School Turnarounds
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SIG Baseline Report, Database and Map Now Available

I’m pleased to announce that IES has released the Department’s first report on the revamped School Improvement Grant (SIG), called "Baseline Analyses of SIG Applications and SIG-Eligible and SIG-Awarded Schools". This report uses publicly-available data from State Education Agency (SEA) websites, SEA SIG applications, and the National Center for Education Statistics' Common Core of Data to provide initial information on SIG-related policies and practices that states intend to implement, and the characteristics of both SIG-eligible and SIG-awarded schools. We’re also making available the entire database of SIG data to the public -- you can find links to the database and documentation below. Finally, a mapping tool for the SIG data is available at http://data.ed.gov/grants/school-improvement-grants.

Supporting Rural Schools

Colonial Beach

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, we in OESE are taking a new approach to working and helping districts build capacity, especially those who serve diverse groups of learners. So, one of our priorities is working specifically with rural schools and communities to ensure they have the appropriate resources and support to address the unique challenges they face. 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a rural school in Colonial Beach, Virginia – specifically, a rural SIG school.  Colonial Beach High School is one of two schools in the Colonial Beach district, and it serves a population of 3,000 citizens. The school received SIG funds last year and they’ve adopted the transformation model to turn around the school, with a lot of support from the district and its superintendent, Dr. Carol Power. 

During my visit, I met teachers, saw some classrooms, and spoke with the dedicated School Board and the Lead Turnaround Partners team, which is made up of six educational experts that are working with Colonial Beach to implement the school turnaround process. The school has made some encouraging progress, but what was really interesting for me to see was how Colonial Beach was dealing with some of its challenges as a rural school. For example, the school has only one algebra teacher – that certainly makes it difficult to form a professional learning community at the school! The solution for Colonial Beach has been to use technology to connect teachers to colleagues in other areas. 

The Department recognizes that many of our nation’s rural schools face particular challenges like this one, and we are working to provide technical assistance and other forms of support, including our upcoming SIG Conference focused on rural and Native American students, to be held on May 24-25 in Denver. We want to offer a forum for rural educators to build a professional network, to learn from one another, and to celebrate the unique strengths offered by rural communities. I’m interested in learning even more about strategies and successes in rural schools across the country, so I encourage you to share your experiences directly with me at AskDrT@ed.gov.

Photo Credit: Reza Marvashti/The Freelance Star | Read coverage on the visit from Fredericksburg.com

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

This entry is cross-posted from the ED.gov blog.

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).

A SIG-Filled Week, and a New SIG Resource for Supporting Adolescent Literacy

I’m in Los Angeles to speak at the 2011 Western Regional Capacity-Building Conference for School Improvement Grant (SIG) recipients. This is the first of four conferences we are holding for grantees across the country, and I’m really excited to be here to kick off these learning sessions that will offer support to states, districts, and schools as they undertake the difficult but necessary work of school turnaround. Tomorrow, I’ll also be visiting two SIG schools to better see how turnaround work is progressing on the ground. I’ll provide a more detailed update on the conference and the visits when I return to DC, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you new SIG resources that grantees may find helpful.

Last week, the Center on Instruction posted a series of 5 webinars, produced in conjunction with Doing What Works, on topics related to adolescent literacy.  These are recorded professional development webinars designed for SIG grantees, with content from the Center on Instruction and handouts and activities from the DWW adolescent literacy website. This is a valuable resource for SIG schools and districts who may be looking for more resources on improving literacy, and I encourage you to take a look.

Here are the available webinars in the "Using Doing What Works (DWW) Resources to Support SIG Grantees in Adolescent Literacy" series:

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State Turnaround Teams Share SIG Experiences

In our new issue of the School Turnaround Newsletter, turnaround teams and directors from four states reflect on their first year implementing the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, and what they've learned from their experiences so far. We also share new resources for school turnaround in the newsletter, along with a reminder to register for our Spring 2011 Regional SIG Conferences, which are fast approaching!

You can read the new issue here. If you've missed previous issues, you can find them here.

State Turnaround Teams: Minnesota

Pat King, Director of the Office of Turnaround Schools


The Office of Turnaround Schools works solely with SIG schools in Minnesota to offer support and assistance in implementing the grant. The Office has in-house staff who work on program management, budget, and monitoring, as well as field-based staff who support schools in different regions of the state. Field staff members are carefully matched with the needs of the schools; for example, the staff member who works with northern Minnesota schools – which have a high Native American student population – has expertise in serving Native American students. Support provided to districts and schools are based on need and existing capacity, so a rural district may receive more specialized support than large, metropolitan districts.

