The biggest question in education may be ‘how to turn around failing schools?”  We’ve learned a lot about how to dramatically improve a struggling elementary school in the last 10 years—proven reading curriculum, diagnostic assessment, targeted intervention, talented teachers, and relentless leadership. 

High schools are a different matter.  The only thing wrong with a struggling high school is everything—scale, structure, curriculum, instruction, staffing, schedule, culture, and community connections.  There are hundreds of great new high schools many of which replaced failing schools.  But there are few examples of successful turnarounds.  Replacement is still the best strategy, or as close to it as possible. 

After opening 14 small schools, Green Dot closed and reopened Locke High School in LA.  A great article describes the process and founder Steve Barr’s colorful history.  Locke still looks like a juvenile detention center but it is safe and sane; kids are focused on learning, teachers are working hard.  It will continue to struggle with the challenges of being a low-income neighborhood school, but the different, as Ray Cortines said, is “night and day.” 

MLA Partner Schools also took over a struggling LA school—Manuel Arts—but without the benefit of closing, requiring staff to reapply, and the ability to fully restructure the school.  Like Locke, it’s safe, sane, and improving.  But it’s been more difficult to make rapid improvements. 

The national challenges are 1) developing the state and local political capital to close and replace failing schools and 2) developing the capacity to take on dozens of Lockes and Manuels simultaneously.  

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


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