Early Indicators of Success

Next month, Mass Insight will release our newest publication, the Lead Partner Playbook, a practical tool offering districts a step-by-step approach for creating the flexible operating conditions, specialized capacity, and community-based clusters of schools to turn around their lowest-performing schools.  Over the next few days, we will be featuring several guest blogs from school leaders and Lead Partners who are on the front lines and getting results.  We kick off this series with Tanya Green, Principal of Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton in Baltimore.

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Baltimore’s Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton offers a compelling case of doing first things first: get the staffing, partners and culture right, then academic gains should follow. We asked Principal Tanya Green to reflect on what’s changed in the past 18 months.

By Tanya Green

In the school turnaround movement, resources are being targeted to low-performing schools and conditions are being changed to break the patterns of failure. Some critics of turnaround schools claim that turnaround is just a way to attack teachers and principals. My experience is quite different than that. In fact, it is the opposite. I am the proud principal of Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton, a designated preK-8 turnaround school in one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in Baltimore. My school district partnered with a charter school operator – Friendship Public Charter School – to implement change in one of the lowest-performing schools, academically and culturally, in the city.

When Friendship entered the picture in July of 2010, there was a lot of anxiety among staff. I had only recently been appointed principal, and had just built up my leadership team. Now an outside organization was coming in to “zero-base” our entire staff. However, it quickly became clear that both my team and the Friendship team were interested in one thing: improving outcomes for our 750 children.

The first thing Friendship did was to identify what we already did well at Calverton. Then they explained how their instructional model and expectations could improve outcomes if we worked together. Some of the staff chose to leave, and when Friendship and my leadership team collaboratively interviewed some teachers, we decided that they weren’t the right fit. They moved to other Baltimore City schools, and we brought in new staff who bought into our school’s new instructional vision. In all, by the time school started we had about 50% new staff; most important, 100% of staff were on the same page in terms of priorities and approach.

Over the summer, Friendship invested in all of us, providing three weeks of additional professional development for teachers and sending our leadership team to Harvard’s Urban Leadership Program. They also oversaw significant facilities upgrades, and parent and community outreach programs.

The result of this initial investment was an empowered, united staff entering the first year of turnaround. In the first year, several data points improved. Student and teacher attendance increased, and suspensions and violent incidents decreased dramatically. Despite a special education population of over 25%, we had zero special education violations. The climate surveys that all Baltimore City school students, parents, and staff complete showed that the school increased across the board and even exceeded the district average in most areas — the best in the school’s history. TNTP data confirmed that our staff had a clear instructional vision.

It wasn’t all good news though. Academically, we had mixed results in our first year, with increases in the primary grades and on the High School Assessments, and decreases in the middle years. We worked hard all last summer and throughout this year to identify our weaknesses, and to plan as a staff to change those academic outcomes. The difference between this year and previous years was that we weren’t doing this alone. We were doing this as part of Friendship’s professional learning community.

The strong early indicators of success have set the stage for even better advancements and gains as we are now halfway through year two of our turnaround efforts. With the necessary paradigm changes made, instruction and achievement can improve. The leading factor in our early success has been the open and transparent relationship between the charter operator, school leadership team, and school district. Turning around a poor-performing school requires a team effort, including: honoring what all parties bring to the table, constant communication, and a concerted effort toward creating effective change. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re on our way.

Baltimore’s Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton is one of Baltimore’s partnership schools and is part of the Friendship Public Charter Schools network.