Boston School Turns Around With Focus on the Arts

First Graders

Orchard Gardens (MA) first graders recite a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech during a school assembly earlier this week.

“I have a dream!” Orchard Gardens’ first graders shouted in unison before hundreds who had gathered for a school assembly earlier this week. Line by line, the students recited the entire ending of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech. The performance created a palpable energy in the room, and when the students finished, the audience—which included students, parents, teachers, state and local officials and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—rose to its feet for a standing ovation.

Orchard Gardens is a K-8 school in Roxbury, Mass., which has undergone a dramatic transformation. When it opened in 2003, the school was designated as one of the lowest performing schools in the state. In 2009, the school became part of the Boston Public Schools’ Arts Expansion Initiative, and received a federal School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2012, Orchard Gardens became a Turnaround Arts Initiative school, through the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.

Classroom Visit

Secretary Duncan visits a classroom at Orchard Gardens K-8 school in Roxbury, Mass.

Since 2009, students’ math proficiency scores have improved from six percent to 34 percent. English scores improved from 13 percent to 43 percent proficiency, from 2009 to 2013. Orchard Gardens provides student-specific interventions, coordinated by two full-time school site coordinators. Through community partnerships, students receive health and social services supports.

During Secretary Duncan’s visit he stopped by band class for an impromptu mini concert. One of the students told Duncan that playing the French horn makes him want to come to school each day. Following the assembly, Duncan toured several classrooms and participated in a roundtable discussion with educators and members of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities to discuss the importance of arts education.

Damian Woetzel, former Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet, and a Turnaround Artist for the Turnaround Arts Initiative, spoke about the importance of arts education during the day’s assembly. “It’s not how we can fit the arts in,” he said, “[but] how the arts can be part of a whole education.”

Secretary Duncan told the students and faculty that the eyes of the country are on them and they’re showing the country what’s possible.

Learn more about the Turnaround Arts Initiative.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education 

Partners in Progress: Turning Around a Washington, DC School Takes Teamwork and Joy

City Year

National and local education leaders met at the DC Scholars Stanton Elementary School, where 18 City Year corps members currently serve. The visit included a roundtable discussion on the school’s turnaround effort and the importance of partnering with key stakeholders to achieve education reform. (Photo courtesy of City Year/Elliot Haney)

There’s a transformation occurring at an elementary school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital and it begins, each day, with chants and song. “Stand up!” and “C-O-L-L-E-G-E! College is the place for me!” ring out of the cafeteria where students gather for a daily morning ritual of activities designed to build school culture and student confidence. Just a few years ago, DC Scholars Stanton Elementary struggled with chronic underperformance and was long known as a place ruled by chaos, where neither students nor educators felt it was possible to focus on learning. Today, the school is turning around. With the help of strong partnerships and engaged stakeholders, chaos is being replaced with joy, as educational outcomes improve for the school’s young “scholars.”

On Monday, Secretary Arne Duncan visited DC Scholars Stanton to observe the school’s progress and to participate in a roundtable discussion, highlighting the importance of partnerships in the effort to dramatically improve teaching and learning in persistently low-achieving schools.

Secretary Duncan joined a group of local leaders and stakeholders including District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) CEO Wendy Spencer, and City Year Co-Founder and CEO Michael Brown, for the visit.

City Year Group Photo

(Photo courtesy of City Year/Elliot Haney)

Three years ago, DCPS engaged in a partnership with Scholar Academies, a national nonprofit education management organization, to run Stanton. As Chancellor Henderson noted, “Back then, there was a sense that if you went here, you were coming because you could go nowhere else.”

Third grade teacher Sheryl Garner spoke poignantly about the school’s transformation. She remarked that before the turnaround, almost daily she was “kicked and punched by students,” many of whom had difficult backgrounds and limited understanding of how to manage their emotions in school. She said, “I’m glad I decided to stick with it because I’ve seen so much growth here.”

Now, there is order in the classrooms where university pennants line the walls, reminding students that higher education is within their reach—and a goal that they can strive for each day. In addition to college banners and achievement awards, it’s not uncommon to see students working in classrooms and hallways with City Year AmeriCorps members—who represent another key element in the story of progress at DC Scholars Stanton.

City Year has partnered with the school for six years; but this year, DC Scholars Stanton was able to double its number of City Year service members. These young people provide intensive before-, during-, and after-school support to students in reading, math, and social-emotional skills development. Principal Rena Johnson and Assistant Principal Sanja Bosman also credit City Year members with helping to improve overall school culture.

