Turning Around High Schools, One Elementary School At a Time

Today, we continue a series of guest posts by Betsy Doyle (Partner) and Nithin Iyengar (Consultant) in The Bridgespan Group’s Education Practice. Each Wednesday during the month of October, Betsy and Nithin plan to explore key priorities and promising practices from the field.  Many of the themes they find in their own conversations coincide with Mass Insight Education’s 3 Cs of turnaround: conditions, capacity, and clusters.  We invite – and encourage – you to join the conversation. This is the final post in the series of “Rethinking High School Turnaround.”  Last June, Green Dot Public Schools and Bridgespan convened a small group of education leaders focused on high school turnaround and transformation to share problems of practice and work together on solutions – all toward the ultimate goal of college- and career-readiness for every student.


For turnaround operators, the stark reality is that most failing high schools serve a significant percentage of students who enter 9th grade far below grade level.  While college- and career- readiness is the ultimate goal, day-to-day it can feel incredibly daunting to make progress when students are spending much of their time in remedial classes and credit recovery.

We asked this group, what will it take to create college- and career-ready outcomes in these high schools?

Many quickly identified the need to improve “feeder patterns,” a deliberate sequence of elementary, middle, and high schools– rather than taking on stand-alone high schools.

Tennessee, as part of the state’s winning Race to the Top application, created the Achievement School District (ASD) in 2011 to turn around the state’s bottom 5% of schools. With 69 of the 85 schools in the bottom 5% located in Memphis, the ASD saw an opportunity to think differently about high school turnaround. According to Ash Solar, Chief Talent Officer, “We believe that failing high schools are not failing schools in isolation, but the result of a failed PK-12 experience.  In Memphis, this proved to be the case.”

For example, Frayser, a neighborhood in north Memphis, is one of the city’s most economically hard-hit communities and home to one of the lowest-performing feeder patterns in the state. Of the 14 schools in the Frayser cluster, 12 were in the state’s bottom 5%. In other words, if nothing changed, almost every child in Frayser was going to spend most or all of his or her PK-12 experience in a bottom 5% school.

In response to this crisis, the ASD decided to focus on improving feeder patterns with the goal of providing families with great schools at every grade level. As Solar described, “the best way to start to turnaround a high school is to have 9th graders arriving ready for 9th grade…we want our students to spend high school preparing for rigorous, challenging work in college.”

This fall, the ASD opened six schools in three feeder patterns in Memphis and Nashville. Two middle schools and one elementary school will be run by charter operators, the rest by the ASD itself. The ASD is initially focused on middle and elementary schools with the goal that, by the time students enter 9th grade, a much greater percentage will be on-track to graduate high school ready for college and career.

Though the first results will not be available until this summer, the early buzz among parents has been encouraging. From the ASD’s early efforts in the Frayser community, Elliot Smalley, ASD’s Chief of Staff, noted, “one of the major concerns coming out of parent night was when were we going to ramp-up to Advanced Placement classes.  It’s a great concern to have.”

The ASD plans to open its first turnaround high schools soon—while scaling rapidly from six schools to 35—so that its work in middle  and elementary schools creates a pipeline of students ready for 9th grade. The ASD is hopeful that partners – such as Aspire, mentioned in a blog earlier this month – working to transform feeder elementary and middle schools will provide high school transformation efforts with a much needed head start. The ASD is committed to this challenge and knows that remediation and recovery during the four years of a student’s high school career isn’t enough.

As Solar reflected, “If we really want to sustainably turn around high schools, we need to make sure that our kids are ready for a rigorous high school experience and that the entire community is actively leading this effort.”

Over the past month, we’ve appreciated the opportunity to highlight the promising work of several organizations – including Green Dot, Aspire, AUSL, and ASD – and to reflect on the challenges and innovations they are pursuing. We remain humbled by the challenging work these organizations – and the leaders and teachers they represent – pursue every day in service of college- and career- ready outcomes for all students.  Thanks also to Mass Insight for the chance to join this forum.  Let’s continue this conversation in the days and weeks to come.

-Betsy Haley Doyle & Nithin Iyengar