Monday, March 16, 2009

Hot topic: How to turn around a school

An SF K Files visitor has the following questions for the group:

Every once in a while, parents post about how they started at an unpopular school, and were able to turn it around into a popular school - Miraloma being the most cited example.
The reasons most often cited include: existing good/great principal and teachers, parent involvement, etc.

I feel this is good news, but it makes me wanting more—the complete picture.

* What are the ingredients of success for creating a "popular" school, out of an "unpopular" school? Is it a simple matter of parent involvement, or does it matter what kind of families (with different kinds of cultural or educational values) participate?
* How to achieve each necessary ingredient? In some cases, you have no control right? If the principal or teachers are not motivated, there's not much you can do, right? What are the necessary steps of the process and how long does it realistically take?
* Why does it work? My biggest question is, how does something as seemingly simple as parent involvement translate into a 600/700's school turning into an upper 800's school?

Perhaps, if we discuss this topic, this can provide valuable information for those contemplating their assignments at John Muir and DeAvila.


  1. By attracting parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

    Seriously - Everyone who has ever stressed about their kids's education should read Freakonomics, or at least that one chapter about your ability to impact your kids's success in life. It will actually make you feel a lot better :)

  2. Random thoughts:

    You really to start with a strong principal and a good set of teachers. Without that, all the volunteering in the world isn't going to help much.

    The parents can support and energize the staff by offloading as much of the "non-teaching" work as they can (photocopying, stuffing envelopes, cleaning the classroom, organizing field trip chaperones and providing snack). Parents can focus on the fund-raising, grant writing, and community building events while the staff concentrates on educating the kids.

    Parents also play an important roll in marketing an under-enrolled school by working the playground and talking at their former preschools. Getting folks in the door to see the school in action can be the hardest part.

    It's good to remind touring parents that a school's test scores are based solely on the performance of students in grades 3-5 (testing starts at the end of 2nd grade and the results aren't available until the following fall). My take is that the APIs at so-called "turn around schools" increase initially because of a change in staff and then continue moving both from changing demographics and from the extra help that additional money, manpower, and grants can provide - tutoring, reading specialists, librarians.

    Last thought is that the image of the pushy parents attempting to "take over" a school is really baloney. There are certainly pain-in-the-butt parents at every schools but the kinds of families that jump into some of these schools that are really "safe bets" are generally not the types to do that. Think instead of a group of fresh-faced parents asking the teachers & principal - what do you need?

  3. So agree that it's not the "pushy parents" who want to boss everyone around that turn around schools. The more entitled parents only come in the second wave after the worker bee parents have pulled up their sleeves!

    Seriously though, it's about strong leadership from the principal, and a strong staff who supports and extends the principal's vision. Parents just come and try to make things easier for them to do their jobs. Without a good principal and strong staff there's nothing parents can do.

  4. I asked my pediatrician today (he's a former Board of Ed member). His advice was to hold potlucks. 3 a year, one in the early fall as a welcome, one just before the holidays and one near the end of school. Someone will bring their rice and beans, someone will bring their chocolate cake, someone will bring their potstickers, and voila - the community begins to grow. People feel comfortable pitching in when asked, etc.

    Anyway - take that for what's it worth. The parents I know at Miraloma credit new leadership for its rise to superstardom.

  5. But what if get shot coming in with my cake?

  6. Yes, the "pushy parents" come in after the school becomes popular. Sometimes they drag down a school. Fortunately, they often yang their children out of the school, move them to another school, and then start dragging down that school.

    An excellent principal is key. A principal with a strong work ethic sets a good example for teachers and parents to follow.

  7. I agree that food is a good way to draw people in. At one turnaround school 10 years ago, the PTA president just concentrated on getting more of the existing parents to come to school events. She noticed that when she arrived at the school, only a handful of families ever showed up to evening events like Back to School Night, which school staff worked for weeks to put on.

    Trying to figure out why parents WOULDN'T want to come to school to meet their child's teacher, see his classwork, or meet her friends' parents, this PTA president observed that most of the school population were working people with younger sibs at home. Inviting this population to come to an early evening event would mean they had to come directly from work, usually having picked up the younger sibs from daycare on the way. Her brilliant idea was to include a free dinner for the entire family at each event. In just one year, attendance at the school events jumped from the initial handful, to more than half the school population. Teachers reported meeting for the first time families who had been at the school for years. They had just never been able to come before, because of needing to pick up the younger chiuldren and feed then; we all know that a school event is no fun if you are dragging a cranky and hungry three year old with you.

