Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Turn Around Schools and Their Qualities

Created by Cindy Farren, MS

Instructor at Marian University

Indianapolis IN

Turnaround Schools and highly effective strategies

Practices of Turnaround Schools

Can you remember going to a school that felt like “family” or had a sense of community? What did this look like? What was going on?

The practices of turnaround schools like the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy provide the three protective factors: caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation and contribution. These exist through school wide structures, supports, and opportunities, not only for students, but for teachers, families, and the community. They create an “atmosphere of camaraderie, discipline, and hopeful expectation.” These characteristics map closely to studies of schools that are successfully closing the achievement gap (James et al., 2001; MacBeath, Boyd, Rand, & Bell, 1995). The following strategies describe schools that have a vision and mission based on caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation. The list can be used as a school self-assessment tool.

  • Quality of relationships between teachers and students is the primary focus of turnaround schools, according to Wilson and Corbett’s study of Philadelphia schools (2001). Leaders of successful schools understand everything this chapter has discussed to this point. None of the other reforms that follow will be transformative unless the teacher-student relationship is caring, has high expectations, and is reciprocal. “Small classrooms [or any other reform] were not necessarily better if the teachers in them still accepted failure. It was the quality of the relationships in the classrooms that determined the educational value of the setting” (Wilson & Corbett, 2001, p. 122). This clearly seems to be the case in the Street Academy example, as it is “an institution of tight relationships,” according to the writer.
  • Supporting teachers is sine qua non, given they are the critical factor in turnaround schools. As one wise school administrator has remarked, “If you don’t feed the teachers, they’ll eat the students!” In other words, it’s hard to give what you don’t get. This means teachers need resources, time, professional development opportunities, and materials, as well as the three protective factors themselves. In order to develop a “self-renewing” school like Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, they need caring relationships with their colleagues, mentors, and school leaders, high expectations on the part of school leaders, and opportunities and time for collegial decision making and planning themselves. Most of the strategies on the checklists for teacher-student relationships apply also to the administrator-teacher relationship. Staff retreats, shared rituals, and team teaching also support turnaround teachers (Diero, 1996), as do teacher support and reflection groups (Palmer, 1998). Some schools even have “resiliency coordinators,” volunteer therapists who mentor teachers in the three protective factors.
  • Consistency across the school in discipline, pedagogy, and content creates clear, high expectations for all students. They know where they stand academically and behaviorally—and they all know they stand together. This is clear from the way all the students and teachers deal with conflict at Emiliano Zapata Street Academy. This consistency creates an orderly, safe school—the number one prerequisite for learning to take place, according to brain science (Diamond & Hopson, 1998).
  • A shared mission based on meeting the needs of the whole student—the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual dimensions—describes turnaround schools (Baldwin, 2001; Diero, 1996). Attending to the students’ needs for food, safety, belonging, respect, power, challenge, and meaning was the bottom line for the principal of the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy. She understood that real learning could not take place without this holistic focus.
  • Small learning communities are an absolute must for lowering the achievement gap. Study after study has borne out the positive academic and other developmental outcomes of this strategy (Finn, Gerber, Achilles, & Boyd-Zaharias, 2001; Wasley et al., 2000). Smaller classes and smaller schools are two of the most powerful structural facilitators of relationships between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and students and students.
  • School-based mentoring during and after school is now the most prevalent form of mentoring (Herrera, Sipe, & McClanahan, 2000). Rigorous documentation shows that mentoring produces positive health as well as positive social and academic outcomes in students (Tierney, Grossman, & Resch, 1995). Moreover, it is a primary approach in breaking down the walls between a school and the community. Hundreds of schools have created mentoring programs, linking community volunteers to students in after-school programs. In Street Academy’s case, the teachers each served as mentors for small groups of their students. Other forms of mentoring include cross-age peer-helping/tutoring in which older students help younger ones. Research has documented that the tutor receives the most academic, social, and emotional benefits (Bearman, Bruckner, Brown, Theobald, & Philliber, 1999).
