Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Turning Around Southbridge Schools

Ken O’Brien

“Across the United States, approximately 1,235 high schools serving 1.1 million students—only 5 percent of the nation’s high schools—have graduation rates at or below 67 percent. While the high school graduation rate recently reached 81 percent in 2013, the number of chronically failing high schools remains much too high. Among this group of failing public high schools, approximately 7 percent of students—who are overwhelmingly low-income students of color—are attending schools where it is not likely that they will go on to college or career.”

So reported the Center for American Progress in Dramatic Action, Dramatic Improvement: The Research on School Turnaround issued at the end of last month.

On January 27 of this year, in an article titled “Graduation rates up, dropouts decline”, the Worcester Telegram reported that Southbridge had a dropout rate of 69.9%, just missing the cutoff referenced above. 

Nevertheless, Southbridge schools have been chronically underperforming.

What can be learned from this report that can potentially effectuate a turnaround in our district’s schools?

The study summarizes the most recent research on school turnarounds as well as focusing on four case studies of successful programs of change. From these it draws five factors that distinguish successful efforts.

·         Aggressive action on the part of school districts - The most compelling finding from this research review is that school turnaround is possible and that it occurs when districts take aggressive steps. New York City transformed some of its large high schools into 100 small, nonselective ones and realized dramatic improvements in graduation and college-going rates. Houston infused the practices of high-achieving charter schools into its traditional public schools and saw its achievement gap in math fall 50 percent. These districts did much more than tinker around the edges. As researchers at MDRC* noted, “implementing stand-alone programs that target a specific subset of the student population tend to have a limited impact and cannot revive a struggling school.”
·         Resources and requirements - Requirements that states and districts turn around chronically failing schools through accountability systems are necessary but insufficient. Because aggressive turnaround efforts are by nature disruptive, they are often contentious within a community. Sometimes they engender political opposition. Federal laws that require better outcomes for students in these schools can give local leaders the freedom to take aggressive action, while additional targeted resources help make the transition smoother. When districts and schools are given targeted funding—either from philanthropic organizations or the government—they are better positioned to achieve significant change.
·         Governance and staffing changes - Schools that replaced ineffective leaders showed the greatest gains in student learning. One study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation about how leadership influences student learning found that for the most part, there are no documented instances of school turnaround without an effective principal—leadership is second only to effective classroom instruction as the most important school-level factor affecting student achievement. What’s more, the study’s authors said, “After six additional years of research, we are even more confident about this claim. To date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.” Simply replacing the principal, however, is not enough to drive significant change. Principals need the skills and vision necessary to turn around low-performing schools.
·         Data-driven decision making - Research supports the use of data-based decision making to improve student achievement. A study by researchers at the Council of the Great City Schools looked at the relationship between data use and student achievement in urban schools. Researchers found a positive relationship between teachers’ data use and student achievement in elementary and middle school math, and the use of data by principals was associated with higher student achievement in some grades and subjects.
·         A focus on school culture and nonacademic supports for disadvantaged students - While turnaround efforts are ultimately judged by improvements in academic proficiency and graduation rates, schools that most successfully turn around tend to focus their efforts more broadly. They work purposefully and deliberately to create collaborative, positive, and enriching school cultures with high expectations for all students. They create fortified environments to enhance the social, emotional, and behavioral development of all students, particularly of those who are growing up in poverty and facing challenging circumstances that affect every aspect of their development. Schools that successfully turn around offer wrap-around services to help support all the needs of their students and, where possible, their families and communities.

One of these factors faces particular difficulty in Southbridge. That has to do with the issue of funding. Repeated promises to improve the district’s performance have stretched the community’s credulity. Further complicating the budgetary issue is the prospective loss of a major budgetary contributor with the imminent demise of landfill revenues. Finally, the status of the town as the largest concentration of unemployment in Worcester County hardly bodes well for increased education funds.

One alternative is potentially available through the Federal program of School Improvement Grants. Five years ago, the federal government took a more aggressive and targeted approach to school turnaround by investing substantially in school improvement efforts. Through funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—called the School Improvement Grants, or SIG, program—school districts applied for three-year grants in exchange for implementing a number of reforms in their chronically lowest-performing schools. This program has awarded more than $4 billion to help turnaround at least 1,200 schools across all 50 states. What remains to be seen is, not only whether Southbridge can qualify for such a grant but, whether it is willing to accept one of the models required to implement such a program.
In 1974 the Ford Foundation and six government agencies together created the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.  It formally adopted “MDRC” as its registered corporate identity in 2003.


  1. Save our Schools --SOSApril 8, 2015 at 7:21 AM

    The main problem with the Southbridge Schools is that they replaced effective leadership with incompetent leadership when the Bobbleheads took control. These incompetents either drove away effective teachers or unfairly terminated them. And now, we have what we have -- and it will take another decade to fix what they have broken. (And, I don't know if it is possible.)

    1. Just question. When were the schools effective? I've been a resident my whole life and the schools have been under performing consistently for about 15-20 years.

      I'd love to see the data if there were some years in between that we saw a rise.... maybe we could recreate that. Just curious.


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