Educators from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania joined a Hartford principal Thursday to talk about “turnaround” schools during a forum before the legislature’s Education Committee.
The forum, organized by the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, touted successful efforts to turn around struggling schools across the northeast. The educational coalition said the state’s own turnaround results through the fledgling Commissioner’s Network are mixed and that lawmakers must become involved in making changes to improve outcomes.
The Commissioner’s Network was enacted in 2012 to improve the state’s lowest performing schools by providing high-level interventions, resources, and additional funding. The program currently serves 16 schools that have volunteered to participate. However, more than half of those schools don’t fall within the state’s lowest performing categories, according to the coalition.
ConnCAN Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Alexander said lawmakers, with less than two months left in the session, must act soon on behalf of students in all low performing districts.
“To effectively turn around our lowest-performing schools, we need state policies and a process that allows direct and intensive intervention to provide schools with the autonomy, flexibility, and support needed to dramatically improve student outcomes,” Alexander said.
School officials from Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia and the Lawrence Public School System in Massachusetts shared best practices in areas such as identifying the lowest performing schools, entering into labor contracts customized to the district’s improvement goals, and developing a turnaround plan that clearly delineates the role of the school or district in bringing about change.
Seth Racine, the deputy superintendent in Lawrence, said it’s been three years since the state of Massachusetts put the district in receivership under Jeffrey Riley. According to the district’s website, the state Commissioner of Elementary & Secondary Education granted Jeffrey Riley the powers of both the school district superintendent and the local school committee in his position as receiver.
In addition that consolidation of governing authority, Riley also has the power to amend or suspend aspects of collective bargaining agreements in the district. With that in mind, the district’s website says all of its schools, including those managed by charter operators, are “AFT unionized, neighborhood-based, and follow a common set of policies to ensure a fair, supportive system for LPS students, families and staff. There are no “carve outs” — all schools play by the same rules on a level playing field.”
Racine said the district has cut the dropout rate in half since receivership began and test scores have increased. Specific changes made to foster student achievement included a longer school day for grades 1-8 and additional educational opportunities during school vacations.
Racine said the major administrative shift revolves around encouraging autonomy within each school. Principals and teachers are more free to innovate in ways that fit their school’s unique needs instead of sticking to one-size-fits-all dictates from the central office.
“By freeing up constraints on teachers and school leaders, we’ve given them the ability to innovate,” Racine said.
The importance of autonomy was echoed by Karen Lott, the principal of Hartford’s Thirman Milner School, who was brought in after leading the successful turnaround of a elementary and middle school in New Haven.
She said the freedom to customize the experience of children within the school drove her success in New Haven and must now happen in Hartford. Her own framework involves a clear focus on three areas: readiness to lead, readiness to teach, and readiness to learn.
Leaders in a successful school system must have a clear picture of the change they wish to make and the ability to make it happen by motivating others and advocating for the cause, she said, adding that teachers must be supported through professional development opportunities and a focus on building strong relationships with students. And she said young learners must be cared for not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well.
Lott said Milner School is one of the lowest performing in the state; only 15 percent of the staff has four or more years of experience. To address the unique need, she has instituted an hour of teacher collaboration before school each day and two afternoons per month of professional development.
The school also adopted the Hartford Public School system’s curriculum instead of the one it used previously from Jumoke Academy charter school. She said the curriculum is a loose guideline that’s especially important for new teachers. The monthly professional development sessions then give the teachers guidance in customizing that curriculum to fit their classrooms.
State Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, and State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, committee co-chairs, said the forum was an opportunity to spark conversation about how educational reform is progressing in the state.
Fleischmann said the success stories helped put the turnaround results in context. While much of the conversation around the state Capitol has come from advocates for charter and magnet schools that provide various options for students, the turnaround stories recounted Thursday represented a change in approach, not a change in location or staffing.
“For me, the most powerful takeaway is that it is possible to come from a school that’s had troubles and to take all of the same students and many of the same teachers and still achieve major turnaround results,” Fleischmann said.
He said it was notable that two of the three presenters pointed to teacher contracts that were thinner than the typical collective bargaining contract.
“It’s my sense we were offered models today that the state Department of Education should be thinking about for the Commissioner’s Network, that the districts that are struggling should be thinking about as they try to turn around their results,” he said.