Q: What are some of the challenges your team has faced in the first year of SIG implementation? 

A: The biggest challenge for us has been anticipating what the challenges would be for schools and districts. The situation evolves constantly – as soon as you think you have a handle on the issue, it changes. 

Another challenge for us was having enough staff, and having the right staff. The hiring of staff at the state government level is really slow, and when new staff come on, it takes time to bring them up to speed. I always use this metaphor to describe our process in the beginning: it’s like building the plane while you’re flying out there. 

SIG is also a new concept for us in that the urgency and focus is new. School improvement “lite” has been around for a long time, and I’ve worked on SIG stuff before, where it said you can kind of do this and that. But schools didn’t really understand what it meant to really undertake school turnaround.

The timing was also tough because everything was so rushed. We had to get teacher buy-in, and talk with schools about being transparent. We heard from the grapevine that certain superintendents thought this couldn’t be done. So we had to do a lot of outreach – and we still do outreach. Our office goes out and does school board presentations and other community outreach where we explain and re-explain what SIG is, and try to make sure there’s transparency and buy-in. Last year, we personally made visits to each school or district that had been identified as persistently low-achieving. We had to give them the blow of that designation, but also tell them why they should apply for SIG, and provide TA and as much information as possible.

Q: How are you helping your districts and schools build capacity?

A:  An example is providing districts and schools more guidance on how to lead Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). There is not one right model, but we’re providing more training on best practices. Our goal is to go in and work with a school, and train the trainer. We know that in three years, we [state staff members] are going to be gone. We want districts and schools to take ownership right from the beginning. We’re implementing our capacity building from the perspective that if any leader of the school or district leaves, this program or school reform model will continue. It’s extremely important for reforms to not depend on one entity.

We have tried to help districts make the connection with their community to help them understand what the community has to offer in terms of helping with school turnarounds. We provided states with a webinar on practices to engage the community. But a lot of them are doing that already. 

Q: What are lessons learned from your experience with SIG so far? 

A: First of all, we now know what we are talking about when it comes to SIG. Since we’ve done it before, the application process also will go a lot smoother. We’ve learned that we need to be more proactive in communicating the message.

We also learned how hard the principal replacement message was – we had a lot of tough conversations the first time around.  Based on past experiences, some people thought principal replacement wouldn’t end up being a real requirement, but the Department held fast to that. It was really good to know that the Department had our back, so that when we say something, the field knows we mean it. We’ve built our reputation on trust, honesty, and integrity.

The guidance provided by ED has been very helpful in answering questions like, “What do you mean by the ‘transformation’ model?” Having that guidance and knowing that things have settled, we are more confident in our conversations with districts and schools, and what we’re been able to do. This means we have a better chance of providing meaningful TA and support. That’s where you should spend all your time and energy instead of finding out what certain terms mean.

Q: What support would you like to see from the federal government?

A: We want the government to not change anything [in terms of regulation] – but instead, go deeper and provide support for what’s already been established. 

The Department has been really great – it’s great to have someone at the federal level who will answer your phone call when you have questions! It helps us keep moving SIG as fast as we can, which is critical because schools only have 9-10 months to implement. We’d like the Department to continue providing guidance, giving us resources, and being transparent on what they are looking for from us.

Q: Any other advice you’d share with state turnaround directors?

A: You have to know the legislation. If you think you know it, go back and read it again. You have to also understand Title I as a whole. You can’t approach SIG like it’s just another program. It’s not. It’s much more intense – always different, but fun!

It really helps to have built a relationship with superintendents and principals. I feel much better now about where I am, compared to when we first started. So it’s important to build relationships – you can’t just send them off to do the work. 

Don’t accept excuses. When someone says they can’t do something, we ask, “Why can’t you?” And then, we’ll provide them with support. 

Trust is a big deal. Building trust is a goal that goes way beyond SIG.

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State Turnaround Teams: Illinois

Monique Chism, Division Administrator, Innovation & Improvement, Illinois State Board of Education 


In Illinois, the SIG team is currently housed under the Office for Innovation and Improvement. In addition to Dr. Chism, there are four staff members that are dedicated to SIG work. Illinois has plans to create a Center for School Improvement that will house the school support and school turnaround teams. The Center will hire additional staff to help support SIG work and provide more direct technical assistance (TA) for districts. The state anticipates the Center to be open by January 2012.

