Students drop out of schools, not districts, communities, or states. The vast majority undertake the final act of dropping out when they are in high school. Hence, the first place to target your community’s efforts is on transforming the lowest performing high schools and their feeder middle schools.
In the quest to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, and increase international competitiveness through an educated workforce, efforts at the secondary level will pay off most rapidly. To quell the tide of dropouts and raise all our students to higher levels, however, there is a need for earlier interventions. These must begin in the elementary schools that feed into the middle and high schools that are producing the greatest number of dropouts, and in their communities through birth to kindergarten and parent support programs. These efforts, however, will take longer to show positive influences on graduation rates. Broad-scale early learning efforts should complement graduation improvement work as the foundation for even greater success as we move toward 2025 and 2030. Literacy efforts for students in the early grades will begin paying off by 2020.
Revamping secondary schools and their outcomes is complex work. It is the first step in changing a status quo that isn’t working. The U. S. Department of Education (USDOE) regulations governing School Improvement Grants spell out four models that capture current thinking about what to do when the situation is dire – the school graduates fewer than 60 percent of its entrants or is in the lowest 5 percent in its state — and the school is covered by federal parameters and/or state mandates requiring dramatic change
- Transformation, which requires replacing the principal; instituting research-based curricular and instructional reforms; closing achievement gaps; using equitable evaluations for teachers and administrators; providing on-going professional development; rewarding administrators and staff members who increase student achievement and graduation rates; and removing those who do not.
- Turnaround, which includes replacing the principal; screening all existing staff and rehiring no more than 50 percent of them; increasing learning time; and relying on data to both identify the near-dropouts and the students who are off-track and to differentiate instruction, All will be within the context of a new school governance structure.
- Restart, which requires the local education agency to convert a school or close and reopen it as a charter school or under an educational management or similar organization.
- Closure, which requires a school to close and the students to be enrolled in another district school where students are achieving at higher levels.
Ultimately, the decision to transform, turnaround, restart, or close a school is made by the school district, with the state department of education’s guidance or insistence. (In some cases, as in Tennessee and Louisiana, the lowest performing schools are moved into state “achievement” districts, independent of their home school district.)
Yet there is a distinct and important community role. Successful cases of school revamping — and there are an increasing number of examples — have deeply involved local communities after gaining support from key community members. Thoughtful decisions on which model to use and how to implement it depend on the information that has been collected, on the number of schools in need, and on the resources and strengths of your community.
When low-performing schools are not on a state-mandated change list, community efforts to change course have greater latitude in organizing the improvement strategies. This provides all the more opportunity for solid community involvement in decision-making. And even when turnaround, restart, closure or transformation has occurred, the next step for many schools is, as with their slightly better off brethren, to draw from the principles below for comprehensive school reform and/or new public school creation.
Remember, the components of comprehensive school reform aren’t effective in isolation! It is desirable, too, that key community advocates ask principals and superintendents to join school and district advisory teams.
The U.S. Department of Education offers several useful resources related to school turnaround. Visit the Center on Innovation and Improvement for the Handbook on Effective Implementation of School Improvement Grants, http://www.centerii.org/handbook/, and visit http://www2ed.gov/programs/sif/ for a PowerPoint, “An Overview of School Turnaround.” Also query the main department page (http://find.ed.gov/search?q=school+transformation) for references and reports on schools undertaking this work.
For reading related not only to the section above but to the sections that follow – comprehensive school reform, new public schools, college and career readiness – explore the publication list of a leading research organization, MDRC, http://www.mdrc.org, including Reforming Underperforming High Schools, Improving College Readiness, and Career Academies: Long Term Impacts on Work, Education and Transitions to Adulthood.
For information specifically about middle school, visit The George W. Bush Institute’s Middle School Matters Field Guide,