Turnaround is Hard Work

This week features a guest blog series from Dan Cruce, the Delaware Department of Education’s Deputy Secretary and Chief of Staff.  This post is the second of a three-part series.

By Dan Cruce

Yesterday I discussed what we’re doing.  Today I’d like to talk about how we’re doing. Turning around our lowest-performing schools is hard work and I’ll share both our successes and challenges but end with a school success story.

Let me start with some of our challenges:

  • Historically, the intervention strategies chosen by PZ schools often stopped well short of comprehensive redesign; all schools choose transformation.
  • Our state’s intervention framework relies heavily on our regulatory framework, which does not brightly delineate what many call “carrots and sticks” to compel fundamental change– particularly in areas pertaining to governance, district-level capacity and collective bargaining agreements.
  • Therefore, Delaware’s Turnaround requires special skills from state, local and school-based leaders and certainly external partners, given that our resource base in those categories is new to such work pushed from the state level.

And our successes:

  • Through our Partnership Zone initiative, we now have a laser-like focus on the state’s lowest-performing schools. We started with four in year 1 and have added six more this year.
  • We’ve created a separate state unit, solely dedicated to supporting these schools, which has assisted them in all aspects of reform implementation, including professional development, on-site technical assistance and, most important, performance monitoring.
  • Several districts with PZ schools are reorganizing their central offices   and using this opportunity for districtwide strategic planning that supports both turnaround and broader reforms.
  • With the backing of Secretary Duncan, we held the line when one of our districts tried to back out of major pledges made in our Race application.

One of our PZ schools, Howard High School of Technology is a great exemplar and worth spotlighting.  Part of the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District, the district selected a new principal to lead its reform efforts. Through strategies such as professional learning communities, data coaches, curriculum revisions, smaller learning communities, scheduling adjustments, and changes in staff, the school has experienced great improvement. Within one year, reading and math scores improved, and by 2011 Howard was awarded a Superior School rating by the Delaware Department of Education.

Howard shows us that turnaround can be done.  Tomorrow I’ll talk about what may need to happen to make this the rule versus the exception. Make no mistake, if school reform were easy, it would have been done by now.

STG has done work for the Delaware Department of Education, and the state is a member of our multi-state State Development Network.