School Improvement Grants: Examples of Successful Efforts

The Obama administration is providing $3.5 billion to support state and local efforts to reform their lowest-performing schools. In rules proposed on August 26, 2009, districts could use one of three models. A fourth option would be to close a low-performing school and enroll its students in high-performing schools in the district.

Here are examples of successful efforts using each of the three options.

Option 1: Turnarounds

Chicago Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), Chicago, IL

Founded in 2001, AUSL is a nonprofit specializing in teacher preparation and school management. It works in partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to transform chronically underperforming public schools. Using unionized staff, AUSL’s model includes:

  • Hiring a new principal;
  • Keeping effective teachers but replacing many others;
  • Implementing a curriculum based on high expectations and organized around frequent assessments to help teachers track student progress and differentiate instruction; and
  • Building a culture of respect and intellectual curiosity.

AUSL opened its first turnaround school in 2006 at the Sherman School of Excellence. The transition took place in the summer, so the student body remained the same and students did not have to temporarily move to other schools. Since then, Sherman has produced steady gains in the student achievement. AUSL’s second turnaround school was the Harvard School of Excellence. Before AUSL’s turnaround in 2007, Harvard ranked in the bottom five out of more than 3,000 Illinois elementary schools. Harvard has produced steady gains in student achievement.

Contact: Dr. Donald Feinstein, Executive Director, AUSL, 3400 N. Austin Avenue, Chicago, IL 60634, 773-534-0129

Green Dot, Los Angeles, CA

Green Dot, which runs charter schools in Los Angeles, partnered with the L.A. Unified school district to turn around Locke High School. Locke was considered one of L.A.’s most troubled and chronically underperforming public high schools. Only 5 percent of its entering 9th graders would graduate and enroll in four-year colleges and universities. On September 11, 2007, the LAUSD school board voted to give Green Dot operational control of Locke High School. Green Dot is the first outside organization to operate a traditional public school in the district.

In 2008, Locke reopened as eight small college-prep academies known as the Locke Family of High Schools. Five of the schools are housed on the main campus, with three schools located on satellite campuses. Green Dot adopted a college-focused curriculum and provided extensive remediation for the large number of students who arrive at 9th grade working at below grade level.

As part of the turnaround, only 40 of the school’s 120 teachers remained in the school. Principals can be hired and fired at will, and principals have more control over the staffing in their schools as well. In the first year, Locke showed modest gains in test scores, but tested significantly more students (38 percent more than the previous year, indicating more students were staying in school throughout the year), reduced truancy and dropout rates, and improved the safety of the school setting. Additionally, nearly 20 percent more students graduated, and large percentages of those continued onto college, including many to four-year colleges.

Contact: Steve Barr, Founder and Chairman, 350 South Figueroa Street, Suite 213, Los Angeles, CA 90071 (213) 621-0276

Option 2: Re-Start as Charter School or Under Education Management Organization

Mastery Schools, Philadelphia, PA

Mastery Charter Schools is a growing network of charter college preparatory, middle-high schools that serves 1,750 neighborhood students in Philadelphia. Mastery has focused on converting chronically low-performing schools to charter schools and then dramatically improving student performance. Mastery’s teachers are continually focused on improving student achievement. They align assessments with clear objectives and use assessment data to direct instruction. Mastery creates an achievement-focused school culture and fosters meaningful, personal relationships between students and adults. Teachers emphasize problem-solving and social-emotional skills. All students receive workplace skills training and participate in internships to ensure they develop the real-world skills required for college and the workforce. Mastery schools also have both an extended school year and an extended school day. Their program focuses on mastery (“attaining a grade of 76 percent or above”) of a well-defined and very narrow curriculum of basic academic skills (reading, writing, and math). It is driven by periodic benchmark assessments monitored for overall percentage improvements.

One example of a Mastery School is Pickett Middle School. At the previous Pickett Middle School, run on the same site, student suspensions were high and achievement was low. The building was in need of significant refurbishment. In the transition to a Mastery school, all staff and students who applied to stay were required to sign new contracts accepting Mastery’s approach and management systems to ensure effective instruction, learning, and school climate. Many staff chose to leave, but most students stayed. The first year improvement at Pickett was dramatic. Across seventh and eighth grade state testing, average reading improvement was 45 percent; average math improvement was 21 percent. Mastery’s highly structured/ managed approach also led to dramatic change in school culture. At Pickett and its two peer conversion schools, violence incidences have dropped 85 percent while student turnover dropped by nearly half.

Contact: Scott Gordon, CEO, 5700 Wayne Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19144, (215) 866-9000

Option 3: Transformation

Hamilton County, TN

Hamilton County, Tennessee, is widely recognized as a school reform success story. With $5 million from the Chattanooga-based Benwood Foundation and funding from several other local organizations, school, and community officials launched an intensive teacher-centered campaign to reform Chattanooga’s lowest-performing schools. The model, now known as the “Benwood Initiative,” dramatically improved student achievement. School district officials replaced most principals in the Benwood schools and required teachers to reapply for their jobs. Approximately one-third of teachers did not return to the Benwood schools. Community officials created financial incentives to attract new talent, including free graduate school tuition, mortgage loans, and performance bonuses. Benwood’s success has had at least as much to do with a second, equally important teacher-reform strategy: helping teachers improve the quality of their instruction.

A new analysis of “value-added” teacher effectiveness data conducted indicates that over a period of six years, existing teachers in the eight Benwood elementary schools improved steadily. Before the Benwood Initiative kicked off, they were far less effective than their peers elsewhere in the Hamilton County district. In terms of student achievement, students in Benwood schools achieved impressive gains; for example, Benwood 3rd graders scoring proficient or advanced on state reading tests rose by 27 percent from 2003-2007.

Contact: Dan Challener, President, Chattanooga Public Education Foundation, 100 East Tenth Street, Suite 500, Chattanooga, TN 37402, 423-265-9403