Eighteen City Year AmeriCorps members work at the school now through a federal School Turnaround AmeriCorps grant, jointly administered by the Department of Education and CNCS, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the AmeriCorps program this year. Wendy Spencer, CNCS CEO, noted, “This partnership expands the role of AmeriCorps members in helping students, teachers, parents, and school administrators transform schools into models of achievement.” With the help of Jeff Franco, executive director for City Year-Washington D.C., approximately 150 City Year members serve in more than a dozen schools across DCPS.

Students and families at DC Scholars Stanton also benefit from a home visiting program, coordinated by the local Flamboyan Foundation, a private, family organization focused on improving educational outcomes for children. Through the program, teachers are trained to visit families and build relationships with parents and caregivers, with the aim of helping students to succeed in school.

Secretary Duncan acknowledged the efforts of all the partners at DC Scholars Stanton, saying, “Turning around a school is some of the hardest, most controversial, and yet most important work in the country. … Together, you are doing something remarkable.”

The hard work is beginning to show results. Since 2011, students at DC Scholars Stanton have improved their proficiency rates in mathematics from 10 to 42 percent. Reading proficiency rates have doubled from 10 to 20 percent.

As Mayor Gray stated, “Education reform is never done.” There is still much to do to ensure all Stanton scholars achieve to their fullest potential. But, even though the work is ongoing and challenging,  Lars Beck, CEO for Scholar Academies, summed up the experience, saying, “You might think it’s crazy, but working together to turn around schools is … exciting and exhilarating … it can even be joyful.”

Tiffany Taber is senior communications manager in the Office of Communications and Outreach

Back-to-School Tour Launches in the Land of Enchantment

Duncan speaks with child

Secretary Arne Duncan kicked off his annual back-to-school bus tour in New Mexico. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

Santa Fe, N.M., is a testament to our country’s diversity and beauty. That’s where Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched his fourth annual back-to-school bus tour yesterday morning. This year’s tour, themed Strong Start, Bright Future, runs September 9-13 and includes visits to New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California.

Each stop on the tour will highlight the importance of ensuring that all students benefit from high-quality educational opportunities.

See a collection of social media posts about day one of the tour.

Santa Fe

Duncan kicked things off at the Santa Fe Children’s Project Early Learning Center where he spoke with teachers and students during classroom visits and then held a town hall on the importance of quality early learning programs.

Many people come to Santa Fe to see its art, architecture or even a world-famous opera said Joel Boyd, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, but “we believe you’re here to see our most precious resource: our children,” he said.

Duncan noted that high-quality early education is the ultimate bipartisan issue, and that the U.S. Department of Education is looking to partner and help states that are willing to do “the right thing.” Learn more about the Obama Administration’s Pre-K For All proposal.


Following our Santa Fe visit, the back-to-school bus made its way to Emerson Elementary in Albuquerque for a roundtable discussion on the school’s recent turnaround efforts. The school, with just under 500 students, nearly half of whom are English language learners, has made a turnaround that dramatically improved student proficiency in math and reading.

During the discussion, Duncan listened to administrators, teachers and students on what is working to turn the school around. He also praised the district and the local teachers union for their collaboration and courage.


Day one closed out at Midway Elementary School in Polvadera, a small community just north of Socorro, N.M. Duncan highlighted the Obama Administration’s ConnectED proposal to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within five years. One of the teachers at the town hall expressed frustration she felt in the past because her class in previous years had only one computer for more than 20 students.

In the video below, Duncan also talks about one of the students at the town hall who challenged him, and said she wasn’t receiving enough support. Duncan said that we have to be doing more to support our students.

Today the tour takes Duncan to El Paso, Texas, and Columbus, N.M.

Watch Secretary Duncan wrap up his experiences from day one:

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy and is blogging and tweeting his way from the bus during ED’s annual back-to-school bus tour.

Youth Succeed with Great Educators, Help from ED

Think back to that moment when you decided to pursue your dream. Who influenced your decision? A mentor? A parent? Or maybe a friend? For many people, their moment was sparked by an educator.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education (ED) welcomed four individuals to participate in an ‘ED Youth Voices’ panel discussion that introduced students, teachers, and communities to the policies and programs that the four youth credit with helping them succeed.