    This was the turning point for this particular school. Once the families got in the habit of coming to the school events, they felt more comfortable offering to help. Many parents had manual labor skills - carpentry, painting, gardening - and began to offer small but much needed fixes to the physical plant, things which Principals request from the district but often wait years to see accomplished. Parents who worked in offices began sending in the occasional ream of copier paper. Someone offered to translate the parent newsletter into their native language. Every little bit helped. By the time the wave of middle class parents began to notice the school, the volunteer community was already starting to coalesce.

    The food doesn't have to be fancy - sandwiches and a big salad works for most people. It was just the idea that, instead of the event being one more thing a harried mom had to work into her evening schedule, along with retrieving the kids, cooking and serving dinner, then rushing out again for a 7:00 school event, instead it was pick up the younger kids after work, head to the school by 6, eat a leisurely dinner with the whole family (and everyone else's whole family) and then meet your child's teacher. It worked 10 years ago and today, with the current economy, who wouldn't welcome a chance to get dinner for the whole family for free?

  8. How do "pushy parents" drag down a school? Ones I've seen have gotten things done for all the children and were seen as "pushy" by those who didn't want to work or didn't really care.

    I agree that the principal is key and then teachers. Teachers can struggle through with a bad principal for a bit, but then it all starts to fall apart no matter how many potlucks, community events, etc. the school holds.

  9. You asked what you can do and I think the other suggestions of offloading all you can from teachers is spot on. Even if some of the teachers or principal aren't great, just doing that will let them focus more time on educating kids, or they will be less burnt out from not having to do that at night.

    The other thing is to increase things like arts programs, science, physical education, beautify the grounds by gardens, all of that makes a difference. And build the community not just by potlucks, but by fun events where adults get to know each other and become friendly, then it is easier to volunteer together because it's fun for the adult too.

  10. In "turning around" Daniel Webster, the Prefund people engaged former mayor Art Agnos -- who lives a block away -- as a cheerleader. So I would say: find the most powerful, famous person living nearest to the school and get them involved.

  11. Hello,

    I'm a parent at Sunset, and a PTA board member. My child started at the school just before it became a "success story". Although there had been a PTA previously, I am told that it was small and cliquish, had no budget and virtually no plan for the year.

    Things started to change when there was an influx of parents from local Co-op nursery schools. (These parents tend to view any amount of participation as a relief from what had been required of them, so they tend to feel good about getting involved.)

    We had a couple of years with some motivated and businesslike PTA presidents, made some obvious and visible improvements to the facility and grounds, and funded a few needed after-school programs.

    A key element to the success of the PTA has been the Principal's involvement and encouragement. Ms. Lee does a great job of encouraging parent participation. Likewise, the teachers are all open to involving parents in the routines of the classrooms.

    I'd like to point out that we have a fairly small core group of parents who participate routinely. Given some support from the principal and teachers, this may be enough.

    I am thinking that a nice project to undertake this year might be for us to "sponsor" another school's nascent PTA and to help guide them through the organizing process. There's no reason that any school with reasonable parent participation should not be able to be turned around.

    (I think it helps, as someone put it earlier, to have programs that "offload" burdens from the teachers. Very early on we started supplying the teachers with supplemental stipends to defray at least some of the class expenses that were coming out of their personal funds. And it's important to be careful to craft enrichment programs that reinforce and cooperate with the teachers' curricula, rather than dumping a bunch of unrelated extra stuff into their laps.

    Also, I'd second the point about food. And childcare is another key ingredient for allowing more parents to attend meetings.)

  12. Maybe "pushy" is the wrong term. Neurotic is better.

    Some parents will pester a principal incessantly about getting their kid into a class with a particular teacher in the next school year, or volunteer in the classroom, but only to help their own children.

    They care about their own child's well-being and have not interest in the collective good.

    That said, they are few in number, fortunately.

  13. I agree with 11:32.

    Sponsoring another school's nascent PTA is a great idea!

    Several thousand dollars donated from a school with a six-figure PTA income to an up-and-coming school can go a long, long way.

  14. I'm so happy to see all the comments here - it's certainly accurate based on what I've seen at Miraloma for the past 7 years. Some years I did tons, other years, very little (because so many new hands eventually joined!)

    One of the jobs that I did one year (and the one for which I got the most gratitude from the teacher) was being the copy queen. She organized all her copying and collating work for the week and I'd come in and take care of it. She said that it really helped her have more time afterschool to connect with parents of kids that needed help, and also freed up her break time to work with kids who asked for it during break time. No time you give is ever too small!

