Turning Around a School Is Tough Work!

04/11/2014  |  By Dr. Lissa Pijanowski
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The need in our nation for radically improving schools exists now more than ever. As of July 2013 there were over 6,380 schools identified as Priority or Focus schools. These schools face overwhelming challenges to increase student achievement with some of our most difficult to teach student populations. 

Additionally, the new accountability movement has introduced not only more rigorous academic standards, the Common Core State Standards, but has also required states to implement new evaluation models based on student growth for both teachers and leaders. So, how should schools and districts navigate the changes while achieving results?

The Leadership and Learning Center®, a professional services division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt™, has designed an improvement framework leveraging over 10 years of effective schools research to provide districts and schools with a road map and clear guidance on best practices. The key to closing the achievement gap is to close the implementation gap. Therefore, The HMH Leadership and Learning Center partners with schools to couple the road map with on-site support and services, drivers to support your teams and your work. Each practice has a set of standards as well as a rubric with performance indicators and evidence and artifacts that provide leaders and teachers with actions they can take immediately.

Additionally, each rubric also includes performance indicators for superintendents and district personnel. The Center recognizes the importance of strong district leadership in supporting school improvement and by providing these indicators, there is a greater likelihood that schools will receive the type of local support they need.

Comprehensive Needs Assessment
You can’t get started until you know where to begin.
One of the services offered by The Center is a comprehensive needs assessment, based on the foundational practices. The assessment encompasses a review of performance data and documents, such as school improvement plans, curriculum, and schedules. Prior to the two-day on-site visit, online surveys of stakeholders, students, parents, and staff, are administered. While on-site the team conducts observations of every classroom and interviews key stakeholders. The results of the assessment are provided to the school / district within 14 days of the visit and include a summary of findings as well as recommendations. The school / district is provided with coaching and guidance before, during, and after the visit to ensure the results of the Comprehensive Needs Assessment are actionable and implemented.

The subsequent professional learning plan may consist of, but is not limited to:

Data Teams
Formative Assessment
Teaching Strategies
Common Core
Performance Tasks

In their book School Leadership That Works (2005), Marzano, Waters, and McNulty remind us of the importance of a school leader selecting the right work: “The school leaders might do a good job of crafting a purposeful community, out of which a strong leadership team arises; but if the school under the direction of the leadership team does not select work that has a high probability of enhancing student achievement, the hard work of the principal, the leadership team, and the school as a whole will be for naught— at least in terms of student academic achievement.”

Results in Just One Year

Barbara Ide, School Improvement Coach, The HMH Leadership and Learning Center 

Bruce Drysdale Elementary School, a Title I School located in Asheville, North Carolina, is one of The Center’s Partner Schools that has achieved significant results in just one year. The leaders and teachers, serving a diverse student population, immediately identified the need to improve reading achievement and to create a positive learning environment and school culture. In short order, the school began with the implementation of Data Teams and the creation of formative assessments based on prioritized Common Core State Standards. Professional development focused on effective literacy instruction, including reciprocal teaching and guided reading, was provided to all teachers. The most exciting news that Principal Smith has received this year is the end-of -grade expected growth targets. In both grades 4 and 5, students exceeded growth predictions. In fact, the school met 29 of 29 annual measurable objectives and met 32 of 33 state targets.



District Support and Accountability
Turning around schools is tough work and you shouldn’t have to do it alone. Districts are charged with improving schools while district staff wear many different hats and are often times understaffed. The mandates are still ever present. The task for priority and focus schools is to determine the best way to build capacity while learning as a system how best to focus improvement efforts in the future.



A unique part of the School Improvement Partnership design is the team that is assigned to each school, which includes a School Improvement Coach and a School Improvement Advisor.

School Improvement Coaching
The research on the impact of coaching is overwhelming, and The Center leverages coaching of leaders and teacher teams as a means to an end. Having a true partner on-site as part of the team matters a great deal. Our coaches are former administrators and teachers and have an unwavering desire to influence outcomes for all students. Partner Schools are assigned a School Improvement Coach and time at the school is spent working directly with the principal, leadership team, and instructional data teams. The role of the School Improvement Coach is to ensure plans for improvement are focused, implementation is done with fidelity, and monitoring of progress becomes a common practice. Having coaches as part of the team, working shoulder-to-shoulder with leaders and teachers, is making a huge impact not only on performance but also on morale.

Another Center Partner School, Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School in Metro Nashville Public Schools, has an Instructional Coach who stated the following about professional learning. “The level of expertise provided by The Leadership and Learning Center consultants in teaching the seminars and training the district’s educators has been outstanding. The Center not only delivered excellent professional development, but offered expert coaching and monitoring to ensure effective implementation at the school level,” states Whitney Wilson. Napier is another school that has achieved amazing results in one year due to their unwavering commitment to the children they serve and their belief in an improvement process that is working. Of the ten priority schools in the district, Napier was one of only two to make significant achievement gains last year and the only elementary school to do so.

School Improvement Advisor
The School Improvement Advisor works with the district to ensure ongoing communication of the processes being put into place at the school level. We are committed to a transparent process that illuminates the good, the bad, and the ugly in order to create the transformational change needed in struggling schools. Advisors have district-level as well as school-level experience, and are able to use the Superintendent and District Performance Indicators within the Foundational Practice Rubrics to structure a conversation so that there is systemic support that can be sustained over time. Often it is the district office seeking guidance and a framework for helping their schools improve. The Advisor plays a key role in fostering learning and collaboration at both the school and district level.

Become a Partner School
The school improvement work described above is designed to make the complex simple. Districts and schools are in need of a framework that makes sense for implementing Common Core State Standards, Teacher and Leader Evaluation, as well as the improvement of schools under new State Accountability Waivers. The Nine Foundational Practices serve as the framework for comprehensive implementation and promote making best practice common practice. It is not just a mandate that we improve our schools, it is a moral imperative.

For more information about the School Improvement Partnerships, please visit www.leadandlearn.com. We also invite you to join us for one of our upcoming seminars or conferences. One of the School Improvement Summits will be offered in the Southeast in Charlotte, NC September 23-25 featuring Mike Schmoker, author of FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Learning; Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Your Schools; and Dr. Tyrone Howard, author of How Race and Culture Matter in Schools.

Dr. Lissa Pijanowski serves as the National Director for School Improvement Partnerships and is a Distinguished Professional Development Associate at The HMH Leadership and Learning Center. For more information, visit http://www.leadandlearn.com or email [email protected] Houghton Mifflin Harcourt™ is a trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. The Leadership and Learning Center® is a registered trademark of Advanced Learning Centers, Inc.
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