Zone and Partner School Turnaround Strategy Increasingly Adopted by Leading Urban Districts

CONTACT: Tom DeSantes, 617.778.1500 x537,

Mass Insight Education Releases Progress Report, ‘Playbook’ For New Districts

BOSTON, May 24, 2012: A strategy for turning around underperforming public schools that calls for flexible operating conditions, decentralizing local capacity, and organizing schools into high school-led clusters is gaining ground in urban districts, according to Boston-based nonprofit Mass Insight Education.

The framework was first documented in The Turnaround Challenge, a 2007 Mass Insight study that examined failed turnaround strategies and recommended a bolder, multi-pronged approach to make and sustain significant improvements.

“Progressive urban superintendents are taking a more comprehensive approach to school turnaround, and we’re seeing early results where these districts are decentralizing to zones and partners,” said William Guenther, CEO and Founder of Mass Insight Education. “Our progress report demonstrates a trend, and that’s why we’re hopeful that others will choose a bolder path to improving schools and districts.”

Mass Insight Education highlighted school districts embracing all or part of the Mass Insight Education framework, including:

  • In Chicago, elementary school students in the district’s turnaround zone made greater gains in reading and high school student drop-out rates were lower, compared to similar students in traditional schools.

  • In Philadelphia, in one year elementary school students in the district’s turnaround zone saw their state assessment math scores jump from 30 percent to 44 percent, and their reading scores rise from 24 percent to 32 percent.

  • In Los Angeles, almost twice as many students of the Green Dot-operated Locke High School were considered ready for college than their peers in a comparison group, according to a new UCLA study.

  • In Baltimore, high schools students in turnaround zones scored higher on high school assessment (HSA) tests and attended more days at school, compared with similar students in traditional schools.

The analysis was announced in tandem with Mass Insight’s release of the Lead Partner Playbook, a free, 70-page guide for other districts to design their own solutions, tailored for their unique conditions, but within the turnaround framework.

“The playbook is perfect for districts that are willing to take risks and do something truly different,” said Justin Cohen, president of Mass Insight Education’s School Turnaround Group. “It’s clear that business as usual isn’t working, and turning around chronically underperforming schools will require both school- and system-level changes.”

Those changes include the introduction of a “lead partner,” an independent unit of the district central office that brings together the flexibility of charter schools and access to a district’s resources. Lead partners report to the superintendent, and are defined by four responsibilities:

  • Accountability. Three-to-five-year performance contracts hold them accountable for rapid gains in student achievement across several schools;

  • Authority. They control schools’ staffing, time, budgets, and programs;

  • Comprehensive services. They manage and coordinate all district departments or outside organizations that have been brought in to help the schools improve. No more forcing overwhelmed principals to deal with multiple, overlapping “improvement” programs; and

  • Embedded in schools. Their staff work onsite in schools to support principals. No more part-time consulting from afar and less bureaucratic interference from the central office.

“Chronically underperforming schools pose one of the greatest challenges facing public education today, threatening the future of low-income and underserved students,” Guenther said. “Yet most school districts don’t have the existing capacity in their central offices to transform low-performing schools. Incremental solutions aren’t working, and the traditional district structure defeats most efforts at school turnaround.”

The Lead Partner Playbook offers detailed instructions on budgeting, staffing, auditing central office and schools, clarifying responsibilities, and evaluating performance. Its contents are drawn from data from more than a dozen districts and school management organizations with the most success with school turnaround: Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), Big Picture Learning (BPL), Diplomas Now, Explore Schools, Friendship Public Charter Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, Institute for Student Achievement, LA’s Promise (formerly MLA Partner Schools), LEAD Public Schools, Mastery Charter Schools, Renaissance School Services, Renew Schools, Scholar Academies; Unlocking Potential; Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools, Chicago Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified School District, New York City Schools and Springfield (MA) Public Schools.

Copies of the Lead Partner Playbook are available for download at

About Mass Insight Education: Mass Insight Education, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Boston, MA, was founded in 1997. Its launch reflected the high priority that business, government, and education leaders placed at that time on the success of Massachusetts' nascent standards-based reform drive, set in motion by the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993.The School Turnaround Group (STG) is a division of Mass Insight Education, a national nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap by turning around our country’s lowest-performing schools. The STG partners with school districts and state education agencies to redesign how they support their lowest-performing schools.

Related Publication

See Being Bold: An assessment of turnaround initiatives in select school districts and states