The Hard Work of School Turnarounds—When a Struggling School Becomes a Place Where Students Want to Be

Hammond High School junior Katherine Lopez has seen a big change in teachers’ attitudes since her freshman year at the northwest Indiana school in 2009/10.

“Teachers seem much more involved with students and with what they’re teaching,” she said. “If they love what they’re doing, then we care too.”

When Lopez first arrived at Hammond High, she and other students felt that too many students and teachers were apathetic about education. That apathy contributed to chronically low student achievement and graduation rates at their school, located in the small “Rust Belt” city of Hammond, just east of Chicago.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder joins a freshman English class to hear student presentations during his March 23 visit to Hammond High School in Hammond, Ind.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder joins a freshman English class to hear student presentations during his March 23 visit to Hammond High School in Hammond, Ind.

Those indicators of poor performance are now beginning to reverse—thanks in part to a double dose of help from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of School Improvement Grant and Teacher Incentive Fund  grants, both awarded in 2010.  I had the opportunity to join Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to learn firsthand about the school’s progress during a March 23 visit to the school. The day included chats with state and district administrators, Hammond High teachers and students, as well as classroom visits.

“Our goal here is to learn what’s working and to share those lessons across the country,” said Snyder. “Turnaround is really hard work–and it can’t be done alone.”

What’s changed at Hammond High? It has a dynamic new principal, Leslie Yanders, who was given autonomy to replace more than half of the teachers. The school has new social workers and family liaisons to help support both students and parents in their efforts to overcome social, emotional, and health barriers to academic success. More than 80 percent of students come from low-income families at Hammond High, and families frequently move in and out of the community, adding to the academic challenges of the classroom.

Hammond High instituted another pivotal change, extending the school day by a full hour, enabling students to accelerate learning and get additional instructional support. With the support of the SIG and TIF grants, and under the leadership of Principal Yanders and veteran teachers at the school, teachers now get additional time for collaboration and training, and they have new opportunities for professional growth and performance-based pay.

As part of the more than $70 million that the Indiana Department of Education received from ED in 2010 and 2011 for SIG, Hammond was awarded nearly $6 million with the agreement to make dramatic changes over the course of three years. The school chose to implement the turnaround model, one of four intervention models for SIG grantees. To date, ED has awarded more than $4 billion through the SIG program to help accelerate academic achievement in over 1,200 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Hammond High is also one of 44 Indiana schools participating in the $47 million TIF grant awarded by ED to the state in 2010.  The Teacher Incentive Fund, a five-year federal grant program, supports the development and implementation of performance-based pay systems.

Even though the SIG and TIF grants require teachers to invest more time in their jobs, Hammond teachers see it as a worthwhile effort. “At first, we didn’t want to give up our Saturdays [for professional development], but we all went into it with a common goal of improving attendance and graduation rates,” said Conja Halliburton, chair of Hammond’s special education department.

The early results of that hard work are encouraging.   The school’s graduation rate—just 62.5 percent in 2010—climbed to 74 percent last year.   Attendance has grown to nearly 95 percent—a two percent increase from the previous year.   The percentage of students passing Indiana’s end-of-course assessments in English and Algebra has more than doubled in one year, to nearly 40 percent.  Discipline problems have been reduced by nearly a third.

Hammond administrators recognize that there is still much work to be done to ensure that the short-term improvement under the grants will be sustained for the long haul. Yanders and district administrators are already thinking about how to further propel the school’s progress after the SIG and TIF grants’ funding ends.

“In the end, our teachers will still know what effective instruction is all about,” said Jana Abshire, district turnaround officer.

Snyder agreed that the progress occurring at Hammond High and other SIG schools across the U.S. is not about funding alone. “It’s about transforming schools into places that students and teachers want to be,” he said. Changing school culture is hard work—but the principal, teachers, and students of Hammond High are showing it can be done, working together. Just ask Katherine Lopez.

Julie Ewart is the communications director in ED’s Chicago Regional Office


  1. I work at a turnaround school which has experienced similar success as the school in the article, my school has a student population made up of 72% black, 25% hispanic and 3% white and other. The turnaround brought in fresh new teachers, with a passion to help these under privileged students, many of our new teachers were raised in the very neighborhood the school is located in. Our community has been up and down due to gang violence over the years. The young teachers bring fresh insight to the school and build amazing bonds with the students. THe turnaround was extremely difficult, and it is still incredibly difficult, we are working to find the correct balance of teachers and working to change the attitude of the community through our student population. These kids are incredible, when someone is there to push them, the teachers we let go were beat down by the poor attitude the students had toward the school. The new teachers are changing the attitude of the student population. There, for the first time in 20 years, have been positive articles in the papers about our students. We have become the model school for turnarounds. Is it perfect? absolutely not, is it better? yes! by a long stretch.

    Turnarounds can work, and changing a teachers attitude toward students can help change test scores.

  2. It is unfortunate that the educational establishment does not support the efforts of a progressive attempt at improving the educational outcomes for ALL. It is clear that the current structure of education does not serve the economic needs of the 21st century. America can simply not afford undereducated and underskilled workers as we strive to compete in a global economy.

    By the previous comments, students who come from poverty cannot learn, and schools with low income students should not attempt to increase the achievement of those students. As a teacher, I believe in teachers, and the impact teachers can have. It is clear that Secretary Duncan does believe teachers are the answer to solving this challenge.

    I applaud the reform movement’s effort in acknowledging that good and great teachers will take education into the positive future, recognizing that society can no longer allow apathy and the soft bigotry of low expectations to undermine our public schools, and finally, understand that continuing a practice of a 19th century education model is illogical.

    Educators who believe that poverty and race explain our current educational predicament are a far greater hindrance than poverty itself.

  3. This is so sad. When I read the title I was almost sickened. Turnarounds have not proven to work. This is a factory/business model with very little regard for children and the human bonds they build with their teachers. Notice turnarounds ONLY happen to low income schools with african america populations……this is something that is ‘done to them’. You try to come into an afluent neighorhood and fire the whole staff and you will have a revolution. Turnarounds do not work, have not been proven to work and more and more people are coming to know this. Stop treating children and families as if they were part of some investment model…..these are human beings.

  4. So, you can turn around schools with just an attitude adjustment? What were we waiting for?

    Or, you’re so wrong you don’t even know it.

    You insult our intelligence when you claim to turn schools around with higher expectations.

    We teachers know the problem, and you don’t. You need to listen to us. But you don’t. We’re through with you.

  5. Blaming low scores on apathy instead of generational poverty is criminal. You have damaged public education beyond repair, Arne Duncan.

    You will go down in history as the guy who ruined public education. Congratulations.

    Now, just resign already.

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