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Improving the odds of turnaround success

As efforts to turn around some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools intensify, a report issued today urges state leaders to focus on three key areas to better the chances of success.

“School Turnarounds in Colorado: Untangling the Web of Supports for Struggling Schools” examines the policies and resources being funneled into the federal campaign to improve the nation’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

It also considers the accompanying, though not always congruent, effort by the state under the Education Acountability Act of 2009.

“The challenges facing schools that have struggled for years to better serve their students are substantial, and the odds are stacked against them to deliver results different from years past,” wrote the report’s authors, Julie Kowal and Joe Ableidinger with Public Impact.

The latest federal effort is sending more than $33 million into 19 Colorado schools, identified on the basis of poor academic performance, poor academic growth and, in the cases of high schools, low graduation rates.

Of the schools, nine are located in Denver, including Montbello and North high schools, Noel and Lake middle schools, and Gilpin and Greenlee elementaries. Three others – Skyland charter high school, Rishel middle and Philips elementary – have been closed or are slated for closure.

Outside Denver, the schools include Hanson elementary in Adams 14 Commerce City, Fort Logan elementary in Sheridan, Clifton elementary in Mesa County, Haskin elementary in Center and six schools – Central high, Freed, Pitts, Risley and Roncalli middle schools and Youth and Family Academy charter in Pueblo city.

Under the state effort, 82 schools have been identified as needing a turnaround plan – 39 elementaries, 25 middle and 18 high – but they receive no additional funding.

The report’s authors, however, point to three areas where state leaders could assist the effort:

  • Building the supply of school turnaround leaders by supporting the recruitment, selection and training of turnaround leaders for struggling schools. “In most Colorado districts, the supply of turnaround principals … is far too short to meet the needs of persistently low-achieving schools.”
  • Supporting more rigorous turnaround strategies. Nationally, and in Colorado, few districts are exercising the most dramatic reform options, such as replacing leaders or significant portions of school staffs. State leaders can foster more dramatic changes by engaging in a rigorous review of improvement plans and examining each district’s commitment to success.
  • Engaging in rigorous monitoring and “rapid retry” if the changes aren’t on track early to success. Research from other sectors indicate dramatic changes are effective on the first try only 30 percent of the time, the authors point out. So state leaders should closely monitor early indicators.

Click here to see the executive summary of the report. And here’s the full 24-page report.

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation, a private Denver-based foundation, commissioned the report. It is also a funder of Education News Colorado.