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'Turnaround' Principals
Are the New Sheriffs in Town

Their mission is to take charge of a failing or struggling school and try to turn it into a model institution. These turnaround principals bring formal training, insight, and instincts to their jobs leading to vastly improved schools. Included: Strategies from some turnaround principals.

In the old West, these principals would be the sheriffs whose badges glinted in the sun and who rode into town on white horses, determined to restore order to a place gripped by lawlessness. In the education arena, these new sheriffs in town are called turnaround principals. They are administrators who come into failing schools and either by instinct or training reinvent the schools so they dont just function, but excel.


A number of turnaround principals are getting their training at the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist program, offered by the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at the university. The Darden/Curry Partnership is a joint venture of the universitys schools of education and business.

Several graduates of the turnaround program faced similar situations at their schools when they applied to the program -- poor student performance, discipline problems, low levels of parent involvement, and staff morale that needed a boost. The skills they learned and support they received from the turnaround program enabled them to re-make their schools, they told Education World.


At Rayville Junior High School in Richland Parish, Louisiana, drop-out numbers and discipline referrals decreased and attendance shot up under the leadership of the University of Virginias turnaround program graduate principal Tony Guirlando. The improvement was so significant, in fact, that Guirlando was named Louisianas 2009 Middle School Principal of the Year.

Guirlando was in his second year as principal of Rayville and the school was in corrective action status when he was accepted into the program. His priorities for Rayville were to bring discipline under control, enhance the curriculum, raise expectations, reduce classroom size, and establish a stable faculty and leadership team. Guirlando applied because he and a superintendent believed he was a perfect match for the program. I felt like I had the energy and vision to transform a high poverty/high risk school, he told Education World.

I felt like I had the energy and vision to transform a high poverty/high risk school.

Another turnaround program alumnus, Christine M. BorelliConnor, learned that her alma mater, John A. Webster Elementary School in Philadelphia, was considered a turnaround school, and applied to be its principal and turnaround specialist. Borelli-Conner is in her third year as principal at Webster and the school has made AYP for two consecutive years. In a three-year period, reading scores increased from the 12th to the 44th percentile.

I was born and raised in the same neighborhood as this school and thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to return to my community and make positive changes, Borelli-Connor told Education World. Student achievement was her priority when she arrived at Webster.

The school had baseline reading data at the 12th percentile, Borelli-Connor said. I was committed to providing teachers with professional development that would enhance teaching practices. We also needed to focus on implementing effective intervention programs to remediate students in weakness areas. It was, and still is, my belief, that good instructional programs will result in an improved school climate.

Univ. of Virginias
Turnaround Program

The University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist program is designed to address the leadership needs of education leaders charged with turning around low-performing schools, according to the programs Web site. Principals selected for the program are involved with coursework, case studies, and discussions to share information and practical experience in proven business and education turnaround strategies. Originally designed just for principals in Virginia, the program now is open to administrators nationwide.

According to the university, among the first 43 schools who received turnaround specialists, approximately 57 percent either made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or saw at least a 5 percent reduction in reading or math failure rates.

After administrators complete the program, they continue to receive financial and consulting help from the program.

Unlike some other turnaround specialists, she decided not to put all her energies into immediately improving discipline. I did not want to enter the school and focus primarily on behavioral concerns, because that would take the sense of urgency away from the academic focus, she said.


One strategy that helped improve student behavior and performance at Rayville was introducing teaming to the school. Students rotate on an eight-period schedule with extended classes for math and English/language arts; they attend a physical education class during the teachers teaming time. The new schedule allows teachers to meet on a daily basis for 47 minutes to discuss curriculum, data, and students.

When a discipline problem manifests itself, the student is pulled before the team to discuss why the problem is occurring, Guirlando told Education World. A solution is discussed with the child and he or she has two weeks to show improvement. If the discipline problem persists, then both the student and the parent are brought before the team to discuss possible solutions.

The team prepares a formal action plan for the child, which is monitored on a daily basis. This approach of involving the student, parent, teachers, and administrators in the discipline process has helped us to reduce our discipline referrals by almost 75 percent, he added.

Roz Taylor, principal of Woodville Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, also needed to address discipline and performance problems at her school. She was one of the first ten principals from Virginia selected for the program.

I entered the turnaround program just prior to my second year as principal of Woodville, Taylor told Education World. I was anxious to gain all of the skills and strategies [necessary] to move our school from being one of the lowest-performing schools in the city to one that is now highly-regarded for meeting success with students in one of the highest poverty areas of the city and in a city with the tenth highest crime areas of the nation.

The school was under state sanctions and the former principal and staff members had been involved in addressing and meeting the state required training and goals of the Partnerships for Achieving Successful Schools (PASS) Initiative, a mandate of former Governor Mark Warners administration. The principal had started a partnership with St. Pauls Episcopal Church and Communities In Schools, Taylor said.

Credit must be given to the former principal and staff for beginning the reform [effort] here at Woodville, she said. It was my charge to continue the upward climb.

Too many of our children are impacted by societal ills that translate into stressors in the academic arena.

In an effort to maintain her predecessors momentum, Taylor knew she needed to galvanize a team of effective, committed educators -- that is, get the right people on the bus in the right seats -- face our brutal facts and create a sense of urgency; train staff in best practices in inclusion of our exceptional education learners, improve professional development and school-wide discipline, and initiate more opportunities for parental involvement.


Increasing parental involvement and generating parental and community support for reform initiatives are critical to reshaping a school. Taylor reached out to parents by instituting an open-door welcoming climate and training all staff members in being customer-friendly. Administrators also used data to tell the schools story and school personnel were open about the schools needs, challenges, and successes.

