Districts wanting to turn around schools without hiring an outside organization are being drawn to the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program, which equips principals and other administrators with the skills needed to bring about deep change in low-performing schools and provides them with ongoing support.
The program was started in 2004 by the university’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE), a joint venture of the Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education, as part of a series of targeted education reforms promoted by then-Gov. Mark Warner. In 2006 the program opened its doors to participants from other states.
The program has become a success because of two unique qualities. First, it offers participants resources from both the education and the business fields. “At UVA we have one of the top education schools and one of the top business schools in the country,” says LeAnn Buntrock, executive director of the PLE. “Our program is on par with the best executive education programs.”
Second, principals do not participate alone. When they arrive on campus in July for their weeklong introduction to the program, each is accompanied by a district team. After one to two days the team members return home, except for one who is designated the “shepherd.” “We have always required the district to participate,” says Buntrock. Indeed, districts, rather than individual principals, apply for the program and then choose the principals who will participate.
This week initiates an intensive turnaround process. Each principal leaves the university with a 90-day plan for making specific, big-impact reforms that can be implemented right away. These reforms can be as simple as adding landscaping, painting walls or fixing bathrooms. Buntrock observes, “One of the things we know about successful turnarounds is that it’s important to get some quick, visible and dramatic wins right away. It starts to show people that you’re serious about change, it helps get buy-in, and it helps silence critics.”
In the fall, faculty and staff from the program provide ongoing support to principals and conduct site visits to individual schools. In January, the principals return to the university for two and a half days, along with school leadership teams they have chosen. Principals and teams focus on long-term strategic plans for their schools. Shortly after they return home, program faculty and/or staff make additional site visits. Each visit is tailored to the specific needs of the school or district. “We use it to address whatever issues they might be grappling with,” Buntrock says.
The second year of the program is structured similarly, with on-campus sessions, site visits and ongoing support, but is focused on sustainability. The key, says Buntrock, is making sure that principals engaged in a turnaround are allowed to remain at that school. “We want to see quick success, but we’re also about sustainability. Once you start to see success, you need to leave those principals in place. They’re making strides, but in order to change the culture and put the systems and processes in place, they need to be in there for a longer period of time.”
But does UVA’s School Turnaround Specialist Program actually lead to successful turnarounds? The program is young and still evolving, but the initial evidence is positive. For example, after two years of intervention, schools in the third cohort, which started the program in 2006, saw reading proficiency rise from 38.6 percent to 52.9 percent, and math proficiency rise from 37.6 percent to 51.9 percent.
Buntrock knows the stakes are high, and she is not content with achieving only a certain level of success. “We’re always trying to sit down and figure out, based on the most recent research here and elsewhere, how we can make the program better,” she explains. In the end, however, she admits that “pulling off a successful turnaround is difficult.” Principals and district leaders may nevertheless find in UVA’s program the resources and support they need to do this difficult work.
The PLE offers a credential for principals who complete the entire program and whose schools make Adequate Yearly Progress. — Don Parker-Burgard