A Successful Lead Partner Makes the Case

After spending over a decade in Baltimore City as a principal, district leader, and external partner to the public schools, one thing is abundantly clear to me: districts need all the help they can get to turn around low-performing schools.  Successful turnaround requires smart and accountable partnerships that use flexible conditions to build capacity for reform. Whether districts build this support internally or engage independent partners, Lead Partners are a critical piece of turnaround success.

Before coming to Mass Insight, I served as the Deputy Chief Academic Officer of Friendship Schools in Baltimore where I supported our four partnership schools. As a Lead Partner, we were able to work collaboratively with each school administration to determine areas of strength and growth, set specific reform goals, and develop a focused and comprehensive plan to address the challenges that were limiting student achievement.

District, state, and federal officials – as well as independent evaluations – attested to the effectiveness of these partnerships. But most importantly, our principals and teachers supported this intervention, even when it included zero-basing the entire schools’ staffs. In fact, they are probably the biggest cheerleaders of the turnaround that has taken place in these schools.

But not all Lead Partners are effective, even in Baltimore, where district leadership went to great lengths to screen for quality. This is why it is critical not only to provide turnaround schools with autonomy, but also to hold them accountable. In Baltimore, all partners sign a performance contract with the district where they are held accountable for student academic outcomes. In fact, funding is largely based on partners’ ability to attract and retain students. And the Lead Partners that fail to do so not only lose funding, but will eventually lose their contract if student outcomes are not improving.

The combination of autonomy and accountability is critical in turning around low-performing schools. Whether the district finds an external Lead Partner (Baltimore), develops its own new non-profit to operate these schools (Providence), or creates an internal office with increased autonomy and accountability (Syracuse), Lead Partners help build district capacity and provide the focused, aligned support that is essential for low-performing schools to break through traditional approaches and implement truly comprehensive reform.  That is a strategy that every district should be implementing.

Chris Maher is the Vice President, Field Engagements for the School Turnaround Group.  Before joining the Mass Insight Team, Chris served as a turnaround principal and a Lead Partner in Baltimore City.  In conjunction with last week’s release of  The Lead Partner Playbook, this post is the latest in our Lead Partner series featuring experienced school leaders and partner organizations who are pioneers in the field.  Prior installments can be found here, here and here.