In addition, Taylor emphasizes that Woodville is a partnership school. We are constantly seeking business and private community partners, volunteers, mentors, and cooperating service agencies to assist us in meeting the social, counseling, and health needs [of students], while we do all we can to focus on the academics, Taylor said. Too many of our children are impacted by societal ills that translate into stressors in the academic arena.

Both Guirlando and Borelli-Connor put a lot of effort into keeping in touch with the community and sharing good news as well. Open communication [is important], Guirlando said. We constantly invite the community in to work with us. Also, we publicized every [bit of] good news that we can generate.

At Webster, the administration holds regular parent meetings and hosts monthly community meetings to keep communication open with the larger community. It is important that all stakeholders are involved with making decisions that relate to the social and academic growth of our students, Borelli-Connor said.

She also believes in sharing as much information as possible. Everything is transparent when it comes to my school, she said. We post our data. We celebrate our success and we set goals for improving our shortcomings. We have a very diverse school community with many challenges so there will always be times when we have to go back to the drawing board.


Some of the toughest issues Taylor said she tackled in reforming the school were creating a common vision of the ideal Woodville with the majority of stakeholders; energizing the staff and creating positive morale and excitement in a challenging environment; getting buy-in for change through ongoing professional growth and development, and implementing focused and strategic planning.

Getting the staff on board with her plans was one of the biggest hurdles BorelliConnor had to clear.

The most challenging part was improving the culture of the school so that faculty members were able to trust me as a leader and not be resistant to change, she said. The teachers needed to understand data and use data to make decisions that guided our instructional framework. This was a foreign concept to them. Once I really trained them in analyzing the data and we set some realistic targets, they started to see growth and the resistance was decreased.

For Guirlando, taking on multiple major issues at Rayville was stressful professionally and personally. On the professional side, the hardest part was bringing discipline under control while trying to raise expectations at the same time, he told Education World. From a personal side, the stress and strain that it put my marriage under was tremendous. At that time, my three boys were ages 2, 4, and 7. With me devoting so much time to RJHS, my family took a back seat.


What some turnaround principals lack in formal training, they make up for with instinct. When Matthew Tessier took over as principal of Harborside Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, two years ago, the school had missed AYP so many times that it was at risk of closing. Now the school is on the brink of exiting the federal watch list and its scores have increased dramatically for the second consecutive year -- and about half of the non-English-speaking students at the school scored at the proficient level in English on state tests in the spring.

Teachers need to understand the reasons for change before change is forced upon them. It is imperative that all stakeholders have a voice in the changes that need to be made.

Harborside is the second school Tessier has helped turn around in the past four years. He also led Loma Verde Elementary School out of federal sanctions, posting two consecutive years of dramatically improved test scores.

I do not have any training on reform; just training on how to be an effective principal, Tessier told Education World. I just happened to be able to serve communities where the schools were not making AYP targets.

The two schools Tessier turned around had similar issues; both were in the Program Improvement category because of low scores among students learning English. Loma Verde was in the second year of Program Improvement, while Harborside was in the fifth year.

Tessiers reform initiatives utilize data and proven practices. My approach to turning around a school is to first look at data to identify learning gaps, he told Education World. We then look at research about the most effective instructional strategies to eliminate those gaps. Then we build a collaborative culture and empower people on the campus through education with data, data analysis, standards, and effective pedagogy.

Student writing was one of Tessiers main concerns and he focused on that as well as non-linguistic representations of information so that ELL students achieved at a high level. Key strategies were pulled from Dr. Douglas Reeves's

Tessiers reliance on data and research also helped convince faculty and the community to support his efforts. We got the buy-in from the school community and staff by utilizing data as a way to identify academic needs and data to monitor academic progress, Tessier told Education World. We also used a good amount of research to provide objective information for the community. Nothing was subjective, so it was not an arguing point. [Decisions were based on] what the research and data was telling us.


All of the turnaround graduates stressed that in order for change to really take hold at a school, administrators have to take the time to get to know the school and faculty before starting new initiatives; and they have to seek input from staff rather than issue decrees.

Be very cautious about implementing major changes before you have the opportunity to assess the culture of the school, warned Borelli-Connor. Teachers need to understand the reasons for change before change is forced upon them. It is imperative that all stakeholders have a voice in the changes that need to be made. It is sometimes more effective to spend the first few months just analyzing the systems that are in place before invoking major changes that could make faculty members defensive.

Guirlando saw first-hand how issuing edicts to staff doesnt always work. The previous administrator called a faculty meeting and told the staff that the school board was purchasing the Ventures program and that all RJHS teachers would implement it, he told Education World. Teachers resented being told what they had to do without the courtesy of having any input.

In contrast to him, once I had seen the teaming process in action in south Louisiana, I arranged for our whole staff to travel to [a school in] Dry Prong, Louisiana, to watch the teaming process in action. After we spent the day at Dry Prong, we came back to RJHS to discuss what we saw and voted on whether or not to implement teaming at RJHS for the next school year. The staff voted yes and it was the best decision that we could have ever made.

Keeping everyone up to date and involved will make your job easier, he added. Share your vision with your leadership team and staff and allow them to work with you in changing your school, Guirlando noted. You cannot do it by yourself. It will take all of you working together. Once you identify those who are not with you, replace them with those who are.

Partnering with central administration and setting attainable goals are critical as well. Don't over-reach, he said. Identify your most pressing changes and the programs with which you are comfortable and [determine what you] can get accomplished.

If something is not working, someone is in the wrong place and that needs to be communicated, added Taylor. She also noted the need to be courteous to your partners. A partnership is like a marriage; [you need] trust, communication, and honest conversation. Have fun, say thank you, and celebrate together.



Administrators Desk: Leadership


By Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®             
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