U.Va.’s School Turnaround Program Helps Salt Lake City Schools Make the Grade

September 30, 2013

Children in Utah’s low-performing schools are raising their scores, and with continued support from the University of Virginia’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, they are reaching new heights with record-breaking gains in achievement.

The program pairs experts from U.Va.’s Darden School of Business and Curry School of Education with school systems to institute new practices and increase student success. The approach requires work with educators at every level – from state and district administrators to school principals and teachers.

Positive Turnaround Through Collaboration

“In the state of Utah, a number of districts had persistently low-achieving schools,” said Karl Wilson, state director of Title 1 and federal programs at the Utah State Office of Education. “We have seen these schools implement the principles that were developed through PLE, and they have achieved 20, 30 and 40 percent gains in areas such as reading, language arts and mathematics.”

Prior to the new school year, state and district school leaders from Salt Lake City received lessons in leadership that broadened their professional toolkits during a two-week Executive Education residency at the Darden School in which Darden and Curry faculty led workshops on a range of topics such as strategic planning, using data to improve student outcomes, and diagnosing and addressing the root causes of school challenges..

Their experience is now a part of Darden’s many top global Executive Education offerings taught by some of the world’s most highly acclaimed faculty.

“We offer the nation’s only turnaround program that focuses on establishing system-wide changes and building transformative leadership,” William Robinson, interim executive director of the Darden-Curry partnership, said.

This is the second year that Robinson has worked with the Salt Lake City group in the partnership’s three-year program. He looks forward to seeing the group take their next steps toward a successful turnaround process.

When the Salt Lake City cohort finished its U.Va. residency and returned home, several of them made school site visits to ensure that their teachers were prepared to help every child learn and succeed this academic year.

“I have two cohorts,” said Patrick Garcia, associate superintendent for Salt Lake City School District and district shepherd. “One is a set of schools that have been a part of this for one year, and they have their own individual program to work toward this year. And we have a new set of schools that are developing their priorities for us as a district.

“We must realize how we can support the common goals as well as the individual goals of our schools and move forward with our district priorities as well.”

A Systemic Approach

“Educators are like parents. They want what’s best for their kids,” said Barbara Kuehl, director of academic services in Salt Lake City’s school district, who attended the July residency with Wilson and Garcia. “However, it’s not enough to have a series of good teachers in the classroom. We need to build effective systems around those good teachers. That’s where leadership comes in.”

Kuehl lauded the Partnership for Leaders In Education’s focus on involving all stakeholders in the process of implementing change, a task that is familiar to Dorothy Cosgrove, the recently retired Salt Lake City School District associate superintendent. Before leaving the district, Cosgrove was among the first group of leaders to implement changes developed in partnership with the Darden-Curry partnership.

“We needed to intervene quickly and do things differently,” she said. “We sought quick wins by becoming data-driven, suspending beliefs and assumptions about children’s learning abilities and regularly assessing the children’s mastery of what was taught.”

Cosgrove added that the program offers the most impactful intervention she has ever seen and referred to the Partnership for Leaders In Education leaders’ abilities to listen and build confidence.

“Now, the group will go after the harder goals,” she said. “They will further establish the ‘Salt Lake Way’ and take changes in the curriculum and the way success is measured into all of the district’s schools.”

Robinson added, “Our theory is that teachers and students are working in broken systems and leaders can transform those systems by re-envisioning and rethinking the design of the system, and having district and school leaders work together to ignite change.”

Commitment to Improvement

Since its inception in 2003, the Darden-Curry Partnership has helped to turn around failing schools across 16 states, including Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Its goal is to work as a partner in helping school systems optimize classroom performance.

“The laboratory of school turnaround provides a great opportunity to explore education reform in really exciting ways,” said Daniel Player, academic and research director for Partnership for Leaders In Education. “Many of the districts in the program are implementing changes that would benefit any school system that decided to adopt them.”

However, a school district that wants to work with the partnership must first make sure it is ready. According to Robinson, districts should be prepared to take ownership of the system changes needed to create positive results.

“They need to be willing to commit to dramatic growth, to make difficult changes to establish conditions for growth, and be able to demonstrate publicly to their stakeholders that dramatic success and growth are possible,” he said.

The Salt Lake City school system experienced growth in all four initial partnership schools during its first year with the program. Going forward, it must sustain its positive improvements so that all involved – especially students – continue to get high marks.

“This experience has really been top notch. It has given me confidence in terms of understanding what it is that we want to go about doing and I’m just really geared up and ready to go after it,” Garcia added.

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School of Education and Human Development