Q: What are some of the challenges your team has faced in the first year of SIG implementation? 

A: In the first year, we had a lot of questions from the field about the different SIG requirements and expectations for the grant. Many people just didn’t have good examples of implementation. Things like extended learning time, operational flexibility, embedded professional development – people wanted concrete examples of those practices.

Based on this experience, we put together a four-course series for round two of SIG on what good school improvement looks like. These are actual 90 minute courses which an external provider – Turnaround Learning – helped put together that provides more support for districts and schools on SIG.

Q: How are you helping your districts and schools build capacity?

A: In between round one and round two, we provided onsite TA for any district who applied for SIG funding the first time and wasn’t awarded the money. We sent a staff member to the district twice, went through the SIG application with them, talked about the areas they scored low in, and really specifically talked about expectations in that area. We were also inclusive at these meetings – we asked districts to have representatives from their board, the union, parents, community groups. We wanted a diverse representation of stakeholders. And all of our districts agreed to have these meetings with us to strengthen their next SIG application.

We also worked with a nonprofit called Advance Illinois to put together a toolkit to help districts engage in conversations about collective bargaining issues as it relates to SIG.  Anything we thought would impact collective bargaining – from extended learning to teacher evaluations – we addressed those issues in the toolkit to help support those conversations. It’s meant to be seen as guidance, as examples of best practices. The toolkit is published on MassInsight’s website

Q: What are lessons learned from your experience with SIG so far? 

A: We really learned from the first round the importance of community and parent engagement in SIG. The challenge with round one was the turnaround time – the timeline was so tight that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for districts to do much. In fact, one of our districts ended up being sued by a parent and community group because they felt they weren’t involved in the conversation enough. Whenever you’re going through this radical reform – there’s going to be a level of pushback. The best thing to do is to make sure that people feel they have voice in the process. 

One of the things we did to ensure successful implementation was to have face-to-face meetings with each school after they were awarded their grant. We discussed what the school had said it was going to do, and what was expected from them by the state. Those meetings helped to start us off on the right foot. We also made it a requirement that each school must work with a Lead Partner – an external provider with a proven track record in turning around schools – to help with stability issues and the change process. All things considered, we’re very happy with where the districts are. We’ve seen strong progress and significant changes already in the climate and culture of our schools.

Q: What support would you like to see from the federal government?

A: One of the gaps we’ve seen is in finding external organizations that are able to do this type of work. It would be helpful if ED generated a list of competencies for partners, or even a list of recommended providers.

It would also be helpful to have strong examples of how districts are working with unions across the country. Even if the department was working with national organizations like the NEA or AFT and their leadership was coming together to support any changes related to SIG - examples of these partnerships would be helpful.

Q: Any other advice you’d share with state turnaround directors?

A: Just like we’re asking our districts to rethink and reinvent themselves, SIG has required us at the state level to reinvent the way we do things. We’ve had to change mindset about what our role is in supporting schools and districts. I’ve worked late to attend local parent meetings, board meetings, etc. It’s not the traditional compliance role we’ve held in the past.

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State Turnaround Teams: Arizona

Angela Denning, Deputy Associate Superintendent of School Improvement and Intervention

Teri Regan, Director of LEA and School Improvement-North Region


Arizona’s school turnaround team centers their SIG support system on four factors: 1) Technical Assistance (TA), 2) Professional Development, 3) Progress Monitoring, and 4) Compliance monitoring. While the state had focused on school improvement and intervention before the revamping of SIG, the new focus on turning around schools has provided an opportunity for Arizona to define a more structured, comprehensive system of support. The team is led by Angela Denning, the Deputy Associate Superintendent of School Improvement and Intervention. She oversees four regional directors who coordinate teams that provide direct support to districts.

Q: What are some of the challenges your team has faced in the first year of SIG implementation? 

A: One challenge we are encountering is figuring out how we at the state level evaluate ourselves, and how we know if we’re effective with this SIG work. Right now, we’re asking districts to think about what’s been most effective for them in implementation. This way, they can reflect, learn, and get better. But we have to do this at our level, too – we truly believe we have to walk the walk. So, we have an internal evaluator that we’re working with to define indicators and measurements to evaluate our effectiveness. 

Q: How are you helping your districts and schools build capacity?

