AUSL and Chicago Public Schools (Restart Model)

AUS, originally a non-profit organization that focused on teacher training, began its work of turning around low-performing schools with an agreement with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to run Sherman Elementary in 2006. Today, AUSL manages 8 schools within CPS, and the schools that AUSL has managed for more than two years, Harvard and Sherman Schools of Excellence, have nearly doubled their achievement on overall ISAT scores. 

U.S. Department of Education: How was the restart model implemented in the schools chosen for turnaround by AUSL? 

Don Feinstein, Executive Director of AUSL (DF): AUSL has very a strong relationship with CPS. In conjunction with AUSL, CPS selected the schools they wanted us to help turn around, which included Harvard Elementary, one of the 5 lowest-performing schools in the state.

The responsibility for restarting a school should be shared between the state and districts, and the organization that will manage the turnaround school. The State and the districts have to have the facts and figures on the front end; organizations should come in with vision of how the schools should operate.

Obviously, politics play a key role in turning around a school.  To manage change, you need to solicit input from the parents and the community.  You need to ask them, what is their vision?  When you have a chance to start over again, you want to put in place what’s best in meeting the needs of parents, students, and communities.

So, we reached out to public officials and state officials, and worked with faith-based and community organizations. We worked to get board and district approval for the turnaround plans. It’s about communicating and over-communicating the reason why you want to do this, and build anticipation of what a better day would look like, because change is hard.  Most gravitate to the status quo.

CPS and AUSL each had person who owned the turnaround process, who scheduled meetings with officials, managed relationships. For Harvard Elementary, we held a community meeting across from the school at a local church, where we had parents talking to parents. In these kinds of situations, you’re only as good as your district CEO or superintendent, and how good your community engagement process is.

ED: What were the biggest challenges to implementing your strategy?

DF: Finding the right people – talent matters!  Bringing talent into the most challenging environments, and making sure everyone is on the same page, is definitely hard.  We are looking for great principals, great clerks, great deans – adults who can continue to sweat the small stuff.
In terms of turnarounds, high schools are always a challenge. You have to overcome far more for children who have been immersed longer in dysfunctional environments. Districts and states have to have the moral courage to not forget these schools that are at the bottom five percent, and they need to be willing to support swift and dramatic intervention. This year, AUSL will have 12 restart schools – and only 2 are high schools, both of which are recent turnarounds.

We also worry about funding, that it’ll dry up.

ED: How do you handle staffing at your turnaround schools? What is your process for recruiting teachers?

DF:  AUSL recommended to the CEO of CPS who should be the principal. Andre, the current principal of Harvard Elementary, came from one of our teacher residency programs – he was a dean at one of our schools. Once he was principal, he helped select a team of teachers in conjunction with our team and leadership coaches.

[When dealing with staff changes,] most of the pushback comes from changing out teachers, not the leadership team. In this economy, the pushback becomes more forceful because there’s a layoff policy in Chicago. If the teacher who is replaced doesn’t get rehired by another CPS school in one year, they are out of the district. For these turnaround schools, though, all teachers hired were still union teachers.

AUSL has a team that solely focuses on recruiting teachers, so CPS works in collaboration with us to recruit teachers to our schools. AUSL’s teacher residency program also provides 50 percent of elementary teachers for AUSL turnaround schools.

ED: What is the role of the district and the state in overseeing AUSL schools, both in the short term and in the long term?

DF: The district still funds our schools and provides the same resources to do what we need to do. And in turn, our schools abide by district and state policies. What happens is that we have autonomy and independence to do more on top of that, go above and beyond – so for example, we could fundraise to create and run a football league.

Outside of Chicago, some districts or states like the idea of getting an outside organization to “triage” the school – getting it up and running and then giving it back to the district. In Chicago, it’s an issue of maintenance capacity for post-turnaround schools. It’s such a big district, with so many schools, that AUSL has a better shot of continuing to successfully manage the school. AUSL is currently formulating a plan to keep our turnaround schools for the long haul, and turning ourselves into a district within a district of sorts. It doesn’t mean that across the country this has to be the case. If you are a small school district, you may want the triage and then reclaim ownership of the school after it has improved.

ED: What have you done to ensure your work is sustainable?

DF: We have created a performance management culture, which includes tools like dashboards that give us early warnings on what may not be working, and data systems to make sure we are continuously on track. We believe in our organization that the key variable to school success is teacher quality and effectiveness, so there’s a teacher development program across 18 schools. We’ve also worked on internal capacity building. Systems and structures have been put in place so that if someone leaves, there’s a process for the next person to pick up right off. We believe that success breeds success, and teachers, adults will sustain the work. If teachers are doing well and they get better, students will do better.

ED: What advice do you have for principals or organizations embarking on the important work of turning around a school?

DF: For Principals: they need to be able to embrace the change process. They need to be inspirational and transformational, and to be able to recruit and retain talent. They need to be results-oriented.

States and districts need to use their political capital, and they need to be laser-like about focusing on short and long term wins.  They should realize that the real payoff will be in the area of teaching and learning in schools, and when you build capacity in teachers, curriculum and instruction. Because when the smoke and mirrors go away, the best way to turnaround a school is to have an effective teacher day-in and day-out delivering quality instruction.

There is no silver bullet. If you have great teachers, great relationships with teachers, and great PD, then you’ll be able to look back, and see you’ve delivered on the promise.

For organizations: it’s important to view this work as a nascent industry. It’s not like creating a great new school – a lot of these children have already been in very poor climates and cultures, and so it’s not the same kind of work. It’s about re-creating great schools from existing schools. So, you have to appreciate the RE-doing of schools and RE-setting of expectations. I would focus on building capacity in your organization, not to micromanage but support school leadership and help them figure out what that great strategy is for your school.

You must have high expectations and be able to put in place action against adversity, knowing that you have dropouts, knowing that you have students far behind. Be really proactive, and be a good partner to your community.

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