    I concur with the principal being key - especially for a school that wasn't considered popular before. Marcia Parrott was the Miraloma principal who got things going and we were blessed two years ago to get Ron Machado in to take the torch and improve the school in new and different ways. They were both key and the right leaders for the right time.

  15. A little goes a long way to attract families that you often don't see - especially non English speakers. Just last week, with a flyer in Chinese, phone calls from a Chinese-speaking parent, and the lure of a presentation in Chinese from PPS Outreach Coordinator Cindy Choy, we got about 30 monolingual families to our event at Aptos, and a sign up sheet of families that want to help inform our Site Council. We also got volunteers who are English and Chinese speakers who agreed to help serve as liaisons to these families. Just a little effort goes a long way, I've found. These families are enthusiastic and eager to participate - the challenges is making sure that the school culture is actively working to communicate with all families, especially those that English is not their first language.

  16. No kidding -- I was like, "Where are all the mandatory meetings?"

    "there was an influx of parents from local Co-op nursery schools. (These parents tend to view any amount of participation as a relief from what had been required of them, so they tend to feel good about getting involved.)"

  17. Yes, aligning one's school with dynamic preschools and coops that are in the vicinity is good advice. For example, Miraloma Coop parents were instrumental in the turn around at Miraloma Elementary.

    Also, I have found that parents love to see new playground structures, or promises of new playground equipment, when they tour an up-and-coming school. Although, admittedly, the lack of playground equipment doesn't hurt an established school (a la Rooftop)!

  18. 11:36, I'd add "entitled" to "neurotic." One of the most destructive things parents can do is to go around the teacher when they have a concern, rather than talking to the teacher first. It breaks whatever trust there was, and can lead a teacher to feel they must watch their back, which in turn tends to degrade communication and relationships in general. A strong principal will facilitate relationships between parents and teachers, a not-so-good principal will allow bad feelings to fester.

    Talk to the teachers!

  19. 7:05 - what does this mean for turning a school around? did this happen at your school and is your school one that is being turned around or did this happen in the past and harmed the school in it's turnaround? Are you a teacher?

  20. Hi 2:43, 7:05 here - as soon as I posted this, I realized I should have put it in the "what makes a good principal?" thread, because it really doesn't have anything to do with turning a school around. In any case, yes, I'm a teacher, and yes, this has happened at my school which is considered to be "turned-around" but I don't think it's terribly uncommon, and I've seen it happen in unpopular schools, too.

    Parents who have concerns about their children's classes sometimes skip over the step of going to the teacher, and first take their concerns to the principal. I call it a neurotic entitlement issue because they seem to feel entitled to "go to the boss" and force them to respond before they've given the teacher an opportunity to address the area of concern, or even ascertained whether or not it's a real problem. If they can get the principal to "take care of it" then they don't have to initiate uncomfortable conversations with the teacher.

    Mainly I just want to say that I think everyone will be a lot happier if we don't go around each other attempting to get our way. Have respect for the teachers, most of them want to work with you to do their best for your kids!

  21. 7:05 - what do the parents do if the teacher doesn't listen or agree there is a concern? Are you saying people shouldn't go to the principal then? I think this is a problem with the "turnaround" schools. Maybe you as a teacher want to work with kids and families and I think that's true of most teachers. I also think some of the "turnaround" schools have a lot of teachers who aren't so happy to be "turned around" and would like to continue the way they have been doing things. We should be honest that some of the reason these schools are where they are is not solely because of the popularity of the school, sometimes it's because of the teachers too. I expect this comment will get flamed, but it's true. Not all the teachers at these schools are top rate, though certainly at some schools this is the case. Perhaps your school had people in this situtation?

  22. i think 7:05pm was just trying to make a point that sometimes well-intentioned people who are conflict-averse would prefer to go upstairs rather than addressing the problem directly with the person concerned. the tendency to go directly upstairs is really common in all walks of life, it's a cultural thing about not wanting to get into conflict, not trusting one's own ability to communicate effectively.

    as i read it, 7:05 wasn't saying that it's never appropriate to go to the boss, but rather that it's always appropriate to talk to the teacher first. that's all.

  23. I think 7:05 said some not so nice things about parents. He/she implied that they are Neurotic and Entitled if they do go to the principal and said they tried to go around the teacher to "get their way". Who knows what happened or what the problems were but I would be worried about a teacher that views parents as Neurotic and Entitled and trying to "Get Their Way" if they are talking to the principal about something they are worried about whether they went to the teacher first or not.

