"Schoolworks has been a thoughtful and collaborative lead partner.  Together, we have created a much better environment for students in the first year of turnaround, as reflected in improved attendance and a drastic reduction in discipline incidents. I value our work together."
- Dr. Stephen Zrike, Jr. Receiver Superintendent, Holyoke Public Schools

When Holyoke Public Schools was identified as one of the state’s lowest performing districts, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education appointed a receiver superintendent to oversee the turnaround process. The receiver superintendent, in turn, hired SchoolWorks to serve as the lead partner at the Peck Community School, a school that fell at the lowest 1 percent of performance in the state. SchoolWorks was charged with assessing the school’s areas of strength and need, and providing leadership coaching and instructional supports to immediately impact student learning.

The Challenge

SchoolWorks was hired at the very end of August prior to the start of the school year. SchoolWorks immediately staffed the project with two of its senior project managers (along with other coaches) who spent 4-5 days per week observing school practices and procedures, observing classroom instruction and meeting with school leaders and teachers. It was soon evident that issues with the master schedule and with student behaviors interfered with maximizing learning time for students. In addition, the school’s Therapeutic Intervention Program (TIP) had come under scrutiny for practices that were injurious to students.

The Process

In order to diagnose areas that were contributing to Peck’s poor performance, SchoolWorks took several initial steps. First, we shadowed the principal to identify leadership style, strengths and weaknesses. This included observations of the principal’s interactions throughout the school, as well the principal’s meetings with teachers. Second, we conducted co-observations of classroom instruction with the administrative team to calibrate expectations on the characteristics of effective instruction and to collectively provide feedback to teachers.

Then, SchoolWorks assigned a team of consultants, including experts in English language learning and special education, to lead a school quality review (SQR). The SQR entailed conducting focus groups with staff and leadership, observing classroom instruction using the SchoolWorks Classroom Visit Instrument (a research-based tool), and reviewing documents that described the school’s practices and policies. Based on this evidence, the team generated an overview of school’s strengths and areas of need. The site visit team, senior project managers and Peck’s leadership team then engaged in a prioritization session to identify the key areas to leverage for improvement (culture and climate, and classroom instruction), and to begin the process of action planning.

By the end of September, SchoolWorks had worked collaboratively with the Peck Community School to create a tight, actionable plan for school improvement. To address needs with school culture and climate, we initiated several changes: developed a safety communication plan, reviewed and revised the consequence ladder for general education and TIP students, streamlined procedures for student entry and dismissal, tightened up attendance monitoring, and changed the master schedule to promote student accountability during transitions between classes. To begin the process of improving classroom instruction, SchoolWorks developed an Instructional Guide that clearly articulated expectations for well-structured lessons, and instructional design and delivery to promote student engagement and ownership of learning. In order to support teachers in the implementation of these practices, SchoolWorks drew on additional specialist consultants to design and deliver a series of professional development sessions that focused on targeted instructional shifts in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. A review of survey results conducted after each professional development session indicated that teachers felt very positively about their experience. For instance, on an evaluation of a session related to instructional practices that supported ELA Common Core State Standards, 59% of teachers rated the usefulness of information as being “to a great extent” and an additional 41% rated the usefulness as strong. Relatedly, SchoolWorks worked with the school to reclaim teachers’ common planning time three times weekly; this time was then used to focus on effective instructional practices, review test data to inform instruction, and attend to the needs of at-risk students.

SchoolWorks conducted leadership coaching with the principal and other members of the leadership team. Through this coaching, we assisted in the development of clearer administrative meeting agendas that incorporated accountability and calendars for completion of tasks. We met on a weekly basis with the principal to discuss the status of the school and next leadership moves. Coaching focused on debriefing with school leaders on their abilities to provide teachers with bite-sized actionable feedback rooted in evidence. Administrative team classroom walkthroughs were introduced to gather evidence throughout the year on classroom culture and strong instructional practices. This data was reported to staff and used to plan professional development sessions throughout the year. Further, when changes in leadership took place mid-year, SchoolWorks provided coaching to new and interim leaders that focused on strengthening knowledge and skills to provide instructional support. SchoolWorks also responded quickly when there was a need to provide coverage for the interim principal for three weeks. “One of the reasons our partnership with the Peck School was so successful is that we were very adaptable to the needs that arose,” shares Tom Pandiscio, a SchoolWorks Senior Project Manager. SchoolWorks also guided the school through reassignments of staff, as well as the hiring and onboarding of new personnel.

SchoolWorks facilitated meetings between a private, outside organization (hired to redesign and staff the TIP), the special education director, and Peck staff to clarify roles and expectations for TIP staff and to build the capacity of staff to implement more proactive strategies and therapeutic interventions, and to raise academic expectations for TIP students.

The Results

One of the most immediate results from the Peck Community School’s partnership with SchoolWorks was a significant improvement in student behavior. Through establishing better routines and procedures, and being explicit about behavioral expectations, students responded positively to this change in culture and climate. By October, students were generally in attendance in their classes and hallways were relatively quiet, “a marked improvement over previous weeks,” states Tom Pandiscio. Attendance at the school is up more than 5% and discipline incidents have been reduced by half. Anne Lane, SchoolWorks’ Director of District and School Improvement Services, notes “Teachers thanked SchoolWorks for their help in this area.” Further, results from administrative team classroom walkthroughs show positive trends in the extent to which teachers are incorporating elements from the Instructional Guide into their daily practice. One of the early successes and quick fixes, according to Anne Lane, is that teachers quickly began to write and share learning objectives that made sense to kids.

“Schoolworks has been a thoughtful and collaborative lead partner. Their initial quality review and planning helped identify the priorities for improvement at the Peck Community School and created focused initiatives. Their leadership coaching and professional development have been impactful. Together, we have created a much better environment for students in the first year of turnaround, as reflected in improved attendance and a drastic reduction in discipline incidents. I value our work together,” states Dr. Stephen Zrike, Jr. Receiver Superintendent, Holyoke Public Schools.

As a result of the successful engagement with the Peck Community School in 2015-2016, SchoolWorks was asked to extend its lead partner work by offering a turnaround educational option for students in grades six and seven. Starting in the fall of 2016, SchoolWorks will run the middle school Personal Pathway Program (P3) to be located at Peck. With spots for 100 students, P3 received applications from over 125 students in the greater Holyoke area. Tom Pandiscio, who will be managing the implementation of the P3 program, notes “We showed ourselves to be adaptable and flexible. We have people with a lot of experience in running schools. We inspired confidence with the receiver who frequently commented that he felt comfortable when he knew that Anne and I were at the school.” The P3 program will provide each student with one-to-one computer access based upon a model that was developed by the Summit Public Schools, a national network of schools dedicated to individualizing the educational experience for each child. The model focuses on four important components to prepare students for success in school and beyond. Those components include: personalized learning time, project-based learning, development of habits of success through individual mentoring, and enrichment to explore learning beyond academics. For more information on this lead partner program, contact Tom Pandiscio tpandiscio@schoolworks.org or Ledyard McFadden, SchoolWorks Managing Partner at lmcfadden@schoolworks.org.