Sunday, January 3, 2016

AV#106 - Principals and succession plans in low-performing schools

Dec. 19, 2013

After that terrific school leader leaves, who will follow?
President Barack Obama apologized for a promise that we could keep our health plans.  What he said three years ago about a Denver school requires no apology, but we should take note of the contrast between the hope of change then, and the reality now.  It reminds us how critical it is that we address leadership in our most troubled schools.

It was in his State of the Union address (Jan. 25, 2011) that he first praised a Colorado turnaround.

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver.  Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado–located on turf between two rival gangs.  But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma.  Most will be the first in their families to go to college.  And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said, ‘Thank you, Ms. Waters, for showing that we are smart and we can make it.’  (Applause.) That’s what good schools can do, and we want good schools all across the country.
Later that winter he pointed to Denver again as an example for what could be:

Now, the good news is we know what works.  We can see it in schools and communities across the country every day.  We see it in a place like Bruce Randolph School in Denver.
(Miami Central High School, Miami, Florida – March 4, 2011).

Sadly, more hope than change. This past April the Colorado Department of Education listed 20 of the state’s lowest-performing schools eligible for the School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.  (See details on criteria for selection.[1])  The middle school at Bruce Randolph was on the list; last summer it was chosen as one of four low-performing Colorado schools to receive a substantial three-year grant[2] to pursue its “Transformation” (one of four models allowed by the SIG funds). The rating for the 6-12 school (see next page) has fallen to “Accredited on Priority Watch.”
from The NonProfit Leadership Transition and Development Guide, by Tom Adams
 “Planning for a leadership transition is not a one-time event, but an ongoing practice focused on defining an organization’s strategic vision, identifying the leadership skills necessary to carry out that vision, and recruiting talented individuals who have or who can develop those skills.”

After reviewing Bruce Randolph’s SIG application, CDE requested more information about several “components of the model,” including: “Leadership: Hiring competencies for the middle school leader and the process through which the new leader will be identified.”
It is a crucial question—perhaps for as many as 50 of the state’s lowest-performing schools that will require dramatic intervention as implementation of the Education Accountability Act (SB 163-2009) moves forward the next two years.  Who becomes the school leader? Based on what criteria? And—perhaps one more key question—what will be put in place to see that, after an effective leader moves on, he or she is replaced by someone who can continue to move the school forward?

Why is succession so important?  Bruce Randolph, a 6-12 school, is one example.  Manual High, also the focus of national attention (The New Yorker, Jan. 15, 2007), is another.  Kristin Waters left Bruce Randolph in the spring of 2009; Rob Stein left Manual a year later.  Most everyone who noted their accomplishments admired their courage and exceptional leadership. But what has happened since? Yes, the graduation rate remained high in 2012 at Bruce Randolph (85%) and was well above the district average at Manual (76%).  (2013 figures not yet available.) But Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF) shows that, overall, both schools are headed in the wrong direction.

Ratings decline at two DPS high schools over five years - ratings and percentage of earned points on SPF[3]

Bruce Randolph 6-12
Accredited on Watch
Accredited on Watch
Accredited on Watch
Accredited on Priority Watch
Accredited on Priority Watch
Manual High
Accredited on Watch
Accredited on Watch
Accredited on Watch
Accredited on Watch
Accredited On Probation

The Denver Summit Schools network in the Far Northeast has partnered with the Blueprint Schools Network.  Blueprint is clear about the importance of an effective school leader.  It has developed five principles or tenets. 
“The (first of these) five strategies, which each demonstrate a significant correlation with increased student achievement when enacted as part of a comprehensive plan for school turnaround, (is): ‘excellence in leadership and instruction.’”

But as the changes in several Far Northeast schools, below, indicate, easier said than done.

It is all-too familiar. The exceptional principal leads a troubled school in a positive direction, the consensus emerges that the school has turned a corner, but not long after he or she leaves, new roadblocks appear, progress stalls…. Each school is different, and yet the pattern that follows… lower scores, lower school ratings, lower morale … is much the same.  Soon there are new calls for the school to be restructured. Again! … A vicious cycle.           
At a panel discussion in November on school turnarounds, held at the University of Colorado at Denver’s School of Public Affairs, Van Schoales, CEO at A Plus Denver, addressed the issue. “We know how to create a bump” in student achievement, he observed; “we don’t know how to sustain it.”  In its 2012 report, Colorado Turnaround Schools- Rays of Hope, A Plus Denver raised the issue; for its 2013 report, three districts were asked about their selection of leaders well-suited for turnaround efforts. (See Addendum A.)