Let us introduce you to these inspiring individuals:

Student speaking

Linda Moktoi, senior at Trinity Washington University

Meet Linda Moktoi. As a current senior at Trinity Washington University, Moktoi is proud to say she’ll be achieving her dream of graduating college in just a few short weeks.  “I chose to pursue knowledge over ignorance,” she said. Moktoi did so with the financial support provided by Pell Grants from ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid. Moktoi’s grace, confidence, and determination shined through and will no doubt lead her to succeeding her next dream of becoming a news broadcaster.



Student speaking about GEAR UP program

Nicholas Robinson, junior at Potomac High School

Meet Nicholas Robinson. An enthusiastic junior at Potomac High School (Oxon Hill, Md.), spoke of how the early awareness college prep program GEAR UP, changed his “mind & heart” in 8th grade about whether to go to college. “Before I got involved in GEAR UP, I didn’t think I was going to college, but they were always asking me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be.” That extra support and guidance has helped Nicholas stay on track to graduate and focus on his future goals.


Educator speaking about IDEA Act

Scott Wilburn, teacher at Pulley Career Center

Meet Scott Wilbur. As a current teacher and former student that struggled with learning disabilities, Wilbur shed light on how programs funded by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) helped him as a student and continues to help him serve others with disabilities as a teacher at the Pulley Career Center in Alexandria, Va. “IDEA provided me with access to support, helped me graduate college,” Wilbur said. Each year the IDEA Act helps thousands of students with disabilities receive support to assure success in the classroom and that they have the tools needed for employment and independent living in the future.

Student speaking about School Improvement Grants

Carl Mitchell, senior at Frederick Douglass High School

Meet Carl Mitchell. Carl is just one of the many students that have benefited from the recent changes at Frederick Douglass High School spurred in part by an ED School Improvement Grant (SIG) which has helped turnaround their school and provide a better learning environment for students. Mitchell, a bright college bound senior who also doubles as the school mascot (Go Mighty Ducks!), attested to the sense of community that is fostered at Frederick Douglass. When asked what motivates him, he responded by saying “It’s not just about getting the degree for me, it’s for all the people that helped me. I owe them and don’t want to let them down.” An aspiring graphic designer, Mitchell will be the first in his family to attend college. His support team, including his principal, teachers, and peers joined him at ED as he proudly represented the Douglass community.

Linda, Nicholas, Scott, and Carl are just four of the millions of students and educators that are able to achieve their dreams with the help of great educators and federal programs from the Department of Education. Little do these individuals know though, that by sharing their story they are following in the footsteps of those who inspired them, and are inspiring us.

Kelsey Donohue is a senior at Marist College (N.Y.), and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Our next ED Youth Voices Policy Briefing Session will include students reforming education at the local level: teacher evaluations, DREAM act, school safety and more. Watch the session live on June 27th from 10-11:30am at 

Announcing a New School Turnaround AmeriCorps Program

Arne, Wendy and Americorps members

Secretary Arne Duncan and Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Wendy Spencer with two Americorps members at Grad Nation.

Yesterday, as education leaders from across the country gathered at the Grad Nation Summit in Washington, D.C., we were pleased to announce a new collaboration between our agencies: School Turnaround AmeriCorps.

This competitive, three-year grant program is designed to strengthen and accelerate interventions in our nation’s lowest-performing schools. The new initiative will engage hundreds of AmeriCorps members in turnaround schools across the country. AmeriCorps members will help students, teachers, and principals to transform struggling schools by providing opportunities for academic enrichment, extended learning time, and individual supports for students. These interventions will lead to increased academic achievement and improved high school graduation rates and college readiness among our most disadvantaged students.

We know that students are most successful when they have personal, attentive support.  We believe this initiative is an important step forward in the effort to provide our lowest-performing schools with the additional resources that they need to improve.

Turning around struggling schools is challenging work that requires everyone to play a part – from teachers, administrators, and counselors to business leaders, the philanthropic sector, and community members. This partnership will expand the role of AmeriCorps members in helping students, teachers, parents, and school administrators to transform persistently underachieving schools into models of success.

Public or private nonprofit organizations, including faith-based and other community groups; schools or districts; institutions of higher education; cities and counties; Indian Tribes; and labor organizations are eligible to apply to this program, along with partnerships and consortia of these entities.

A notice of intent to apply must be submitted to the Corporation for National and Community Service by April 2, 2013 via e-mail at: Applications are due on April 23, 2013. Grants will be awarded by mid-July.

