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Professional Opinion

Strategies school turnaround leaders can rely on

Change requires moral purpose, urgency and a willingness to challenge the status quo
Roberto Padilla is superintendent of the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York. Nancy Gutiérrez is chief strategy officer for the NYC Leadership Academy.
Roberto Padilla is superintendent of the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York. Nancy Gutiérrez is chief strategy officer for the NYC Leadership Academy.

We know from personal experience as principals and superintendents, and from research, that it takes a dynamic leader with a particular set of skills and knowledge to turn around a school or school system. Sadly, there are thousands of schools across the country that are chronically low-performing, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Layer that with the deep racial disparities plaguing schools across the country: To give just one statistic, on standardized tests, black students score, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than white students in the same district, according to Graduate School of Stanford Education research.

Turnaround leaders are in high demand. Unfortunately, they are in short supply. Principals typically stay in their school for only three or four years, and in low-performing and high-poverty schools, the average tenure is even shorter.

Leaders leaving low performing schools tend to go to schools with less challenging conditions and more resources, and their jobs are often filled by inexperienced school leaders.

So what does an effective turnaround leader need to know and be able to do? Many of the leadership skills needed to transform a severely struggling school are not that different from those of a strong principal in a high-performing school.

The difference lies in the leader’s ability to respond with urgency and make key changes quickly while establishing a vision and a strong team to carry out that vision.

Beyond the skills every effective school leader needs to know and be able to do found in research such as Wallace Foundation’s Five Pivotal Practices, turnaround leaders require additional nuanced dispositions to transform schools in dire need of improvement.

Lead with a bold vision for equity

The work of a successful turnaround leader is driven by social justice and a desire to dismantle inequities for students who have been historically underserved. It’s about changing mindsets and raising expectations.

Now as a principal in her home community, Nancy Gutiérrez recalls being defiant when she realized her teachers expected little from her. Then one teacher told her she was smart, challenged her and changed her life’s path. Gutiérrez now challenges her staff to see their students—particularly those who are struggling—as future school and community leaders, as that teacher had seen her.

Lead with urgency

Given the dire need for improvement, a turnaround leader must get stakeholders on board quickly and achieve some short-term wins while communicating a long-term vision for success. Identify a few of the easiest things you can do to show that change is possible.

A quick win might mean installing new stop signs, painting over graffiti, or, as Roberto Padilla did, literally knocking down office walls to open up the work space and compel staff across divisions to collaborate.

Balance high expectations with high support

As you increase expectations for staff, you must give them the support they need to meet those new expectations. Triangulate a schoolwide needs assessment with each staff member’s strengths and areas of growth.

Be courageously non-compliant

Turnaround schools need dramatic change, and the school leader must be willing to challenge the status quo at every level of the system while being savvy enough to navigate risk factors and negotiate with key players.

Lead with emotional intelligence

A turnaround leader must understand the change that came before and how entrenched the failing practices are. Acknowledge that change is synonymous with loss and that breaking down long-held beliefs and systems can be an emotional struggle for stakeholders. This work requires an ability to handle hard situations with care and grace.

Know yourself as a leader

Turnaround leaders cannot lead dramatic change if they are unsure of themselves, or if they change course the minute there is pushback or failure. You must be resilient. To be able to move this hard work forward, you will benefit from having your own personal support group outside of your system.

We urge leadership development programs to reflect on how they are helping school and system leaders build the skills needed to not only be great leaders, but to be great turnaround leaders—and for district turnaround plans to reflect this important nuance.


Roberto Padilla is superintendent of the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York. Nancy Gutiérrez is chief strategy officer for the NYC Leadership Academy.