Speaking of difficult schools: consider the principal turnover at several low-performing Denver and Pueblo schools receiving SIG funds for turnaround work.  As federal requirements for schools using either the Turnaround or Transformation model call for the principal to be replaced, one change is to be expected.  But the evidence of the past three years shows that the individuals first hired to lead Colorado’s turnaround schools were often not there year two.  How difficult it must be to see a second or even a third new principal – see DCIS at Ford and Collegiate Prep, below—after major changes have begun.
Denver Public Schools

Trevista K-8
Veronica Benavidez
(principal 2008-2012)
Ladawn Baity*
Ladawn Baity
CMS – Schenck Elementary
Kristin Nelson-Steinhoff
Alejandra Sotiros
Alejandra Sotiros
DCIS at Ford
Maria Elena Thomas
 (1 month – hired 2010)
Ligia Gibson – gr k-2
Ligia Gibson
Ginger Conroy
Ford Elementary (phase out)
Mariellen Hoffman –
gr 3-5
Smith Renaissance
Jason Krause (hired 2010)
Jason Krause
Jason Krause
West High (phase out)
Santiago Grado–for 6 weeks; rest of year -
Dominic Martinez
Dominic Martinez
Ruth Baldivia

New schools, new principals

School opened in
Collegiate Prep
Karen Alexander
Karen Alexander (through Dec 2012)
Gwen Henderson Gethers (interim)
Darryl Bonds
Noel Community Arts
Stacy Miller
Stacy Miller
Stacy Miller
West Generations Academy
Not opened yet
Robert Villarreal
Domonic Martinez
West Leadership Academy
Not opened yet
Teresa Klava
Teresa Klava
 *When the name is in italics, it means it was the first year for this principal at this school.

Pueblo City Schools

In Pueblo, new principals came in at all five schools following their designation as schools receiving School Improvement Grants implementing either the Turnaround or the Transformation model. 

Only one school, though, has had the same leader since the changes made in 2010—Charlotte Macaluso at Risley Middle.  Michelle Mann stayed three years at Freed Middle, but a new principal began the current school year, 2013-14.  Three new principals appointed that first year (2010-11) were not there year two.  _____________________________________________________________________________________

Central High
Fred Trujillo
Matt Lane
Ruth Taravella
Theresa Seifert
Theresa Seifert
Freed Middle/Heroes Middle School*
Rob Finkle
Michelle Mann
Michelle Mann
Michelle Mann
Phil Compton
Risley Middle
Gerald Flores
Charlotte Macaluso
Charlotte Macaluso
Charlotte Macaluso
Charlotte Macaluso
Roncalli Middle*
Brad Farbo
Cheryl Madrill
Karen Newton
Michael Kovac
Lynn McCarty
Pitts Middle/Pueblo Academy of the Arts
Alan Berry
John McCleary
Karen Ortiz
Karen Ortiz
Karen Ortiz
*CDE did not award these schools the third year of SIG funding (2012-13) due to concerns about unsatisfactory progress in years one and two.  Last week, on the 2013 SPF, Freed and Roncalli were again put on a “Turnaround Plan”—the fourth straight year for Freed, the third in a row for Roncalli.

What have we learned—and from where can we learn?

No one would underestimate the challenge of leading a low-performing school in need of major change. But going forward, districts and school communities should have a clear set of expectations of the skills and qualities of those hired to lead such hard work.  It is critical to search for and select these school leaders with great care, and then support them in every possible way.  Constant turnover in the leadership of a turnaround school makes an already huge task that much more difficult. 

Fortunately, we now have a better understanding of the qualities and the right conditions for effective leadership in these troubled schools.  I point here to several reports to help our school districts address the issue of leadership, succession, and continuity, and close with excerpts from these studies.  We can learn to do this better. We must, if we are to avoid the troubling pattern: at first “a bump,” signs of progress—but when the exceptional leader moves on, the school itself, sadly, moves backwards.

