- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

RICHMOND — Ten principals have been assigned to turn around a group of consistently low-performing public schools, much like their counterparts in the corporate world do for ailing companies.

Starting this school year, the elementary and middle-school principals are applying what they’ve learned from case studies that show how businesses have gone from struggling to succeeding and how best to allocate resources and staffing to achieve those results.

“We have to address brutal facts,” said Melissa Marshall, principal at Perrymont Middle School in Chesterfield County. “We’re low-performing in reading and math. What are we going to do about it?”

Miss Marshall and the other turnaround specialists attended summer-training sessions led by faculty from the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and Curry School of Education. The sessions combined business practices and education theory and applied them to the public-school model.

“It’s surprisingly the same — we’re dealing with human nature. The product is education, and the customers are students,” Miss Marshall said. “If you’re not producing, you shouldn’t be in business.”

The program is part of Gov. Mark Warner’s package of education initiatives that apply business practices to public education. In the business sector, corporate turnaround consultants are brought in to restructure companies that have financial problems.

Another key partner is School Turnaround, run by the Rensselaerville Institute. The Rensselaerville, N.Y., think tank will provide each specialist with a mentor throughout the year. Other states that have used School Turnaround include Texas, Illinois, West Virginia and New York, and many schools have boosted their pass rates in achievement tests from 2002 to 2003.

Perrymont, a 125-student alternative school, has many students who arrive “with gaping holes in learning” and have repeated sixth and seventh grades at other schools, said Miss Marshall, who took over as principal in 2001.

Before the turnaround program started, Perrymont already had implemented some changes, including keeping each small class with a team of at least two teachers throughout the day, rather than having students switch classes and instructors. Students also are grouped by sex and are required to wear uniforms.

Miss Marshall hopes to build on those changes this year by focusing on the mastery of reading, writing and math — with the ultimate goal of passing the state Standards of Learning tests in those subjects. Teachers will assess students’ progress weekly and will offer individual instruction if necessary.

Linda Wallinger, Virginia’s assistant superintendent for instruction, said program organizers chose leaders who have the skills and personal qualities to quickly assess a school’s problems and “achieve results in a compressed time frame.” The specialists must commit to three years in their assigned school. Ten additional specialists will enter other schools in the 2005-06 academic year.

The program will cost about $712,000 in its first year. Principals don’t get a pay raise when they become turnaround specialists, but local school boards and the state can give them incentives and bonuses based on their school’s achievement.

Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, praises the efforts, but said it will take longer than three years to implement lasting change.

“Unless the person is able to sustain [improvement] over some time, the turnaround won’t be a success,” he said.

“[The program] is not a silver bullet,” Miss Wallinger acknowledges, and it’s not as if “a single person will single-handedly whip things into shape.”

Instead, each specialist will work with school staff and administration to determine which practices work and which don’t.

Virginia’s Department of Education designated for the turnaround program schools that have consistently fallen short of federal or state achievement-testing benchmarks. Many of the principals, like Miss Marshall, already have been working in their assigned schools.

“Typically if the schools have problems, it’s not strictly just [about] student achievement,” Miss Wallinger said. “We want to examine all levels of managing their building, to have them step out of the management role and truly provide leadership.”

“The bottom line is, yes, we want to improve student achievement,” Miss Wallinger said. “But also, teachers will be more prepared, there will be improved attendance. Those all would be underlying factors, anyway.”


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