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Does the turnaround model really work?

POSTED September 14, 2010 9:22 p.m.

In an effort to bring Cunningham Elementary’s dismal tests scores up, the Turlock Unified School District administration decided to use the turnaround model at the school voluntarily — before test scores dropped so much it became state mandated.

Some say they have witnessed failed attempts to turnaround schools and others say the model is successful more often than not. Research on the model also shows mixed results. So what do we really know about the model and its results?

We know that the model is one of four intervention models aimed at turning around the lowest-achieving schools — turnaround model, restart model, school closure model and the transformation model — all implemented by the state. 

We know that the turnaround model consists of replacing the principal, rehiring no more than 50 percent of the school’s staff and adopting a new governance structure.

We know that some turnaround models have succeeded and some have failed. And we know that there are over 5,000 schools in the nation that are low-achieving.

I had the privilege to attend a workshop called “Turning Around Failing Schools” at the Education Writers Association Conference this year where I talked to some experts on the turnaround model.

Some experts said it has never worked, if it has worked it is by accident and that some schools just need to be closed. And I have heard the testimony from a principal about her experience turning schools around successfully.

Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group of Mass Insight, said that turning around schools is nothing new but schools that do turnaround have three things in common —teachers are ready to teach, students are ready to learn and the staff is willing to act.

Andy Smarick, visiting senior scholar at the Fordham Institute, had a different opinion, though. He said that the best solution is to shut down the school.  

“No school has a right to go on 30 years if it’s killing kids,” Smarick said. “If that school isn’t working, I’m sorry, that school has to go away.”  

And then I heard the success of Sterling Elementary School Principal Nancy Guzman from North Carolina, who has turned around three high-poverty and low-achieving elementary schools.

Her key to turning around schools is simple — have good teachers, do it the way you get results and break the rules, she said.

Guzman said that you have to do things differently.

“You can’t do the same thing and expect change,” she said. 

The Turlock Unified School District felt that change was needed at Cunningham Elementary School — the lowest-achieving school in the district — and decided to voluntarily implement the turnaround model in hopes of some change.

According to the 2010 Accountability Progress Report released on Monday, Cunningham has one of the worst Academic Performance Index scores in the district with Wakefield Elementary School and Osborn Elementary School behind them.

But with Wakefield Elementary, they grew the most out of all 15 schools in the entire district with 58 points gained and Osborn Elementary grew 24 points. Cunningham Elementary dropped further behind by two points compared to 2009 scores. 

Cunningham teachers, staff and students have always worked toward student achievement but it is apparent that the school is in need of a change just based off of the 2010 API scores alone, not even taking into consideration the California Standardized Testing results, where Cunningham had the smallest growth in the district with 19.4 percent of their students proficient in English Language Arts and 22.4 percent of their students proficient in Mathematics.   

So the district has given the reigns to new Cunningham Principal Al Silveira to spearhead the turnaround model where he plans to focus strictly on each individual student and their individual achievement.

Silveira has had success at past schools including his principal experience at Medeiros Elementary School, which he opened in 2006 and has raised their API score from 777 to the second highest API score in the district at 844 right behind the district’s magnet school Walnut Education Center.

While the success of the turnaround model is in doubt, something needs to change at Cunningham for the students’ sakes.

To contact Maegan Martens, e-mail mmartens@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.

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