Please take a moment to read about the initiative. More information about the notice of intent and application instructions may be found here. Together, we can help all students thrive in school and in life.

Secretary Arne Duncan                                    CEO Wendy Spencer
Department of Education                                 Corporation for National and Community Service

Sitting Higher Upon Camelback

As with any good school, it’s all about the students. At Imagine Elementary at Camelback in Phoenix, Marcos, a 7th-grader, says, “Being in this school really helped me out with my future . . . becoming a better student, becoming a better me.”

If you said that Imagine Elementary has made progress because of its School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education, you would be right. You’d also be making a major understatement – kind of like saying that Phoenix’s July sunshine is warm. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

In November 2010, Imagine Elementary’s new Principal Freddie Villalon arrived. “When I walked in,” Villalon recalls, “only 10 percent of the kids in the 3rd grade had passed the test in reading. We were identified as a failing school, one of the 15 most challenging schools in Arizona. We were looking at being closed down.”

But fall 2010 was also when SIG money from the U.S. Department of Education arrived through the Arizona Department of Education, which awarded Imagine Elementary at Camelback $2.3 million to turn around over the next three years.

Principal Villalon’s strategy was to add rigor to the curriculum while giving positive reinforcement to teachers and to students. Now half-way through the SIG timeframe, the school has a new academic culture – one of high expectations by school leadership, faculty, support staff, community, parents and, perhaps most of all, by students.

The turnaround gained momentum when Villalon noticed that a 3rd-grade reading teacher, Chandni Varma, raised her class’s performance so that 52 percent of her students met the reading standards. The principal took action. “We asked Mrs. Varma, ‘How did you go from 10 percent to 52 percent?’” Varma described her approach as one that included the art of teaching with the creative application of a commercial reading product. Villalon shared the results with other teachers and highlighted the success, demonstrating that Imagine students are capable of success.

Teachers throughout the school responded to the new culture of rewarding success in the classroom. “We highlighted those teachers that did well, we reinforced them with some bonuses, with some recognition, with some awards,” Villalon said.

Villalon is quick to point out that the success belongs to what he calls “this awesome team,” which includes his students’ parents. One strategy is to send home quarterly assessment results with certificates for students who are meeting or exceeding standards. “In our newsletters,” Villalon said, “we show bar graphs of how we did in the previous year. How we’re doing in comparison to other schools.  Every parent in my school has my personal cell phone number, so they can call me about any issue, any question.”

Angela Denning, deputy associate superintendent for school improvement and intervention for the Arizona Department of Education, worked with Principal Villalon from the start. “Before the SIG monies were awarded, there wasn’t a focus on student learning,” Denning said. “Kids would come in; kids would go out. There wasn’t pride in the school as a whole, and that came out in behaviors and test scores, and dramatic drops in attendance and participation.”

Denning believes the SIG award made the critical difference in the school’s turnaround. “Since the SIG money has been awarded, one of the biggest changes was that the charter holder itself – Imagine – came in and swarmed the school. They started to put in a support system that was absolutely necessary for students to start learning.”

The state department of education has maintained an active role from the start. “We assigned two education specialists to each one of our School Improvement Grant schools, and they came out on a regular basis, giving feedback, monitoring their progress,” Denning said.

Student Christian says that the secret to the school’s success is no secret. “It’s the hard work and dedication that the teachers put into it.”

Perhaps the most heartfelt assessment of the Imagine at Camelback success story came from Denning. “This elementary school cares about children, and they care about student learning,” Denning said. “If I had children, they’d go here.”

Editor’s note: Angela Denning has begun a new assignment as deputy associate superintendent for exceptional student services for the Arizona Department of Education.

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office. 

Duncan Kicks Off “Let’s Read! Let’s Move!”

Secretary Duncan talks with students at Vashon High in St. Louis

Secretary Duncan visited students at Vashon High School in St. Louis to kick off Lets Read! Let's Move! Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Secretary Duncan kicked off this summer’s Let’s Read! Let’s Move! series yesterday at Vashon High School in St. Louis. The program, which supports First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight childhood obesity, promotes summer learning and reading, as well as healthy lifestyle choices and nutrition. Duncan joined students in a summer school reading exercise, toured classrooms, and shot hoops with students in the school gym.

