What School Turnaround Really Takes

OSI asked  child psychiatrist  Dr. Pamela Cantor to build systems to respond to child trauma  in Eastern Europe.  After September 11, 2001, New York Chancellor Harold Levy asked Dr. Cantor to lead efforts to do the same.  Dr. Cantor packed everything she learned about working with children in crisis into a school turnaround strategy aptly named Turnaround for Children.
Research suggests that one fifth of urban kids have been exposed to violence; two thirds have lived through some form of trauma or crisis that impacts their schoolwork as a distraction, a preoccupation, or an episode of acting out.
Most school turnaround efforts focus solely on academic delivery: curriculum and instruction.  Promising early results from Turnaround for Children suggests that a more robust approach that addresses the magnitude of adversity dysfunctional school face and creates a calm, engaging, and effective place to learn.
Turnaround teams include a school coach, a social worker, and a classroom coach—the focus is systems, services, and skills.  They “work with school staff to develop the systems, resources, and knowledge and skills to address the broad and intense set of needs presented by students and staff, all in the service of creating a positive school culture and a vibrant learning community dedicated to high achievement and healthy development.”  The three year intervention costs about $200,000 annually with philanthropic, school and district support.
Most turnaround efforts are about the adults; the 12 essential elements of Turnaround focus on what the kids need to learn:

  1. Rigorous leadership/mission focus on mitigating the adversity-driven barriers to student learning and achievement.
  2. Systems approach to distributing leadership across disciplines in coordinated action (teams) on academic and behavioral risk.
  3. Pedagogy rooted in an understanding of child development including academic and emotional/behavioral diversity.
  4. Curriculum choice that anticipates cognitive obstacles that is both preventative and interventive, occurring in every classroom.
  5. A deep awareness that student performance and behavior is a direct outgrowth of the behavior and skills of the adults in the school.
  6. A whole school approach that guarantees physical and emotional safety to every child in every classroom.
  7. A whole school approach that contains a public health model for providing support, including intensive support for students at different levels of academic and behavioral risk.
  8. A whole school approach that gives teachers and support staff the skills to model and teach self regulation to students that increasingly puts the locus of control in the child.
  9. A deep understanding in all school staff of the need to embrace parents as partners and the skills and knowledge to bring that to life.
  10. A staff development process that is comprehensive, presumes that leaders and teachers often do not have these skills, tied to supervisory accountability for the acquisition of these skills, is given adequate resource and time allocations.
  11. A systemic pathway to care, in particular mental health care, that includes both on site capacity and community-based collaborations.
  12. A systemic pathway to a broad and intense capacity for academic intervention, both in and out of the classroom, so that risk is identified early, and appropriate intervention (dosed correctly) is applied early.

While Turnaround seems pretty scalable as is, there may a couple affordable ways to build social and emotional health and promote resilience.  The first opportunity is to build it into social media.  Quest, a NYC-based game-themed school uses a social network, Being Me, to promote healthy identities, to share, practice, and contribute.
Online guidance systems will soon become commonplace in schools; they will promote college and career awareness and readiness; they will support informed postsecondary decisions.  These systems could track and promote social and emotional health.  This is, for most students, private and sensitive information.  Comprehensive learner profiles, with family-managed private profiles, could control access to the information for the adults in a student’s life—an advisor at school, a parent, or a mentor.
Struggling schools usually serve low income communities face layers of issues.  Effective teachers and an aligned curriculum are part of the solution.  Students ready to learn are a big part of the equation ignored by most turnaround efforts.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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