Jesse Tang won’t start his new job as the principal at Schmitt Elementary School for more than a year.
But by this May, he had already made the trip from Massachusetts, where he was finishing graduate school, to Denver, where he met with students and staff at Schmitt, more than half a dozen times.
Tang’s visits represent a shift in Denver’s approach to school turnaround. Turnaround entails making dramatic changes to staff and programs at a school, with the help of federal or district funds, in an effort to improve students’ outcomes.
One of the first steps in the district’s efforts to rapidly improve struggling schools has often been hiring a new principal. But while those principals have usually had just months to make big decisions about the future of the schools they are tasked with improving, Tang has an entire school year to get to know the school and create a plan before taking the reins. In the meantime, Cindy Miller, an interim principal, will be running the day-to-day operations of the school.
Denver Public Schools is referring to the approach as its “Year Zero” turnaround strategy. Harrington, Schmitt, and Goldrick, three elementary schools in southwest Denver, will all have both an interim and a “Year Zero” principal next year.
The DPS board will vote on whether to approve redesign plans that give principals the ability to select all staff at those schools and to change academic programs at the schools this Thursday. The board will also approve the 2015-16 budget, which includes funds to support having two administrators at each school.
The board is also planning to vote on a redesign plan for Valverde Elementary. Valverde already has a new principal, Drew Schultze, but teachers at the school will also be asked to reapply for their jobs at the end of next year and Schultze will also have the ability to make changes to the school’s current program.
The overall goals of turnaround haven’t changed. Denver Public Schools has identified the four schools for improvement efforts due to persistently low academic achievement and other signs that the schools need a change. At Schmitt, just about a third of students are on grade level in math and reading. Nearly 50 percent of students zoned to the school choose to attend other schools.
But the hope is that giving school leaders more time to prepare, plan, and build relationships before turnaround will both help school leaders’ jobs be more sustainable and improve the culture and outcomes at turnaround schools.
“We’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to digest the lessons we’ve learned from turnaround efforts so far,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer. “One of the things we saw that made the biggest difference was the quality of the plan that’s created; the ownership of that plan by a leader; and the ability of the community to have a voice in the process.”
The idea of having more time for preparation is not entirely new: Some of the district’s other new schools, including DCIS: Fairmont, have given future principals a planning year before starting their schools.
Cordova said that the relative stability in those schools, compared to high rates of teacher turnover and lagging results in some other turnaround schools, “helped us start thinking about ‘Year Zero,’ to give principals a chance to plan, to engage with the community, to build the right structures, and hit the ground running with that plan.”
The district has had a high rate of principal turnover in recent years, especially in its high-needs schools.
Cordova said teachers in these turnaround schools will also know more about what they’re getting into before they are asked to reapply for their jobs and that community members will have a chance to get to know the principal and give input on the future of their schools.
At a work session of the district’s board in June, Tang, Schultze and the interim and “Year Zero” principals at Harrington, and Goldrick shared their plans for the schools. Board members were optimistic.
“I’ve got a big smile on my face,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver.
The outcome of the upcoming turnarounds remain to be seen.
But Tang said that the chance to have the extra year to prepare had made a significant impact on his decision to come to Denver and his ability to plan. “I have the professional space to do all of this research, listening, and diagnostic work with a partner who has years of experience and knows the DPS system,” he said.
“I’m getting to know individuals and communities at this level that completely informs the work that I do in a way that I might not have an opportunity if the timeline were much shorter,” he said.