Building Capacity for School Turnaround: The 2011 School Improvement Grant Regional Conferences

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education

This morning, I’m excited to help kick off the 2011 School Improvement Grant Eastern Regional Conference in Washington, DC – an intensive, two-day event for school, district, and state leaders who are working to turn around their lowest-performing schools. The conference, hosted by ED’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) in partnership with our Comprehensive Centers, is the second of four regional capacity-building sessions that will take place over the next two months. The conferences are a key part of OESE’s efforts to provide our grantees with support and technical assistance as they implement the School Improvement Grant (SIG).

From the beginning of his administration, President Obama has made the commitment to turn around America’s lowest-performing schools a centerpiece of his cradle-to-career education agenda. Through our newly redesigned SIG program, we have provided an unprecedented amount of funds to help turnaround this country’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools over the next five years.

In addition to providing unprecedented resources for school turnarounds, ED is working in partnership with schools to ensure student success. Having been a Superintendent, I know how much support is needed on the ground to implement reforms, and how difficult it is to actually turn around failing schools. But, I also know that school turnaround can be done, with the right supports.

This is why these conferences are especially important. In the next two days, grantees at the Eastern SIG Conference will have opportunities to learn from their colleagues and other education leaders on what’s working, and what looks promising, in school turnaround efforts across the country. The conference will address not only structural and organization reforms for turnaround, but also instructional best practices to meet the needs of students in schools. And perhaps more importantly, school, district, and state leaders will build new relationships, strengthen existing ones, and begin building communities of practice that will allow them to continue to share promising practices and successes they see with SIG in their schools and districts.

I’m confident that this conference – like the Western conference, held just last week, and the Central and Midwest Conferences coming up in May – will be just the beginning of continued conversations and learning among grantees and all stakeholders invested in the success of school turnarounds. And, it’s my hope that all participants will return to their states and districts re-energized and equipped with new information, resources and networks that will help transform our struggling schools into world-class centers of teaching and learning.

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana is Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education

4-H and Extensions Offer Partners for School Turnarounds

“I couldn’t be more hopeful, more optimistic about your generation” Secretary Duncan told a group of nearly 500 4-H youth delegates earlier today at the National 4-H Youth Conference in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Secretary Duncan at the conference where both Secretaries answered questions from the audience and talked to students about the challenge of educating our way to a better economy. In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama emphasized that “to win the future, we have to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world, tapping the creativity and imagination of our people.”

Secretary Duncan said that one of our greatest challenges is turning around the bottom 5% of our nation’s schools.  To address this challenge, the Obama Administration dedicated more than $4 billion in school improvement grants to states through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the budgets for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

States have identified their lowest achieving schools and we are challenging them to compete for this funding by putting forth their best turnaround plans. However, schools and districts cannot do this work alone. They need to engage and work with public and private partners such as the 4-H and land grant university extension programs. “Forming these kinds of partnerships provides the best chance for rural areas to turn around their lowest performing schools and keep children from dropping out,” said Secretary Duncan.

4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization and a program of our nation’s cooperative extension system. Each U.S. state and territory has a state cooperative extension office at its land grant university and a network of local and regional offices that can work with schools. The 4-H and extension programs can provide community-based partnerships that help schools create sustainable community changes in a number of ways.

The National 4-H and Extensions can work with schools to create programs that are specific to the school community’s needs, including financial literacy, parenting, healthy living, food and nutrition, science literacy, robotics, and civic engagement to bridge formal and non-formal learning experiences.

Check out the USDA’s Youth Development and 4-H page for more information.

– Sherry Schweitzer