A glimpse at a successful school turnaround

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting Columbus Preparatory Academy, a K-8 Mosaica-run
charter school on Columbus’s west side that is a poster child for the
successful turnaround of a troubled school.

In 2008, the school was rated F by the state and student
performance on state assessments was abysmal. Today the school is rated
A+
(aka, Excellent with Distinction) and boasts achievement levels that best
that of nearly all of the area’s top-performing schools (and are leaps and
bounds above the state’s definition of “proficiency”). This transformation was
achieved while the school continued serving a challenged student population – about
72 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and eligible for free or
reduced-price lunch – and retained nearly all of the same teachers and staff
members who were working in the school when it was failing (in a school that
now employs 30 teachers, the principal said just seven or eight teachers have
left during his four-year tenure).

So what are the keys to CPA’s success? Two things
immediately stand out:

Leadership. Principal
Chad Carr (who has led the turnaround since taking over the school four years
ago) is committed to the success of his students, staff, and school like few
others in his field. I don’t say that lightly as I know a lot of absolutely
terrific school leaders, but spend five minutes with Carr and I think most people
would be hard-pressed not to agree that he is in a leadership class with few
others. Early in his tenure at the school he made a series of important changes
that he and the teachers I talked with agree have made a tremendous difference:
eliminating rampant violence in the building; reassigning teachers to roles
better suited for them and providing them with improved professional
development and other support; and taking discipline, parent complaints, and
similar non-instructional work off his teachers’ plates so that they can focus
their full time and effort on teaching.

Use of data and goal setting.
Everyone – from the principal and teachers to kindergartners and classroom
aides – is focused squarely on raising student achievement. Every child in the
building knows the school’s goal for its Performance Index score this year (the
PI Score is an Ohio calculation that reflects overall student achievement on
the state’s exams and doesn’t include value-added measures or AYP), and there
are visual reminders throughout the building of this goal and where individual students
are on their path toward meeting it. Teachers use data daily to drive
instructional decisions and measure progress toward long-term goals, and staff
use testing and data to inspire, challenge, and boost the confidence of their
students.

These certainly aren’t “secrets” to success. They are common
themes in most all successful schools and especially among successful
turnarounds (and were common among the high-performing urban schools we
featured in 2010’s Needles
in a Haystack
report). But as rare as successful turnarounds are, they
are worth repeating and sharing.

We’ll keep an eye on Columbus Prep’s performance and report
back when this year’s results are released come summer. Everyone involved with the
school expects them to be outstanding. The principal pointed out that CPA’s
third graders are the first cohort to have come up since kindergarten under the
turnaround. Those students haven’t yet taken a state assessment, and he sees only
excellence to come when they finally get a crack at them.

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