Key Drivers of Successful School Turnarounds

(The Boston Globe recently featured a story about the struggles of turning around a failing school.  We are pleased to give Scott Given, the CEO of nonprofit school turnaround organization Unlocking Potential, an opportunity to highlight a successful effort.)

It was recently announced that Unlocking Potential would take on the management of a turnaround school this fall in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  Our organization will restart the chronically underperforming James F. Leonard Middle School as UP Academy Lawrence Middle School.  Unlocking Potential’s expansion to Lawrence is part of a broad series of district wide reforms to improve student outcomes in what is currently a struggling school district. The collaboration between Unlocking Potential and Lawrence Public Schools is the result of new state laws and regulations that pave the way for rapid student achievement gains in underperforming schools.

Our work in Lawrence follows the efforts we have undertaken at UP Academy Charter School of Boston, Unlocking Potential’s first turnaround school, which opened in August 2011.  The school had previously existed as the failing Patrick F. Gavin Middle School, a traditional Boston Public middle school at which fewer than 1 in 3 students could read, write, or do math at grade level proficiency.  In June 2011, Boston Public Schools closed down the long-standing middle school and opened UP Academy, an “in-district” charter school, in its place.  While the school’s students and facility remained the same, nearly everything else changed – new leadership, new teachers, new expectations, new systems of support, new school climate, and new results.  Our unique charter-like autonomies in areas such as hiring, budget, programming, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and use of time have enabled our school-level staff to make decisions in the best interest of our students.  As the state’s first “restart” school, this was the most aggressive type of school turnaround ever attempted in the Commonwealth.  Initial results indicate that the school’s students have already made life-changing academic achievement gains during the school’s first year in operation.

People ask me all the time about what has allowed us to effectively transform the Gavin Middle School.  There’s no easy answer.  Still, here are three primary drivers:

  • Talent Recruitment and Development. More than 4,000 applicants from across the country applied for teaching positions at UP Academy.  Our rigorous hiring process enabled us to find 58 world class educators to turn around the school.  Once the school year began, we worked hard to support and development our team members – our teachers, for example, receive feedback and coaching from their instructional coaches no less frequently than every two weeks.
  • High Expectations.  We hold relentlessly high, consistent academic and behavioral expectations for all stakeholders, including our students, our families, and our staff. Our expectations have been explicitly taught, meticulously enforced, and consistently supported by school-wide systems of incentives and consequences.
  • “Sweating the small stuff.” Our operating systems are wide-reaching and encompass every imaginable aspect of school operations, and are implemented with unyielding attention to detail.

Unlocking Potential intends to restart a third school, an elementary school in Boston, in 2013.  The launch of the elementary school will require a series of city and state approvals over the next twelve months.  By September 2013, Unlocking Potential will be managing three turnaround schools in two cities, collectively serving more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In addition to directly serving the students in its turnaround schools, Unlocking Potential additionally seeks to impact the education sector by building bridges between the charter school sector and the district school sector; exerting influence on long-standing educational practices and policies that have restrained student achievement growth; and to serving as a model and proof point for other school turnaround efforts in Massachusetts and beyond.

The work that Unlocking Potential is undertaking has previously been featured in the Boston Globe  (“Unlocking Potential at a new charter school”) and Boston Herald (“Rejuvenated school helps kids reach new heights”).

Please visit our website to learn more about our growing organization: www.unlocking-potential.org.

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