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.