By the time you realize your school is struggling, you’re entrenched in the issues.

An underperforming department continues to decline, you know your staff is overworked, and you’ve got to control a tight budget. Yet, carefully assessed education must proceed.

“By the time a school gets to the point where it is in need of turnaround, there are deeply rooted issues that we often neglect to pay attention to on the part of learners, adult educators, and the community,” says Ulcca Joshi Hansen, a former teacher and associate director at Education Reimagined, an initiative aimed at new approaches to education.

Experts say the work of turning around a school requires good planning, realistic goals, and self-aware persistence.

“You can’t let naysayers define who you are and what you can do,” says Mark Anderson, award-winning principal at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, CA, with 1,800 students in grades 6–12. He says even with the best strategies, principals will find they fail sometimes and should be both willing to adjust their course carefully or double down and stick to their plan.

Principals who do improve their school do so because they choose to do something differently, Hansen says. “The challenge with the tropes of ‘have a plan,’ ‘engage the community,’ and ‘get staff buy-in’ is that these presume that the way school always has been done works, and if we could just do the same things better, we might produce better results. That isn’t usually the case.”

Monique Chism—a vice president at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, D.C., and formerly a top federal and state education official—says having a clear mission is key, even though it is one condition of change that seems evident.

When AIR researchers studied 25 low-performing schools that received federally funded School Improvement Grants, those that reported progress had “strategic leaders who could articulate a theory of change,” Chism says. “At first blush it may not seem new or innovative to communicate that leaders need to have a strategic vision; however, we know that time and time again when initiatives fail, it is often because the leader was not able to conceive and communicate a transformational vision for change.”

First Steps and Results

James Johnston, principal at Woodland Middle School in Washington, says it is important to establish a mission and specific goals, but be precise and realistic about them.

“We focused on a few things and did them well—including the reading infrastructure and math instruction,” says Johnston, who was named a Principal of the Year in Oregon in 2013 and who has been recognized for significantly boosting student achievement. “We canceled meaningless meetings and tried to weed out the many useless-but-trendy items and trainings. We chose to focus on major concerns and remove minor ones from our workload.”

NASSP, in acknowledging Johnston’s work at his former school, noted that his staff attributed “systematic decision-​making, plus a commitment to stay the course and allow changes to solidify, as the significant factors in achieving student gains.” Johnston and his team took into consideration the SMART goals that are often applied in education—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based. Hansen says those characteristics are important, particularly the ability to look ahead at measurable and realistic outcomes.

Often in education, success is measured only by test scores and achievement data, and principals should recognize that some advancement may be subtle, but just as important, Hansen says. She says ways to gauge those changes should be established early in the process, and those successes should be promoted as part of the mission. “A principal wanting to engage in a slower, more thoughtful and inclusive process might do well to lay out that sort of timeline of anticipated outcomes,” she says.

To maintain momentum, it is also critical to celebrate when smaller goals along the way are reached. “Success begets success,” Anderson says. “The more success your school has, the easier it becomes to proceed and even do something innovative or try something new again. People buy what you are selling. Do it publicly and do it loudly. Go for small wins you know can make a little change—celebrate the staff and students for the success, and then move on to bigger changes.” Along with success in traditional academics, Marshall Fundamental Secondary School was able to celebrate accomplishments in other areas such as the arts, including some key partnerships in the area art community.

Powered by People

Carol Conklin-Spillane—former principal of Sleepy Hollow High School in New York, a diverse 900-student school 20 miles north of New York City—says it was important for her to examine the school’s culture, then establish a vision. “What would success look like, why would it matter, and how will we know if we are successful?” she asked.

Conklin-Spillane, who now serves as superintendent of the nearby Pocantico Hills School District, then implemented changes at the school including a slogan with a related theme: “Personalization is our hallmark.” The effort included grade-level “communities” that stayed together throughout a student’s time at the school and a variety of other efforts aimed at connecting kids, which, she says, helped bolster student resilience and established firm supports for them.

“It was the ability to understand the school culture, then harness the power of distributed leadership and shared accountability that made the essential difference in making and sustaining change,” she says. “As a new principal, initially I underestimated the capacity of individuals to understand the big picture and their role in it. Investing time in sharing perspective and creating context is critical to building a foundation where distributed leadership and shared accountability can flourish.” Those connections often require that principals not only get feedback through meetings and surveys, but find out “what is under the surface” with staff and students, Hansen says.

“We need to have open and honest communication, even if it is uncomfortable. Let everyone know we are all on the same team, and we will all make mistakes and have to learn from them,” says David Essink, principal of Hastings Middle School in Nebraska. He established a special advisory team with representatives of various departments that meets weekly. “Teachers know their concerns will be discussed and possible solutions will be reviewed. The members report back to their teams. Leadership is shared this way, and trust is built among teachers and administrators.”

To make such connections with parents, Johnston said he canceled some meetings to allow the staff to send 10 positive postcards home each month. He maintained a list for all staff in a Google document so that different students would be contacted. Kevin Grawer, principal at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis had administrators and staff visit the homes of every student. His school went from nearly being taken over by the state to being recognized “with distinction” for its successes.

In rebuilding a school, some principals have regular (and sometimes creative) structures and opportunities for communications with students, staff, and parents as a way of generating feedback and ideas, while giving participants a feeling they are being heard, which encourages their involvement.

“We hear a lot about relationship building, but I discovered that it’s not the big events that build relationships, it’s the day-to-day little things that make the biggest difference,” Essink says, like a social event or having a short conversation.

He notes that those efforts often will translate into better staff interactions with students, another of his priorities and a key issue in changing a school’s culture. “How a staff member responds to a misbehaving student will pay dividends later if handled with empathy,” Essink says. “Their approach can make a difference on how the rest of the year may go for that student.”

Looking Inward

To foster change, principals also need to think of the role they play and be willing to revise their ideas and their style as they get feedback.

AIR has found that principals often do not have enough support or assistance with efforts beyond traditional tasks or bettering achievement, such as help with new initiatives to improve their schools more broadly. “Principals rarely receive ongoing, job-embedded coaching and problem-solving support based on the instructional needs of their school, which is important,” Chism says. “We do see that districts are also starting to rethink principals’ professional development and are considering moving away from trainings focused mostly on operational or administrative topics to growing the specific leadership needs of each principal.”

Principals should make connections with other administrators whom they can rely on and share concerns and ideas with if they want to promote change, Anderson says. “Build your professional network—being a principal can be a lonely job,” he says. “Find a network you trust where you can commiserate and celebrate together. My principal friends have carried me through tough times, and so many of my ideas are what I learned from them.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Sidebar: ESSA Opportunities

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides funding for school improvement, and Monique Chism, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., and formerly a top Department of Education official, says principals should let the district know of their needs.

ESSA requires state education agencies (SEAs) to set aside 7 percent of the Title I funding that they receive each year to support district and school improvement in struggling schools, she says. She notes that the law requires that state education agencies distribute nearly all of that money, either competitively or by formula, to districts to support schools that “are among the lowest achieving in the state or have consistently underperforming student subgroups” under ESSA.

She recommends that state education agencies establish a framework or criteria they deem essential for supporting school improvement activities. Such a move would help it ensure that only high-quality efforts receive funding and that grants are sufficient.

“The principal should work closely with the district to communicate the priorities and identify needs for the school in order to help secure financial resources to do this work,” Chism says.