five characteristics that successful principals and teachers have in turned around schools. These characteristics are: 1) They’re crazy; 2) intellectual humility is evident; 3) they have a sense of urgency; 4) possess a willingness to collaborate; and 5) they are risk takers and innovators.
They are Crazy
In order to be successful in turning around a low performing school, the principal, the teachers, and (key people) must be crazy about kids. They have one shared goal and one focus only, and that’s ensuring that 100% of their students in the school excel academically. They genuinely care deeply for each and every child and truly believe that every child is salvageable. They literally love their students and school despite the challenges and obstacles. It’s typical for principals and teachers to work 12-14 hours.
Intellectual Humility is Evident
We’ve done an excellent job of preparing our students for the 20th century. However, it’s the 21st century. Times have changed, students have, and it’s imperative that schools constantly evolve to meet the ever changing demands. Therefore, in turnaround schools there must be a thirst for learning that must be quenched. The staff must be excited about professional development and learning. Professional development must be available to teachers locally, in state, and nationally. Additionally, teachers must be honest about their weaknesses and learn from those who are strong in that area. The “I know it all” mentality must be non-existence.
There’s a Sense of Urgency
In an emergency room every second and every minute is valuable. These seconds and minutes are literally a life or death situation. In successful turnaround schools the same sense of urgency exist. Enrichment classes (art, music, physical education, and technology classes) are connected to the classroom. They are not viewed as time off, but time on. There are interactive games during lunch, vocabulary words presented as students get off the bus, words on the walls to read during transitions, and teachers are teaching as if there’s no tomorrow. There’s a “we have to get this right and we have to get it right now” mentality. Just as the emergency room, it’s a life or death situation.
A Willingness to Collaborate
According to a study at Harvard University, one of the most important components in turning around a low performing school is the ability of adults to work together. This requires an environment where everyone feels respected, everyone has a voice, and there’s a sense of togetherness, support, and appreciation for one another. The teachers are consistently reflecting on best practices, analyzing results of common assessments, and adjusting instruction and remediation/acceleration opportunities based off the results.
Risk Takers and Innovators
In successful low performing schools, one thing is guaranteed, and that is, they’re doing or have done something drastically different. I’m not talking about an intervention period, after school program, before school program, or the purchasing of new software, but I’m referring to calculated risk to meet the needs of the students. Having been a principal at all levels and having turned around schools at each level, I’ve become a physician of analyzing the data, diagnosing the problem, prescribing a prescription, and monitoring its effect overtime. However, what I’ve found in 17 years as an educator is that the prescriptions I prescribe many times don’t align with the states or district’s pacing guide. Therefore, I’m left to make a decision. Do I follow the pacing guide or give my students what they need? I always choose giving the students what they need. It is obvious that what’s currently happening to turn around low performing schools isn’t working. Therefore, it’s imperative for schools to be innovative to meet the needs of the students. A few examples I’ve seen over the years are creativity with scheduling, specific days for remediation and acceleration, strategic departmentalizing, or re-writing the curriculum with cultural and heritage themes that connect the students’ lives to the content.
In conclusion, turning around a low performing school is an enormous challenge that requires an abundance of resiliency resolve, and intestinal fortitude. Additionally, a tremendous amount of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm is necessary as well. Although there are many more characteristics, I’ve found being crazy about kids, the presence of intellectual humility, operating with a sense of urgency, a willingness to collaborate, and a staff of risk takers and innovators to be characteristics in the principals and teachers who have been successful in turning schools around.