  24. 1:09, I can't explain the specifics in a public forum. Of course there are problems that come up that do warrant going to the principal directly - if you suspect the teacher is drunk, let's say. But for most issues it's just basic respect to talk to the teacher before "tattling" to their boss. I accept that not all teachers are nice, and likewise not all parents are nice.

    9:59, if you take an issue to a teacher and can't get it resolved, then yes, absolutely, going to the principal is the next step to take! It's just not the FIRST step in most situations.

    Most, if not all, teachers I know are very happy to be in "turned around" schools because they don't have to deal with the tyranny of pacing guides, mandated curriculum, etc. that is forced on you in a Title 1 school. Once the test scores come up there is much, much more freedom to run your classroom the way you see fit.

  25. I think it is really smug to have the attitude that the school will be all of a sudden better just because some middle class white people enroll their children there.

  26. 5:10 just doesn't get it! It's not about being BETTER, it's about being POPULAR!

  27. Oh. Right. POPULAR. Thanks for clearing that up!

  28. How else can you know if your kid is in a good school? If everyone else doesn't envy you, how good can it be?

    OK, snark aside, when we look at the so-called "turnaround" schools, the thing they all have in common is an influx of middle- and upper-middle class students. Educated parents have children primed for educational success, and poor kids take tests.

  29. 5:10, there was a great quote here last year that "up and coming" means "when we white people lower ourselves to come to your school and make it a much better school because of our mere presence there".

    But honestly, do you really think we live in a post-racial and class-free society? If not, then you'd have to agree that middle-class white people are better-served by the system than poor non-whites. It's changing slowly, but at this point it's still the truth.

  30. I think we need to remember that schools improve not because middle class white people are inherently superior to anyone else. It's like raw intelligence, some people get lucky and born to a more comfortable existence that provides them with tools to succeed in the established system. The middle class in general (of any ethnicity, color, nationality, etc.) is a tool itself to effect change, even if that tool is used without thought. We're lucky, in fact, that our unthinking presence can benefit certain situations because most people can't sustain a super-charged level of dedication to some cause. Jobs, money, families, etc. interfere with out best intentions. An entitled demographic growing at a school with a less advantaged population might stick in the craw of people, and I can understand that. But I really believe that only a few people would go into it with the kind of attitude that is condescending. Most people will chill out and relax once they realize their kid is okay. It is impossible not to be aware of the divides that separate us no matter how much we wish otherwise. It would be great if our thoughts could imitate our actions. I'm hoping my kid will be one who will interact with people different from him without little mental annotations about those (unimportant) differences like skin color, etc. I know he has that freedom now, and I just hope he can grow up without absorbing all the crap that does separate us.

  31. How NOT to turn around a school:

    1. Enroll your child at a school that has already established practices that are diametrically opposed to your own beliefs about education. Sign up for an academics-oriented school with a uniform policy, for instance, when you passionately believe children should never conform, and should spend most of their days playing kazoos. Tell yourself that you will be able to convince the entire community to see things your way.
    2. Begin complaining immediately, before you've had a chance to see how things are going, or are even aware of all the programs the school offers. Ask, the very first week of school, why there aren't more field trips / art classes / kazoo lessons. Scour the Internet until you find research positing that kazoo playing develops higher intelligence, and that kazoo deprivation puts children at risk for mental illness. Bombard your child's teacher and principal with phone calls and emails. Show up in the principal's office every day with a list of complaints. When he/she crawls under a desk to hide, go under there, too. Complain about the school publicly, exaggerating what you see as its anti-kazoo bias to the point where no one would ever think of enrolling another middle-class kindergartner there.
    3. Sign up for every committee, volunteering to be president of each: PTA, SSC, and the committee you yourself originate -- the Committee for the Promotion of Kazoo Appreciation. At meetings and community events, sit only with parents who share your background, and whisper with them the whole time. If working class parents mention they want more class time spent on academics, either ignore them or suggest that the school needs more parent education classes.
    3. If you get any push-back from the principal or teachers, threaten to pull your child from the school. Remind them that you wrote the grant funding the kazoo program, and that without you it will die.
    4. Even after the school incorporates some of your suggestions, nurture your discontent. When a particular decision doesn't go your way, pull your child from the school and fork over the money for an expensive private school.
    5. Once your child is safely ensconced in private school, begin to realize that there were many things the "up and coming" public school did very well, in fact much better than the private. Begin the cycle of complaint again.

