Hamilton Middle School, in the heart of South Memphis, isn’t your average middle school. Instead of the sound of chatty and energetic adolescents by lockers or in classrooms, walking down the eighth-grade hall, you can hear a pin drop. The students are intently focused on their laptops, where they are learning math concepts for the day. In a classroom next door, a teacher prompts them to discuss components of composition. Teaching and learning are happening.
Hamilton is one of 21 Innovation Zone (iZone) Schools in Shelby County Schools district, a nationally recognized turnaround program for low-performing schools. Nationwide, education entities are engaging in turnaround work to boost student achievement in schools that aren’t making the grade.
In 2012, 85 schools in Tennessee were in the bottom 5 percent for achievement and 69 of those were in Shelby County. Rather than wait for a charter operator, educators immediately built on their turnaround program, Striving Schools, to begin implementation to save their students and schools.
Before they could even begin to make changes academically, Sharon Griffin, former superintendent of Shelby County’s iZone Schools, (who has since been promoted to Chief of Schools for Shelby County), says they quickly realized they had to address the children’s issues first. That is the foundation of turnaround work. Shelby County has the largest school district in the state, and reports indicate the it has a national rate of 20.8 percent poverty rate among school-aged children.
“When you think about schools in the bottom 5 percent, you have to think about the challenges that come with schools,” Griffin says. “Poverty plays a huge role in how the students and community respond to what’s going on. Of course, we need money (for resources), but the poverty and experiences that come with that have to be addressed, too.”
To address those issues, schools completed an assessment to pinpoint their challenges and specific needs to determine not only instructional resources (e.g., reading or math coaches), but wraparound social services. The results, in turn, also informed and prepared the incoming principals and produced buy-in before making a commitment to serve in a leadership role.
“Part of turnaround is about transparency and honesty, but it’s also being solution-oriented. ‘Now what? So what? How will we fix it?’ has become the language in our schools,” Griffin says.
iZone Schools’ solutions include using unique learning strategies not used in traditional schools. “Even though our numbers that were so low qualitatively got us on the list, we approach it from a cultural-negative aspect,” Griffin explains. “Unlike traditional schools, our social and emotional supports come first.”
School and community-based supports, such as on-site therapists, field trips, school food pantries and clothes closets are used to ensure children’s needs are met so they can focus on academics. Parents and families are also engaged through programs such as Parent University where they can learn how to help their children learn and work on school challenges at home.
Another unconventional strategy is an extended school day. Students receive one extra hour of instruction, which is the equivalent of 23 additional school days. That hour may be used for intervention, including instruction on a specific subject or even extracurricular activities that complement academics, such as chess. Teachers who work in iZone schools are also paid additional dollars on top of the standard teacher salary.
The district has also been careful to transition schools into a complete feeder pattern (elementary, middle and high school) to ensure children can read at grade level and not fall behind. A complete feeder pattern means a student who enters an iZone school in kindergarten can matriculate through 12th grade in iZone school, which helps reinforce learning with every transition to a feeder school.
The iZone has gained national recognition, having moved seven schools that were in the bottom 5 percent of the state off the priority list, and 11 schools saw double-digit gains last year. These schools also outpaced state averages and Achievement School District schools. Participating schools generally have three years to show academic gains. The 2015 Tennessee Consortium study also showed iZone has a “moderate to large impact in reading, math and science” versus the Achievement School District, a priority school operator, which “did not make more or less gains than other Priority (low-performing schools) not in the iZone.”
Others such as the School District of Philadelphia are following suit, taking the work into their own hands. The Philly district boasts several cohorts including neighborhood schools, charter schools, alternative schools and traditional schools. This is their first year operating their district-run program, the Turnaround Network. Nearly 20 schools have a treatment plan to address struggling academics. Like Memphis, Philadelphia has a significant poverty issue with the highest rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities at 12.2 percent, according to 2013 Census data.
In addition to focused leadership, the School District of Philadelphia uses technology to assess students’ learning. This gives teachers data to determine students’ challenges and successes.
“One of the things we wanted to do was talk about not just investments, but the behavioral changes that would happen with the adults and the children and the families in schools and communities,” says William Hite Jr., superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. “We were talking about context, content and environment. It is ‘How do we then create very different behaviors in those students?’”
Data on gains are not yet available, but Hite says there are several anecdotes of proof from families and parents who initially opposed the turnaround structure, mainly new staff and principals. Like Shelby County Schools, every principal and teacher can apply for their position and be rehired, but only 50 percent of original staff may remain.
School systems including New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, and others have all launched similar programs.
When did education reform begin to take flight? A 2013 Center for Public Education study on turnaround strategies reports that under the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government adopted five options for schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress for five consecutive years including: reopening as a charter, replacing all or most existing school staff, contracting with an external entity to operate the school, turning the school over to the state or engaging in any other form of major restructuring.
Later, School Improvement Grant dollars were made available for low-performing schools, and new reform options were provided. School districts nationwide were engaging in less invasive strategies, such as transformation, restart and school closure. The turnaround model was considered complex and had the potential to remove some leadership and staff from schools.
Turnaround models and processes look different in every school district. Studies have shown that long-term success has been difficult to maintain by some charter operators, as some have exited a school after the pre-turnaround process has begun (i.e., fresh starting administration and staff, communicating with families, etc.). Nationally, the Center for Public Education findings indicate charter takeovers had not improved nor hurt academic performance.
“The question is not about what sector should do it,” Hite says. “The question is really about what things that should happen in those schools and who does that best. I think who does it best should inform how the school districts approach school turnaround.”
Alisha Tillery is a freelance writer from Memphis, Tenn., who writes on the topics of mental health, self-care and lifestyle. Connect with her on social @Alisha8151.