Secretary Duncan plays basketball at Vashon High

Duncan stopped to shoot some hoops with Vashon students. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Vashon High School is one of eleven schools in the St. Louis Public Schools undergoing a turnaround with the support of the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Vashon High School will enter its third year of turnaround this fall, and under Principal Derrick Mitchell, the school has made some encouraging progress. Once on the brink of closure, Vashon’s discipline incidents are down, attendance is up, and from 2009-10 to 2010-11, student achievement increased by 15 percentage points in both reading and math.

Other SIG schools in the St. Louis Public School district are also making noteworthy progress on these key indicators of success. The district has implemented an Office of Innovation to oversee turnaround work in its SIG schools and to provide professional development, leadership training, data tools, and other resources where they are needed most.

Click here to read more SIG stories from around the country, and click here to read about last year’s Let’s Read! Let’s Move! series which included local officials, celebrities and area elementary students. ED’s next Let’s Read! Let’s Move! event will be in early July in Washington.

Alexandra Strott is a student at Middlebury College and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

School Sees ‘Turnaround’ Progress in Just Two Years

Those questioning whether a school can dramatically turn around should look no further than Emerson Elementary School in the Argentine community of Kansas City, Kan. The school recently opened its doors to a group of local, state, and federal education officials, including Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary for policy and the head of ED’s Office of School Turnaround.

Following a tour of the school and conversations with school leadership, teachers, and students, Snyder said: “Our goal here is to understand what’s working and share that success with other schools across the country. The progress at Emerson is very encouraging.”

Just three years ago, Emerson was identified as the lowest-performing school in Kansas and was awarded a grant through the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program to implement one of four turnaround models. At Emerson, where 90% of the students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches, over 43 percent of its students were performing in the academic warning area in math and 45 percent in the warning area in reading (compared to the state average of six percent in both subjects).

Jason Snyder visiting Emerson

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder visits Emerson Elementary in Kansas City, Kan.

Enter new principal Brett Bernard, a revamped staff, and a strong vision focused on student achievement. The school today is barely recognizable from where it was two years ago when the SIG program was first implemented. Students are engaged in meaningful instruction because of the school’s new focus on literacy instruction, data-based classroom decisions, and increased learning time connected closely to the school’s curriculum.  Moreover, thanks to robust outreach efforts by a new parent-community specialist, the community is engaged in the turnaround efforts.

But the sweeping change wasn’t without its challenges – especially early in the process.  After learning that their school was the lowest-performing in Kansas, Emerson’s teachers felt a wide range of emotions: from anger and embarrassment to uncertainty and fear. Bernard worked to convince them that they were up for the job through positive reinforcement and a can-do/no-excuses attitude. Bernard said he realized that if true change were to happen, “it had to come from within them – and from within the PLCs (Professional Learning Communities).”

Through the turnaround process, test scores have risen dramatically: newly released 2012 scores show that barely two percent of Emerson students are now in the warning area in reading.  Just as telling: enrollment has increased from 130 students to 195 students in two years, as word of the dramatic improvements has spread across the local community.

Norma Cregan, of the Kansas Department of Education, who toured Emerson along with other education officials, noted that she had witnessed a “remarkable change” since her first visit to the school in 2010. It is a change that she continues to observe in other SIG schools throughout the state.  “What we see in all our SIG schools is strong leadership and strong growth,” she said.

Superintendent Lane expressed her appreciation for the additional resources provided through the SIG grant process. “We know what works to turn around struggling schools,” Superintendent Cynthia Lane said, “and Emerson demonstrates that, with support, districts can assist struggling schools to achieve at high levels.”

Ultimately, it is schools like Emerson that serve as models for other struggling schools across the country.  “It’s encouraging to see courageous leaders, like those at Emerson, improve outcomes of students and share their strong work with others,” said Snyder.

–Patrick Kerr is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Regional Office in Kansas City

Leaders and Teachers ‘Go the Extra Mile’ to Transform Milwaukee’s Hamilton High

“Turning around schools is one of the toughest, and important, challenges we face in education,” said Jason Snyder, a deputy assistant secretary from ED, as he toured Milwaukee Public Schools’ Alexander Hamilton High School in May.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder discusses the transformation of Milwaukee Public Schools' Alexander Hamilton High School.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder discusses the transformation of Milwaukee Public Schools’ Alexander Hamilton High School with some of its students.

