Turnaround Spotlight: UP Education Network

In 2011, UP Education Network (UP), previously Unlocking Potential, opened its first turnaround school in Boston, and the first of its kind in the state of Massachusetts. A nonprofit turnaround organization, UP believes that the practices of the highest performing charter schools can be used to transform chronically underperforming schools in the district. UP currently operates five schools in Boston and Laurence and plans to continue its expansion.

So far, UP’s positive impact on student achievement can be seen in the first couple years of operation at a number of schools, including UP’s first school, restarted as UP Academy Boston in 2011. During each of the first two years, UP Academy Boston students demonstrated the highest median student growth in Massachusetts on math based on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). UP Academy Boston and UP Academy Leonard have shown considerable student achievement growth as well, demonstrating the first and second highest median student growth in the state on the math MCAS in 2013.

When UP restarts a school, the students and facility remain the same, but other aspects of the school change. Unlike district schools, UP schools have more freedom in hiring, programming curriculum, determining time use, budgeting, and evaluating teachers. Scott Given, the CEO of UP, believes these freedoms allow school-level staff to make decisions in the best interest of their students.

Flexibility in UP’s human resources strategy is an important element of their schools. UP has complete control over hiring and the staffing structure. One of the first things they do is put a new leadership team in place at the school, and UP generally changes most of the other school staff as well. UP also has freedom from collective bargaining agreements through a contract that allows for school-developed teacher evaluation processes and tools.

UP develops its own school curricula and code of conduct, which differs from that of the district. With autonomy over special education and ELL programming, UP also delivers education to special populations in a different and unique way.

UP’s contract also allows for control over how time is allocated throughout the year. This is reflected in a longer teacher school year, longer days, and additional time for staff development and collaboration. UP schools have the ability to design school-specific calendars and develop their own unique schedules.

Budget flexibility is another area in which UP schools differ from district schools. In some cases, UP schools receive money directly, in lieu of certain services from the school district. Entitlement funds also flow directly to the schools from the state instead of through the school district. With more flexibility on how to spend their money, UP schools can do things traditional district schools cannot.

UP says they have been able to successfully leverage these autonomies to drive achievement thanks to effective district collaboration: “Autonomy on paper is different than autonomy in practice. Getting from what is on paper to what happens in practice requires immense collaboration between the district’s central office and the school operator.”—Scott Given

Learn more about successful turnarounds in Innovate Public Schools’ report, “Struggling Schools, Promising Solutions.”

Resources and references




Turnaround Spotlight: Sanger Unified School District

In 2004, Sanger Unified School District (Sanger) was designated one of the lowest-performing districts in California. Serving a rural, predominantly Latino community 15 miles outside Fresno, Sanger has steadily improved, outperforming average state gains every year since 2005. In 2011, Sanger was recognized as one of the most improved high-poverty districts for low-income students by Education Trust-West and Superintendent Marcus Johnson was named Superintendent of the Year by American Association of School Administrator (AASA). In 2012, the district posted a 94 percent graduation rate for Latinos and a 97 percent graduation rate district-wide.

Sanger credits this successful turnaround to focusing on supporting teachers to improve instruction, creating a culture of collaboration, and using clear accountability measures to improve performance.

In practice, this means the district sets “essential” standards for all grade levels. Using a set of principles about learning instead of a pre-specified curriculum, teachers focus on diagnosing and responding to student learning needs. Student data gathered from periodic assessments helps determine instruction and lesson planning, so the curriculum can be adjusted as needed. Sanger uses a system of interventions for all students during classes and has additional time specifically allocated for instructional interventions each day.

Key to Sanger’s success is team collaboration, which schools facilitate through weekly Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings. The PLC meetings are a designated time for teachers to plan as a team, collaborate, and support each other. In addition, the district developed a data system for teachers to enter and access assessment data, facilitating evidence-based collaborations.

Accountability is woven throughout the district culture. The district aggregates data from continuous assessments and feedback to inform its decisions. District leaders are clear on what is required and expected of each school, but allow flexibility over how schools accomplish their requirements. In addition, the district created clearer guidelines for assessing progress. In this manner, Sanger has coupled high pressure with increased support.

This accountability culture is also apparent in the increased use of student data to inform teaching practices and the use of monthly principal walk-throughs to provide feedback and continuous support to teachers. Principals are not the only ones who walk through the classrooms. Superintendent Johnson visits every classroom in his district twice a year. Johnson describes the regular classroom visits as a way to show teachers that “I am here to support you,” reinforcing the idea that the focus is on feedback and support as opposed to evaluation. Johnson also disseminates yearly themes, such as “Together we can,” reflecting the collaborative foundation of his turnaround strategy.

Learn more about successful turnarounds in Innovate Public Schools’ report, “Struggling Schools, Promising Solutions.”

Resources and references


Turnaround Spotlight: Renaissance Schools in Philadelphia

The School District of Philadelphia launched the Renaissance Initiative in 2010 to identify and transform chronically low-performing district schools to dramatically improve student achievement. The district initiates this transformation by converting low-performing schools to either district-run turnaround schools, called Promise Academies, or charter-operated schools, called Renaissance Charters. For both models of transformation, the initiative provides additional resources, changes in staffing, and initiates a change in school culture.

The Renaissance Initiative has had variable success improving student test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), a standards-based test used to measure student attainment. At the time of a December 2013 evaluation, conducted by the School District of Philadelphia, the Renaissance Charters had demonstrated greater success than the Promise Academies, with more than half of Renaissance Charter schools meeting the criteria set by the district for “rapid growth” and the majority of Promise Academies not meeting the criteria.

Of the first three cohorts of the Renaissance Initiative, fifteen of the seventeen Renaissance Charter Schools improved the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the reading PSSA and thirteen of the schools increased the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the math PSSA.

For the six Promise Academy schools initiated in the first three years, only three increased the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the reading PSSA while only one increased the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the math PSSA.

Under the Promise Academy model, new principals are assigned to the turnaround schools and at least half the staff is replaced, with previous staff moving to other schools. Students receive a longer school day three days per week and a summer academy that extends their school year. Students and staff wear uniforms, new world language studies classes are offered, and partnerships are developed through collaborations with local institutions of higher education, community organizations, and compact agreements with parents.

Unlike the Promise Academies, which are all operated by one entity, the Renaissance Charter schools have multiple operators. But unique to all the Renaissance Charter schools, all staff are replaced, and new policies and cultural norms are established by the schools.

Learn more about successful turnarounds in Innovate Public Schools’ report, “Struggling Schools, Promising Solutions.”

Resources and references