Sixteen years ago I first became involved with TRI’s School Turnaround intervention. I was the principal at one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in Fort Worth, Texas. I had started my second year at the school; a quarter of the teachers were new as well.
Over two years we made tremendous inroads in achievement. Writing scores jumped to the 80th percentile on 4th grade tests. Third grade scores climbed too. We climbed into the mid-range of school performance in the city.
How did we do it? School Turnaround gave me an edge I didn’t expect. Today the methodology still remains simple. The process involves professional development for principals, setting a roadmap and targets for your school, regular check-ins with a School Turnaround Specialist, and daily work to support teachers and classroom learning.
One of School Turnaround’s greatest assets are the Turnaround Specialists. They are all former principals who have turned around a school of their own. Here’s what they bring:
Confidence: When a school has just five percent of its students performing at grade level, it’s hard to believe any principal could make a difference. But your Turnaround Specialists has. They’ve stood where you stand, and they are a reminder that dramatic improvement is possible.
Honesty: Principals should be prepared to talk openly with their Turnaround Specialist about shortcomings and failings they’ve experienced at the school. You can be real and vulnerable, and it remains confidential. In return, your specialist will be equally direct in helping you succeed.
New perspectives: We bring you a fresh set of eyes. Because a principal is in the heat of the action every day, you may not see something happening that we observe—such as a teacher’s classroom behavior or team dynamics that make or break achievement.
A sounding board: Turnaround Specialists will help you plan strategies and solve problems. We’re also here to talk when you are frustrated or need to vent—always better than losing your cool with your staff.
A second set of hands: Principals carry a lot on their plate that can distract them from student achievement. We help you manage competing priorities so you stay focused on the turnaround. We’ve pulled data for teachers, observed classrooms, organized parent meetings—whatever’s needed.
The importance of teamwork
One lesson I emphasize to principals is they must trust and rely on others. Holding too tightly to the reins won’t lead your school to the breakthrough change you want.
Recently I worked with an energetic principal who is a strong academic leader, but her leadership team didn’t trust her. Teachers and instructional coaches were also fearful and quiet when they’d meet to discuss teaching improvements.
With coaching, things have improved. The principal gave new responsibilities to the assistant principal, who now feels ownership. At weekly sessions, teachers talk more readily about what they’re focused on improving. In classrooms, teachers talk less and interact more with students. And yes, the school is on track to hit its targets.
After 16 years, this is why I continue practicing. It never gets old to watch kids learn better at school, and to see a good principal become great.