The school is in the midst of a transformation supported by a $750,000 federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) that began at the beginning of the school year.  The SIG has funded multiple programs to improve academic outcomes for Hamilton’s diverse, 2,000-plus student population. The projects have included an extended school day learning opportunities, professional development for educators, literacy coaching for teachers, and teachers who specialize in assisting students who are struggling with reading and math.

Hamilton also has a new leader. Principal Rosana Mateo has focused her firstyear focus on building stronger relationships with students, staff, parents and community organizations.

“Leadership is about relationships. If you don’t have strong relationships, you don’t have anything,” she said.

The early results are promising. Over the past year, proficiency for Hamilton’s 10th graders increased by nearly 16 percentage points in reading and 9 percentage points in math. Student attendance has increased, and suspensions have decreased. While Snyder agreed with Mateo’s assessment of the turnaround effort as a “work in progress,” he noted that “this is never easy work – especially in large, comprehensive high schools like Hamilton.”

“With courageous leadership and strong collaboration among staff, Hamilton is making a real difference in the lives of its students,” Snyder said. “What I heard from students is that they are more engaged and are being given an opportunity to succeed.”

For example, one of the benefits of Hamilton’s large size has long been its substantial Advanced Placement offerings, which enable high school students to learn college-level material and possibly earn college credits. Among Milwaukee schools, Hamilton has the 2nd highest number of students taking AP classes. Through SIG funding, AP students now have the opportunity to get extra support at school to succeed in those rigorous classes.

Violeta Curiel, a Hamilton senior, credited teachers for helping to inspire student growth over the past year. “They go the extra mile. They’re here on Saturdays, mornings and after school when we need extra help. They care about us, and it makes us really care about school.”

Visit Milwaukee Public Schools’ website for more information and to see more photos.

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office. 

Whatever It Takes: School Turnaround Realities

When Principal Roy Sandoval of Arizona’s Alchesay High School says that he and his staff do “whatever it takes” to create a safe and orderly environment for students to learn, he is not kidding around.

“Safe and orderly is number one,” Sandoval recently told an audience at a U.S. Department of Education forum on School Improvement Grant (SIG) implementation. The goal of the Department’s SIG program is to support state and local efforts in turning around the lowest-performing five percent of the nation’s public schools. Arizona’s state education department put Alchesay on its list. That directed extra resources to the school on the Apache reservation in Whiteriver and lured Sandoval to the remote high school in 2010.

Principal Roy Sandoval of Arizona’s Alchesay High School speaks at the Department of Education. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

In the year before Sandoval’s arrival, the school had seen almost 300 drug and alcohol incidents. Students were walking out between periods to buy liquor from “bootleggers” who set up just off campus, then returning to class. Open defiance, open display of gang colors, and fights were commonplace—and the first hill that the new principal and his staff began to climb.

“If you don’t have a safe and orderly environment, if you’re not formidable enough to establish that, then forget it,” Sandoval told the April 26, 2012, gathering of education association representatives and Department of Education staff. “All the innovation you have in the world, all the technology—if you don’t have administrators that are going to shake that place up and make it safe, [real school reform is] not going to happen.”

Also highlighted at the Department’s forum were the school turnaround efforts of the St. Louis (Mo.) Public Schools, where at the district level, an Office of Innovation was created to guide the turnaround work in 11 SIG-supported schools. St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams credits his leader of that office, Assistant Superintendent Michael Haggen, for his constancy in tending to the needs of those schools, and in making key adjustments guided by data.

As St. Louis has moved forward, specialized professional development, human resources and accountability coordinators, staff mapping, and continuous review of student and teacher data are components that have been developed specifically to support school improvement. And as Adams and Haggen were quick to note, just improving these 11 schools, so that in a few years they trade places with the 11 schools directly above them in performance, won’t be good enough. St. Louis leadership is working to embed these principles and strategies district-wide.

Coupled with their no-nonsense attitude for improvement, what these two vastly different turnaround endeavors have in common is a genuine and apparent love for kids. For Principal Sandoval in Arizona, a “double-dose” of math and English language arts that he has incorporated has to be provided by instructors who care for their students, who talk with them and connect with them every day.

“You know in my school the job description is: You need to jump in and help on whatever is necessary,” Sandoval said. “Everybody knows that the terminal words for me are ‘it’s not in my job description.’ It’s not? Really? We do whatever it takes. That’s what it takes to turn a school around.”

For more information on the progress in St. Louis and at Alchesay High School, the forum transcript can be found here, and a video of the presentations here. Alchesay’s student media class also produced a short video in which students and teachers describe the transformation of their school.

