By: Marcus D. Jackson, Ed.D. June 17, 2018

Have you ever been driving—headed to a familiar destination? You know every turn, every pothole, ever obstacle             along the way. As you are traveling down the familiar roads, you see an orange construction sign—Detour. What do you do? Do you barrel through the sign, and risk imminent danger? Do you abandon your trek and return home? For most of us, we do one simple thing—we turn around.  

turn-around is a quick, dramatic, sustained change in direction. In the performance of an organization, a turn-around can be viewed in the same way. It is a necessary change in direction to avoid obstacles that would impede progress. Recently, some larger school systems have incorporated the concept of turnaround leaders, coaches, and other educational specialists. These individuals are charged with turning around low-performing schools—by any means necessary. While the title lends itself to the belief that the work is solely on the individual, it is understood that this insurmountable work cannot and should not be performed in isolation.  Being a turnaround principal is a very demanding job. Every principal will face frustrating moments, seemingly impossible deadlines, and will be expected to overcome enormous obstacles. Although teachers are the single most important school-based factor in student learning—especially in a low-performing school, the principal’s role is paramount for dramatically improving student performance. Even with their best efforts, the principal, assistant principals, and teachers cannot do this work alone. In my experience of successfully leading the turn-around of schools at all levels, there are Five P’s that are essential turning around a school, and sustaining academic excellence. These    five P’s are: Parents; Personnel; People; Pastors, and Politicians.

#1 Parents

Research over the last forty years provides educators and parents with a substantial body of evidence that parental involvement and engagement is associated with children’s sustained academic performance. When parents are involved, students take more responsibility for their learning, and thus accountability is heightened.

There are advantages to increased parental involvement. For example, familial communication improves when children reach out to their parents for help. This engagement can strengthen the parent-student relationship: knowing  your student’s grades and assignments is an easy starting point to open dialogue for discussing progress, offering advice, working on projects together, and for providing encouragement.

For further evidence of the impact parent involvement can have on student success, consider the following:

  • Students with parents who are involved in their school have fewer behavioral problems and better academic performance.  
  • Students with involved parents, no matter what their income or background, are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, enroll in higher-level programs, be promoted, pass their classes, earn credits, attend school regularly, have better social skills, show improved behavior, and graduate and go on to postsecondary education.
  • Students have higher graduation rates and greater enrollment rates in post-secondary education.
  • Educators hold higher expectations of students whose parents collaborate with the teacher.
  • Student achievement for disadvantaged children not only improves, but can also reach levels that are standard for middle-class children. In addition, the children who are farthest behind make the greatest gains.
  • Children from diverse cultural backgrounds perform better when parents and professionals collaborate to bridge the gap between the culture at home and at the learning institution.

Unfortunately, students whose parents are not involved, or who demonstrate no interest in their child’s  education, are more likely not to do well in school; the possibility of dropping out of school increases tremendously

#2 Personnel

When most people think of personnel, they think of the teachers—teachers are the bedrock of a highly functioning school. If there are no teachers—who will teach the children? That is an easy premise; however, as a turnaround principal, one knows the importance of a cadre of teachers who have high skill and high will. One needs to stack the building with teachers who are committed to the cause of educating children, regardless of district furloughs; pay freezes; new initiatives; additional professional development; uncapped attendance, etc. Commitment is key. In addition, the principal has to ensure that all personnel are highly qualified. More often than not, our best teachers have the lightest loads, as this practice ends up being concessions for all the seen and unseen things that a district will mandate for teachers to complete. A turnaround principal has to be courageous enough to make decisions that are best for children, for programs, and then for adults. We cannot placate adults at the expense of children. A highly qualified teaching staff is essential to the school turnaround process.

In addition to a highly qualified teaching staff, the principal must ensure that he/she has a cohesive administrative team. This is paramount because the administrators’ jobs are to ensure that the principal’s vision comes to fruition. They are the ambassadors for the school, and they are responsible for building capacity in the teachers, assuaging parents’ concerns, and building and maintaining stakeholder relationships. As a turnaround principal, my administrators knew that my expectation was for them to be in classrooms—monitoring instruction. There were times when my administrators and instructional coaches would teach a class or two to remain sharp. I also required my faculty and staff to mentor students—particularly our males. I cannot tell you the drastic improvements that I saw in attendance and academics. Students came to school because they knew that they mattered to the adults in the building.

The next leg of this stool is all school personnel. I always told my administrative assistants that they were the face of the school—the first people that our parents and community members would see when they walked in. It was important to me that everyone felt welcomed. I expected everyone in my building to be the about the work of building lasting relationships with children—from my parent liaison, to my custodians. All of my faculty and staff knew our students by name, and they held our students accountable for their behavior, for their academic success, and for the way they treated each other.

#3 People

The people in the community are key influencers in the success of turnaround schools. Stakeholders, partners in education, and organizational members can volunteer at schools to provide a real-world context for the students’ experiences. These influencers have a stake in the schools, because they understand that they can play an integral role in the future of their community, our state, and our nation as a whole. Community partners understand that if they do not work in tandem with schools to create opportunities for economic development and growth, that children will not see the value in a good education. As a result, if they are not given other options, they can wreak havoc in the community; if kids are not in school during the day, being left to their own devices does not bode well for anyone. We build stronger communities by building stronger schools.

