When the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sought a way to guide its most underperforming schools through a three-year turnaround process, it recognized the value of making sure that the monitoring required by federal law also provided meaningful feedback to schools and their leaders. ESE turned to SchoolWorks for help developing a process that would give principals and their staffs concrete areas of focus as they sought to turn around their schools.
SchoolWorks consultants had already conducted accountability visits in some of the schools through the company’s ongoing work with the state department. “These schools were about to embark on a very intense three-year journey to turn around their performance,” says Project Manager Gwendolyn Casazza. “They would get a lot of resources, but along with that comes really high stakes and pressure. ESE approached us as a thought partner to design the process for these monitoring site visits.”
Through collaborative conversations over several months, SchoolWorks and ESE developed a protocol for the monitoring site visits. Building on its proven research-based approach to school quality reviews, SchoolWorks added a third day to each site visit during which reviewers met with each school’s leadership team to review the site visit findings and discuss strengths and opportunities for growth. During these working prioritization sessions, emphasis was placed on exploring root causes for the school’s performance and identifying priorities and strategies with the most significant potential to improve that performance in the three-to-six months following the site visit.
“We already had some understanding of what needed to be done, but it was very validating to have a clean set of eyes see it as well,” one school leader said of the monitoring site visit. Another called the facilitated prioritization process “empowering to the school-based team” because “it allows the school team to determine areas of priority as well as next steps.”
In the second year of the three-year turnaround process, many of the 40 schools have seen considerable academic growth. Surveys have shown that school and district leaders have found the working prioritization sessions valuable in focusing the turnaround work on specific objectives.
In the third round of monitoring site visits, SchoolWorks and ESE are again collaborating to ensure that they also provide the information the Department needs to make decisions on whether each school will exit turnaround status. The resulting District Systems of Support Reviews are focused on collecting evidence to determine whether each district has established sustainable systems that will ensure continuing improvement in its lowest performing schools.
“You can feel the stakes get higher as the schools get closer to the milestone of being ready to exit,” Casazza says. “We are collaborating and learning with the Department to make sure the process is responsive and respectful.”