  • Career exploration, and for older students, high school transition programs, are a high priority for keeping learning meaningful and connected to students’ lives. Effective examples of the latter in closing the achievement gap are tech prep, AVID, I-Have-A-Dream, Sponsor-A-Scholar, and Upward Bound (James et al., 2001). Having a sense of purpose, goals, and a future is a primary characteristic of resilient survivors and learners (Benard, 1991, 1996), and is both a motivator and an outcome of academic success. Many of the programs and schools identified as closing the achievement gap have a school-to-career focus.
  • Early intervention services in the form of counseling, support groups, and student assistance programs provide learning supports that are often critical to helping students stay in school and achieve academically. These services are inherently collaborative, with the school interfacing with student services professionals, social services providers, community-based organizations, law enforcement officials, and business and community leaders.
  • Diversity of all sorts is seen as a strength and an attribute to celebrate. With this value, successful schools serving students of color, like Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, have a diverse teaching staff that reflects their student body, and staff that are able to form positive relationships with students’ families and communities. These schools see family members as cultural resources, inviting them into the classroom to serve as resources in educating their children. Comer’s work in this arena is a classic example of the positive academic and social outcomes for students and their families in using this approach (Comer et al., 1996).
  • After-school programs are becoming a critical link in promoting school-community partnerships, as well as a vital support to students in promoting academic success and providing a safe haven in the after-school hours (U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services, 1998). A recent survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (2001) found that these programs have more than doubled during the 1990s. Beacon schools in New York City, San Francisco, and several other cities are a wonderful model of after-school programs based on providing the three protective factors. They consistently find positive youth development outcomes, including that of the academic dimension (Walker & Arbreton, 2002; Warren, Brown, & Freudenberg, 1999).
  • Ongoing assessment of students for quality improvement is the bottom line for educational reform to close the achievement gap. This means schools need a structure for hearing the student perspective, especially in terms of how well the school is providing the three protective factors. Assessment can include regular breakfast meetings with the principal, as some schools have established. Several other schools (Laboratory Network Project, 2001) use student focus groups as an ongoing way to monitor the school climate or aid in schoolwide decision making. Fullan, considered an educational change guru, states, “Educational change, above all, is a people-related phenomenon for each and every individual. Students, even little ones, are people, too. Unless they have some meaningful (to them) role in the enterprise, most educational change, indeed most education, will fail. I ask the reader not to think of students as running the school, but to entertain the following question: What would happen if we treated the student as someone whose opinion mattered in the introduction and implementation of reform in schools?” (1991, p. 170).
  • Family-school-community partnerships are valued and recognized as essential in closing the achievement gap. Turnaround schools know they can’t bring about the change alone and welcome the contribution of families, community-based organizations, and community volunteers. They also recognize that families and community members—especially in resource-challenged communities—need supports and opportunities themselves in order to be contributing partners. Therefore, turnaround schools work together with community-based organizations to provide not only after-school and mentoring programs for students, but family math, writing, and mediation programs, as well as family resource centers, full-service schools, early childhood programs, school-community gardens, and even community schools that serve students, their families, and their communities (Dryfoos, 1998; Schor, 1997). Just as supporting teachers is critical to student achievement, so is supporting families and community members who, in turn, serve youth.
  • Students are out in the community doing service-learning. Just as mentoring gets community adults into the lives of students, community service-learning gets students into the lives of adults. A schoolwide oral history project of the community can not only help engage students in their schooling, but build a real sense of community among all the partners. It is hard to imagine a strategy more research-based, more grounded in the three protective factors, and more motivating to students, for the underlying message of community service-learning is, “You are a valued member of our community; we need you to help us make our community a better place for everyone.” Nothing is more transformative for a struggling or challenged student than to be seen as a community resource—instead of a school problem.

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