Increased communal partnerships are an implicit factor in determining schools’ success. The community is an extension of the familial construct. The more students know that there are adults—outside of their home, who care about them, the more they will believe in themselves. When students take responsibility for their academic success, they help to shape a culture that is built on meaningful, appropriate relationships. Students begin to understand the importance of what a quality education means, and how it can change their lives. Strong partnerships can mean the difference between students who graduate and students who drop out of school. The research has shown us that dropouts create a strain on the economy. Barring that, it is every child’s constitutional right to receive a free and public education. In summation, the more the community is involved in the turnaround process, the more successful turnaround schools will be. Attendance and achievement will increase, efficacy will be the norm, and stakeholder confidence will be augmented. Together, we can give our students the quality education that they deserve. Together, we can change children’s destiny.    

#4 Pastors

The fourth P is pastors, as they are the most influential individuals in the community. Sundays are the only time where all socioeconomic groups come together. Private school, local public elementary, middle, and high school students and parents, as well as parents who chose to send their students out of zone, or to charter schools are all together. As a principal, if you are promoting the great things going on in your public school, you need to collaborate with the local, faith-based organizations. They are able to provide a variety of resources that your students and families will need, e.g. food, shelter for the homeless, assistance with bills, etc.

While there is a clear separation of church and State, the 21st century clerical community understands the need to support the educational community in their efforts to turn around low-performing schools. After all, these students worship in the community churches, mosques, temples, and other religious places. It behooves the religious community to come together to work towards a common goal. Most faith-based entities that I have partnered with have provided extra support to our students on the first day of school—when attendance counts the most. They are to welcome the students with enthusiasm and positive affirmations. They encourage the children to do their best, and to have a great school year. The students are excited to see their pastors, deacons, imams, rabbis, etc. at their school, wishing them well. In these moments, there is no Christian, no Muslim, and no Jew—there are only believers. These inter-faith believers bring all their good will, their positive energy, and their time and talents, and avail themselves to our schools. Now, that is powerful.

Moreover, the collaboration does not end after the first day. In fact, it usually begins prior to, with the faith-based community hosting Back to School rallies. Many provide students with much-needed back to school supplies, so that students will be prepared on the first day of school. In addition, many organizations contact the schools to see what the faculty and staff needs are—and more often than not, they offer to pray with and for the entire school. These genuine prayers for safety and success are just what some faculty and staff members need to solidify and validate their experience as a worker in the educational vineyards. Regardless of what we acknowledge, or do not acknowledge as it relates to religion, if we want to experience success—we have to be of the mindset that everyone is responsible for the success of our students. We have to learn to leverage faith-based organizations; they are able to move in ways that other organizations cannot. Fait-based entities can provide support by meeting the needs of our faculty and staff in ways that school districts and administrative teams often overlook.

#5 Politicians

The final P is politicians—another seemingly taboo addition to the educational recipe for success, but still an important group, nonetheless. Whether we want to admit it or not, education and politics go hand in hand. Most of our funding—especially for turnaround schools, are a direct result of levied taxes, educational reform laws, and local, state or federal dollars given in aid. Much like the clerical staff, politicians are able to cross party lines and work together to achieve a common purpose—helping our low-performing schools succeed. By volunteering in schools, and collaborating with school officials, politicians gain invaluable insight as to what schools need to be successful. They can use their political influence to lobby for more autonomy in funding; higher salaries; increased incentives and benefits that will help to recruit and retain highly qualified staff.

In addition, politicians provide another tangible example of what students can aspire to become. Many of the local politicians returned to serve their communities, so students can relate to them, and so can students’ parents. They are symbol of hope—of dreams that were not deferred. Politicians also give a voice to a population of those who often have their voices stifled. One of the primary responsibilities of a turnaround principal is to ensure that we teach parents how to advocate for themselves, for their children, for their communities. By collaborating with politicians in an ethical, non-partisan way, schools reap the benefits of seeing our tax dollars in action. We are able to leverage politicians’ voices to speak for the least of these—our children.

Now that we have explored the five P’s of school improvement, do you know who is responsible for a turnaround school’s success? Can the administrators and teachers do it alone? Are the parents equipped to support their children in a turnaround environment? Do they have the wherewithal to do so? The answers to these questions are obvious—no one can take on this daunting task alone. In order to garner and sustain change in a low-performing school, it is important to have the collective support of parents; school personnel; people in the community; pastors and politicians. Who is responsible for school improvement? All of us. We must lay aside the weights that so easily beset, the idiosyncrasies that separate us—we must work together to effect positive change in a seemingly negative environment. Which of us can look at a child, who is living in an impoverished home environment, and attending a school lacking in adequate resource, and then say to that child, This is what you deserve; this is all you will ever be. None of us is willing to say these things, because they are cruel and unjust; however, when we do not come together as stakeholders, and work for the greater good—we condemn our children to a life that they may not be able to escape from with our intentional efforts.

Turn around schools is not just a coined phrase. It is a solid theory that deserves backing and support; it may be the most important concept in education. When think of equity and removing obstacles, if we are proponents of turning around schools, we have to be honest, and declare that we are advocates of mediocrity; we have to be honest and admit that we do not care about children. Will you commit to turning around schools? If you would like more information, reach out to me via Twitter @DrMarcusJackson