Schools seek help from turnaround specialists

Experts a less-drastic way to battle failing city scores

July 01, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Although teachers and principals at five struggling city schools are being replaced because of years of low test scores, dozens of other Baltimore schools ordered to restructure are making a far less dramatic change: They're hiring a turnaround specialist.

Turnaround specialists, often chosen from the ranks of retired principals, are based in schools and charged with improving classroom instruction - an aspect of a principal's job that sometimes gets lost amid other responsibilities.

But the value of using such experts, which is new to Maryland, remains untested. School officials and education advocates disagree on the effectiveness of such specialists.

Baltimore officials say some schools that hired turnaround specialists in February met targets on recent state tests. Advocates, however, point to schools that have continued to fail even with the assistance of specialists.

Because hiring a turnaround specialist is less drastic than replacing a school's staff, it has been the preferred remedy of low-performing schools required to restructure under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping three-year-old education reform law.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that fail to meet state standards for six consecutive years must restructure by:

replacing all or most of the staff

reopening as a public charter school

contracting the operation of the school to an outside entity, or

adopting a different "governance structure."

On Wednesday, the state school board approved plans to replace all or most of the staffs at three Baltimore schools. City officials yesterday detailed similar plans for two more schools.

Most Maryland schools that face restructuring have opted for the last option, choosing to hire a turnaround specialist - a person who reports not to the principal but to the central administration.

Barbara R. Davidson, president of StandardsWork, a Washington education nonprofit that raises parents' awareness about their rights under No Child Left Behind, said hiring turnaround specialists is the weakest remedy available to school officials.

"So far, it seems most everybody's continuing to pass the buck," said Davidson, who would prefer that failing schools replace staff or reopen as charter schools. She said it is up to state education officials to make sure schools choose remedies that will have an impact rather than those that are easiest to implement.

Debate over how to improve underperforming schools has reached a fever pitch under No Child Left Behind. In the past, school officials nationwide sporadically overhauled troubled schools, replacing staff or contracting schools to outside operators.

But the federal law now requires schools to be evaluated every year - and overhauled if necessary. As a result, schools with low test scores face regular pressure to reorganize staff, change curricula and make other improvements.

Statewide, about 55 schools must restructure this fall, including some that have been overhauled before but have not seen enough improvement. If the schools' restructuring plans continue to fail to boost improvement, it is unclear what No Child Left Behind would require schools to do next, state officials said.

Baltimore officials would prefer not to think about schools continuing to fail. They hope their most troubled schools will turn a corner with the help of the specialists, revamped math and reading curricula and more teacher training.

Linda Chinnia, Baltimore's chief academic officer, said more than 20 troubled schools that hired specialists in February have found them helpful.

But state school officials, who on Wednesday approved plans by 19 additional city schools to hire turnaround specialists, said the value of specialists needs to be studied.

"I think it's [too] early to begin making a decision about the effectiveness" of specialists, said JoAnne L. Carter, assistant state superintendent for student and school services.

In Baltimore, school officials chose the more drastic remedy of replacing some or all of the staff at five of 45 schools forced to restructure: Highlandtown Elementary No. 215, Calverton Elementary, Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle, West Baltimore Middle and Northeast Middle schools.

That remedy, called "zero-basing," requires teachers to reapply for their jobs. In some cases, principals also are being replaced.

Before school officials resort to such an extreme measure, schools are generally given a few years to try less onerous strategies. But at Highlandtown Elementary - where 72 percent of third-graders failed the most recent round of state reading and math tests - other strategies did not appear to be working.

"Certain schools have certain cultures," said Kim Evans, an area academic officer who oversees Highlandtown and 26 other city schools. "The staff [at Highlandtown] was almost unwilling to make changes, and couldn't see the power they had to make changes. ... We just needed to make some massive changes."

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