Turnaround Schools: Doing Whatever it Takes to Improve

Turnaround Schools: Doing Whatever it Takes to Improve

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Griffin Elementary students were rewarded for good behavior with a dance party.

What does it take to get students to do their very best?

It might take a dance party with glow sticks to reward good behavior, or perhaps being duct-taped to the wall for reading challenging books. Dr. Melissa Durrance, principal of Griffin Elementary, has done this and more to inspire her kids.

But most importantly, Durrance said, students need to feel every day that the school’s staff members love them. “If they genuinely feel you care about them, they will do anything for you,” she said.

Polk County Public Schools currently has six schools — including Griffin Elementary — in what is known as the “turnaround” process.

Each of these schools have received low grades (D or F) in recent years. The schools also include Walter Caldwell Elementary, McLaughlin Middle, Philip O’Brien Elementary, Lewis Anna Woodbury Elementary and Lake Marion Creek Middle.

These schools are receiving intense support to improve their performance. Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd ensures that the schools in the turnaround process are given first consideration for additional staff and resources; in addition, an outside company (Educational Directions) provides further guidance, training, coaching and management expertise.

Griffin Elementary and Lake Marion Creek Middle are currently subject to a plan that makes Educational Directions an external operator overseeing the management of these schools. In general, the company is providing extra support and working closer with the school’s administration to achieve higher performance.

District staff and school administrators review student performance data to identify what subject areas need more attention. However, they must also explore what other factors are contributing to students’ challenges. For instance, are students struggling with science because they don’t possess solid literacy skills?

Every school in the turnaround process is different, so each must prioritize and target their specific needs. Some schools might focus on reducing chronic absenteeism or finding ways to reward positive behaviors and reduce suspensions. Students who miss instruction often have difficulty building proficiency in fundamental subjects like reading and mathematics.

District- and school-based staff work with Educational Directions to develop strategies to improve these contributing factors, and monitor progress throughout the year.

“Our teachers and staff are working hard every day to turn these schools around,” said Michael Akes, the district’s chief Academic Officer. “You have to be strategic. You have to focus on the right areas and the root causes of the school’s low grade.”

District staff and school administrators are matching students with teachers who can inspire them to learn. The challenge is hiring and retaining educators during a nationwide teacher shortage.

Six teachers left Griffin Elementary and six teachers left Lake Marion Creek Middle after the 17-18 school year. For this school year, six teachers were hired at Griffin, and 16 teachers were added at Lake Marion Creek.

Durrance said a major priority for her staff was building trust with students and changing the culture of the school. Now in her second year as Griffin’s principal, she has noticed her students feel like it’s cool to learn, and don’t shy away from being praised for doing well in the classroom.

Last year, students read more than 5,600 books as part of a schoolwide contest. This year, the goal has been raised to more than 11,170 books; so far, they’ve already read more than 5,820.

“This year, it’s like night and day,” Durrance said. “It’s a completely different school. The kids are feeling more successful.”

The goal of the turnaround process isn’t to simply improve a school’s grade to a C or better so they are no longer subject to state mandates aimed at improving their performance. The district continues to provide resources to help these schools maintain their upward momentum and keep building on their success.

“Once you become complacent, your progress will regress,” said Akes. “There are still tough days. It doesn’t matter if the school’s grade is a B or a C. We still have to meet the students’ needs. We can’t be complacent or the school can slip back.”

Photo caption: Griffin Elementary students enjoyed a dance party for their good behavior.