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State Turnaround Teams: Washington

Tonya Middling, Director of Secondary Education and School Improvement, OSPI

Janell Newman and Bill Rossman, SIG Coordinators 


The Washington State Department of Education’s state turnaround office, established last year, focuses solely on SIG – from the state application, to reviewing and selecting district grantees, to overseeing implementation in schools. In addition to state employees who are working on SIG, the turnaround team is also staffed by four contractors who provide direct support to districts and monitor implementation of the grant. 

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

A: There’s always the challenge of time, for the schools receiving SIG money and for districts to come together and focus their work. Schools and districts haven’t seen a reduction in any of the normal challenges of their daily work. We have just added a lot of things, by asking them to restructure and rethink how they are putting into place the components required by SIG. We have run into system resistance, which is one of our biggest challenges.

Another challenge is common messaging. We are working with 17 schools in 9 districts. We have to make sure the messages are common and consistent, and that monitoring is consistently applied.

We certainly look at what we need to change [at the state level] and adjust our work as new issues arise, and we are constantly looking at our mechanisms and structures. Most recently, we shifted our scheduled monitoring visits with schools and districts from individual visits to more of a team approach, so that a minimum of two contactors go on the visit. This way, we get a different lens, a different perspective, during the visit. 

We’re learning along with districts and schools, as we enter our second year of SIG. The challenge for us is to model the same type of change we’re asking the districts to make.

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

A: With the first cohort of SIG grantees, we started a network of schools where we started initial training in the first 90 days. That network met for four days throughout the summer and three days during the year, where we provided support in building competency in things like human capital. We customize the support we provide based on what schools are struggling with the most and what they need, based on feedback and on the needs assessment we conducted.

Another example of capacity building is the way we’re dealing with monitoring. Initially, we did high level monitoring during our implementation visits. One of the ways we’re building capacity now, using the tools provided by the Department of Education, is helping districts take on the role of monitoring.

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

A: Last year, we had a lot of resistance to replacing principals. We do have some schools that did replace principals, but we also had several schools that really made the effort to demonstrate to us that their existing principals were engaged in reform, and that they should stay. Some of these schools are just now realizing that they may not, in fact, have the right principal in place. So what we’ve learned is that we need to do more than monitoring – we need to challenge districts to have these reflective conversations, and to rethink areas that aren’t working. We’re also pushing harder this year on district applications to think critically about principal replacements.

Another barrier that we’ve faced is that different people in a district will have the tendency to interpret SIG rules differently. Principals will want to do things differently to change their school, but they’ll be told that they can’t. They just don’t know what’s allowed, and what we at the state level have done is to try to provide more information on what kinds of flexibility a district or a principal has in making changes.

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

A: An issue we’ve had is with competing legislation. For example, some of our schools are receiving 21st century grants, so we’re coordinating with another division in the state office so that our schools are meeting requirements for both 21st century grants and SIG. Any additional TA or guidance when we come up against those conflicts would be helpful.

The Department has done well [in its support] but should remain mindful of questions that come from states when there are challenges around interpretation of rules and guidance. We have a strong union presence in most of our districts, and at times, the state leadership of unions interpret guidance a little differently than we might. So instead of battling with them directly, we ask for the Department’s interpretation so we get clarity. We’d like to ask the Department to be mindful that these are real issues out in the field, and the responses can make or break our progress. Timeliness on clarifications of guidance is to be commended.

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

A: The challenge for states is to try to model what we want to see in districts and schools – we want to be bold, move quickly, and be innovative.  But we face barriers in state government – it’s not easy to move things quickly.

Our approach on the front end of this was to be a source of support to schools and to districts in implementing SIG. We don’t want to be just focused on monitoring – our primary approach is advocacy, to help them problem-solve so they can do what they want to do. We want to move them from what may be a more negative perception of SIG to helping them see SIG as an opportunity.  This doesn’t mean we’re not strongly monitoring the work of districts, but the emphasis is on the sequence, and how we approach people.

We’re welcomed into districts and schools because we help them problem-solve, and we help them on issues that might seem frustrating. We can share ideas and examples with other school districts with whom we have relationships. I think the relationship piece is really important. That’s how you get systems and people in the systems to change their practices.

What’s also required at the state level is a common understanding of what the requirements are. Frequent and ongoing communications is necessary with all groups, like teachers associations, the state board of education, other associations like principals and state directors.

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