A: The biggest struggle at the district level has been finding effective principals and teachers. A lot of our identified schools are in rural areas; a good number of schools are tribal and have high populations of Native American students, which add another dimension [to SIG implementation]. At the state level, we are trying to identify the correct level of support for these schools, and trying to find out what is enough support as we move forward. We want these reform efforts to be sustained, so we are scaffolding our support for different districts and schools, empowering them to take over the work as we build their capacity.

At the district level, we are also putting together professional development opportunities for leaders and instructional coaches. Because Arizona doesn’t have a supply of turnaround specialists or principals, and there’s no real training provided by universities in this area, we knew we needed to build leaders’ skills. We’ve learned that the training we've provided so far, however, isn’t intense enough. So, we’re looking at partnering with a national external provider to intensify training in our second year of implementation. 

For teachers, we are front loading training in the summer. Our persistently lowest-achieving schools send their teacher leaders to an “effective instructional academy” so that when they go back to the school, they’ll have the skills to teach the other teachers. We’re getting more involved at the school level because of the lessons we’ve learned in our first year. At first, we saw our responsibility to build capacity of districts so that they can support schools, but that hasn’t happened fast enough. So as the state, we had to be intentional in helping districts move information and support into the classrooms. 

We are also trying to create more flexibility for schools and districts by truly collaborating with our Title I and Title II teams, and providing information and training to districts on how to do so at their level. 

Q: What are lessons learned from your experience with SIG so far? 

A: We changed a few things going into the second round. We’ve instituted an onsite visit from a cadre of education experts – who we call “solution teams” – for districts with low-performing schools. The solution teams went out in January, looked at the systems that districts had in place, their strengths, challenges, and barriers, and provided a list of recommendations based on Arizona state standards and its rubric for school improvement. This was useful in that we are able to provide the district with information as they begin the SIG application process. By providing the district with a couple of additional eyes – more objective eyes – we helped provide insight and it resulted in a stronger application for the district. 

Last year, things happened so fast that we didn’t have the opportunity to do things like this, or delve into different strategies like bringing in external partners, or providing more guidance and training for good turnaround leaders.

Q: What support would you like to see from the federal government?

We’d like to see more direction on how we can co-mingle funds. It would also help for us to know how other states are handling evaluation of SIG at the state level. Finally, some guidance on how to use the flexibility afforded in SIG to the greatest impact would be very helpful.

Q: Any other advice you’d share with state turnaround directors?

A: Be sure to involve as many people as possible in your SIG process – anyone who is involved in overseeing implementation. The better the communication all around at the state level, the easier it will be for districts because they’ll be hearing consistent information. You have to push for collaboration to make this happen. We’ve gotten to where we are today because we have collaborated with others. Also, you should look at it as building true partnership, where both parties benefit.

I also want to reiterate the importance of support versus just compliance and monitoring. We do want to hold districts and schools accountable, but we want to support successful implementation. Districts and school staff welcome the focus on support and the TA, but it’s still suspect to some because it’s a new way of doing business.

Second, hold firm to the intent and the spirit of the School Improvement Grants. It’s about dramatic and bold changes in student achievement, and not accepting anything else than that. If the community is resistant, keep the focus on the students and student performance, and ask them, is this acceptable? And if it’s not, ask, how must we change things so that all students are given the high quality education that they deserve? We’ve gone through some resistance from the community with one of our districts, but the superintendent’s message to the community has been about students, and about what they deserve as far as a high quality education.

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Parent Academy Resources from Miami Dade County

After our superintendent call and webinar last week on SIG implementation, some of you asked for more information on The Parent Academy (TPA), a parent and family engagement strategy used by Miami Dade County as part of their turnaround efforts. Nikolai Vitti was kind enough to share with me some additional information on this initiative, and I wanted to pass along these resources to you. In the documents attached here, you'll find more information on how Miami Dade runs their Parent Academy, as well as some supporting research from the National Family, School, and Community Engagement Working Group. If you have questions, I encourage you to contact the district directly to find out more!

December Issue of School Turnaround Newsletter

School Turnaround Newsletter - December 2010I have another resource to share with all of you today -- the December 2010 issue of our School Turnaround Newsletter. This issue features an innovative parent-teacher partnership model in Arizona as well as district strategies for turning around multiple schools. I hope you find the information helpful!

If you've missed previous issues of the School Turnaround Newsletter, you can find it on our School Turnaround Newsletter page here. I encourage you to let me know if you find these resources helpful in your work with school turnarounds, or if there are other ways that we at the Department can help support you.

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