  32. wow 6:06, what you think is clever is just bitchy snark.

  33. well, i thought it was snark too, but also funny. if snark bites, it's because there is truth there (if not the whole truth).

  34. Include parents of all socioeconomic, education levels, and English-language ability and outreach.

    Remember that plenty of great parents can't afford to donate money or time (not enough of either) to the school. In that vein, schedule events at varying times of day and have b-lingual folks on hand to translate.

    Get to know each other as well as administrators.

    Support classroom teachers by performing small tasks and other forms of assistance.

    Bring healthy snacks for all the kids--the lunches are awful.

    Learn about the other parents. Find out what they do well and how they can help. Most everyone has somethong to offer.

  35. There are two types of "turn arounds".

    I. The Take Over
    Most of the turn arounds occur when "middle class" families take over a school and push out kids that were traditionally bussed to the school. This can result in popular and impacted schools; however they fail to be diverse, especially in terms of social economics. This is good for middle class families, but not good for the district as a whole.

    II. The Change Over
    Very rarely do you see significant gains (let alone huge gains) in test scores in schools that draw students from its immediate neighborhood. This is because the under performing (i.e., low income) students cannot be squeezed out, and middle class families do not want to send their children to these neighborhoods. The rare exception is multilingual programs where middle class families are motivated to send their child to a school that has something special to offer. At these schools, one typically sees some gains in test scores with time. The real question is how much do the neighborhood student’s test scores improve?

  36. Hello, classism.

    "Neighborhood kids" can and do achieve. It's unfortunate that so many people here equate middle class (and, I'm guessing, white skin) with success.

    I grew up working class. My parents were poor. Do you know what made the difference for us? It wasn't money or "motivation". Like my parents, I grew up in a supportive community where resources were shared and expectations were high. Teachers and administrators had enough freedom to tailor curriculum but enough oversight to be held accountable.

    Accountability is key. Hold administrators accountable for poor practice. Hold teachers accountable for having low expectations (and thank the ones who do a good job--there are plenty). Get angry the state government for putting education below just about everything. Ask yourself what your presence is doing for/to the kids who were already at that school. Do you care about how you're affecting the community?

    But, please, think before you comment about how the middle class improve schools. Quite simply, schools aren't good if they're not serving all of their students. As I've mentioned, "neighborhood kids" can and do achieve when high expectations are paired with community and family support.

    The bottom line? Take a good, hard look at how schools serve all children, not just children of privilege.

  37. 10:27 - totally agree. Also about the high expectations. You should take a look at the upper grades in these "turn around" schools. Many have very low expectations for the students due to their demographics. This is really hard to change, so before you attempt it, find out how the teachers view the students. Not just what they say, but look at the assignments they give. You will find that many have low expectations (and I'm talking about what is assigned, not how students perform). In addition, if you want to turn around a school, partner with the parents and educate them about what they can do at home. Many parents are told "read to your child" but do not know what books to choose or may be illiterate. The school is only one piece of the education of a child and until we help parents know how to help students at home, there will always be achievement gaps.

  38. Excellent points, 10:27.

    Parent involvement/support is key (as is extra support for kids who aren't lucky enough to have it).

    Teachers (I know you're reading!)... talk to parents. If there's a language barrier, do what you can to get translation service, even if it means badgering the district.

    Find out what parents value and what interests them and harness that. Have parents come in--if they can--and skill share. Invite them to observe and send home regular notes letting them know what's expected of their child and how they can help.

    Understand that some caring and hard-working parents might be intimidated by wealthy families and teachers or bound by cultural notions of propriety. Learn about the cultures from which students originate. Middle class parents, you can do the same.

    If parents aren't involved? Pay special attention to these kids. Kids whose parents are absent for one reason or another need support from caring adults and understanding from peers.

    Remember, kids can't meet high expectations if they haven't had their basic needs met, don't know how to function in a classroom, and feel alienated or judged. Expectations should be clear and consistent. A little understanding and time spent early on can go a long way to helping a diverse classroom or school succeed.

    Take a look at what's happening over at Jose Ortego. Notice how the principal knows the name of every child, celebrates diverse background, invests in book fairs and other enrichment opportunities. Notice that the teachers are happy, involved and themselves diverse.

    Peek into the lunchroom or volunteer for a day. Notice how many shades the kids come in and how well they interact. Look at the art on the walls and the rising test scores.

    Ortega is a fantastic example of what can happen when expectations are high but realistic for all children. Take a look!

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