Karen Stratman-Krusemark 

Karen is the Department’s K-12 Associations Liaison, and a former English teacher and coach.

Duncan Talks Obama Education Record at Mom Congress

Secretary Duncan speaks to Mom Congress

Secretary Duncan speaks to the 2012 Mom Congress delegates. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

What is the proper role of the federal government in education? Secretary Arne Duncan answered this question Monday at Parenting‘s annual Mom Congress in Washington. “Under President Obama’s leadership, our role here in Washington is to support you,” Duncan said. There’s a transformation underway in public education at the state and local level, he said, that is raising expectations for students and educators.

At the Department of Education, our first three years were really about building a foundation for this transformation. We have challenged the status quo wherever it is needed and championed bold reform wherever it is happening along the educational pipeline from cradle to career.

Secretary Duncan explained how the Obama Administration has supported reforms by:

Strengthening K-12 Education

The Administration is investing in courageous leadership at the state and local level, taking to scale practices that close achievement gaps and raise the bar for all students. Investments include:

Investing in Early Learning

The Obama Administration has made an unprecedented investment in high-quality early childhood education with the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge.

Keeping Teachers on the Job

Under the Recovery Act and emergency jobs funding, more than 325,000 teachers were kept in classrooms during the height of the recession.

Investing in Higher Education

The Obama Administration has made the largest investment in higher education since the G.I. Bill.

    • Three million more students are going to college with Pell Grants, thanks to an increase in Pell funding by $40 billion. Rather than adding to the deficit, the Administration paid for the increase by cutting overly generous federal subsidies to big banks that make student loans.
    • Invested $2.5 billion to support adults attending community colleges.
    • Simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has resulted in 50 percent more applications since President Obama took office.

“The bottom line today is: We can’t stop,” Secretary Duncan said. “The costs of educational stagnation and mediocrity are too high. President Obama has put us on a path to reach our goal of being the best-educated country in the world by 2020, and we have to keep going.”

Arne encouraged the education advocates in the audience—moms from all 50 states and D.C.—to continue working in their communities on behalf of their own children and all children. Parents need to be good partners with their children’s teachers, he told them, but “also need to be partners in bigger, systemic issues.”

Read the entire speech here.

Oklahoma City Turnaround School is Doing More Than Just OK

Crutcho Elementary School sits on a flood plain near Oklahoma City. One could say its location is a metaphor for the school’s challenges. Just as the school is at risk of flooding, its students are susceptible to the generational poverty that surrounds it.

PencilsThe Oklahoma Department of Education has identified Crutcho as a persistently underperforming school. But when one walks through Crutcho’s halls these days, the attitude is not resignation or complacency, but one of hope and renewal.

“Whatever it takes. No excuses. No exceptions.” These are the school staff’s mottos.

According to Principal Robert Killian and Superintendent Teresa McAfee, everyone understood the importance of receiving the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG).

“The SIG grant gave us an opportunity to establish a relationship with the state that we never had before,” McAfee said.

Crutcho received $973,000 from ED in the 2010-2011 school year, under the SIG transformation model. Since that time, reading and math scores have reached the state median, a huge improvement over results in years past.

The SIG grant has allowed for longer school days, extending learning time to seven and a half hours a day, which in one school year is the equivalent of 206 days of learning compared to the typical 175. The summer school program was extended to five and a half hours a day for six weeks instead of four hours a day for four weeks. Additional reforms include a new schedule that provides more collaboration time for students in grades 3 through 8 who need additional help in certain subject areas.

The reforms also introduced advanced technology to the school. Students have laptops, and there are cameras in every classroom to create video archives of instruction for the teachers’ professional development. Smart boards were added to every classroom so teachers could access the Internet as well as promote interaction, and a data and technology integration coach was brought in to assist teachers in using technology as part of the curriculum.

The school’s change in morale is palpable.

“Kids are starting to believe in themselves,” said School Librarian Donna Rupert.

In addition to the grant, the school has partnered with the local community to help meet the students’ needs, as well as their families’. Wal-Mart helps provide school supplies for the classrooms and a local church gives birthday cakes to every child throughout the year, as well as holiday presents for more than a third of the students.

As a result of these major improvements, more people want their children to attend Crutcho, explained Principal Killian.

“We have seen tremendous growth,” he said.

Click here to read more about turnaround success.

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.