1.   In the mid-1990’s I played a small role in bringing together the Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS) and the Colorado League of Charter Schools.  The two organizations were serving schools with similar priorities, such as effective board governance and leadership. As we look for examples of careful succession planning, we should be open to lessons learned from private schools—which have dealt with this issue for 200 years.  A common focus for meetings of independent school trustees includes workshops such as this recent one, “Succession and Transition Planning:  When Your Head Leaves,” offered by the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (Nov. 2013).
In that same vein, at last month’s discussion on turnaround schools at the UC-Denver, Van Schoales noted that one key advantage for charter schools in terms of succession is that they have their own board, a group of individuals who carry a degree of “ownership” for the school and its mission.  It means five to seven men and women profoundly connected to the school and its well-being—not officials at the district office less invested in this one school and its students—have a duty to ensure that it moves forward as smoothly as possible when the principal departs.  Here are two reports with lessons learned from the charter school world.

“In November, we surveyed CMO leaders and board members. Nearly 9 in 10 said they have a strategic plan for their organization; about 8 in 10 said succession planning is either important or a high priority; but only 1 in 4 said they have strategic plans that deal with top leadership succession.” FlashSuccession/CMO%20Succession%20Planning%20Report.pdf
a.       You’re Leaving? – Succession and Sustainability in Charter Schools – by Christine Campbell
Seventy-one percent of charter school leaders surveyed for this study say they expect to leave their schools within five years. For the nation’s 5,000 charter schools, this raises important questions. Who will be ready to take over? How will the school maintain its instructional program and culture from leader to leader? How does a school survive founder transitions? Where will new leaders come from and how can they be ready to lead existing schools? [All bold mine]
CRPE’s research finds that many charter schools are unprepared when it comes to leadership turnover. ... Though hundreds of new charter schools open every year, some of the earliest schools are now approaching twenty years old, and issues associated with start-up and implementation should be giving way to best practices and standards of operation. One of these best practices is long-term planning for the school, especially leadership succession.
Charter schools, like every other organization, need to prepare for leadership turnover. Unlike traditional public schools, however, they may have no ready source of leaders waiting in the wings. They also have very specific roles to fill. Many charter schools are still ramping up, trying to get stable facilities and funding, keeping an eye on test scores and figuring out how best to educate their students, all of which distracts school leaders from future planning, relegating it to an afterthought.
Schools succeed or fail based largely on who is leading the organization. This study found that charter school leadership regularly turns over, but the leaders themselves are often too mired in everyday demands to put strategic and leadership planning on the agenda. Charter school governing boards often take a backseat role on this issue, and authorizers have also ignored it, playing a hands-off role once schools are given the green light to operate.  (Inside Charter Schools, Nov. 2010; The National Charter School Research Project; Center on Reinventing Public Education; University of Washington.)

Succession Planning in Charter Management Organizations – Sustaining the Future for     Charter Schools and Their Students (Jan. 2012)
Who Will Take Your Place? by Don Shalvey, Deputy Education Director, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the head of Aspire Public Charter Schools in California for nine years
…  what this work is really about is planning for the sustained future of organizations that are successfully educating hundreds of thousands of students across the nation—sustainability planning…. I wish I had such a report long before I considered leaving Aspire Public Charter Schools…. We did a pretty good job in the transition to new leadership, but the planning and my execution of it could have been better. And what I know from both personal experience and these research findings is that too few charter management organizations have given anywhere enough thought to sustaining their work when—not if—their founders leave.
I also understand why. When you are running a CMO or leading its board, there are plenty of immediate and urgent issues to deal with. It is easy to put succession planning in the pile of important things to do later. And it is also simply a difficult subject to talk about inside an organization accompanied by a feeling that it almost can create bad luck by starting the conversation.
2.    from Successful principals speak out, Mass Insight Education, Turnaround Brief, March 2012
Building and sustaining capacity for the long term - Who’ll carry on after I’m gone?
Principals recognize that sustaining achievement gains is critical to realizing turnaround at scale. While a successful turnaround can lead to dramatic improvement in the first three years, these gains often prove fleeting if planning is insufficient and underlying supports are removed too soon. Even long-range plans are often disregarded….
The tenures of turnaround principals are generally short, so it makes sense to plan for succession. Lead Partners can facilitate deliberate efforts to plan for leadership succession and set the rules for schools exiting turnaround status to help avoid destabilizing a fragile school culture. While succession planning can be risky if prematurely publicized, formal measures such as appointing a successor early on to shadow the outgoing school leader smooths the process, principals say.
3.   “Effective Leadership in School Turnarounds–What Have We Learned?”  Addendum B.   A useful summary of the qualities of and the best conditions for effective leadership in turnaround schools.

Addendum A

A Plus Denver asks three districts about school leadership at their turnaround schools

In its 2012 report on Colorado’s Turnaround Schools–Rays of Hope, A Plus Denver made six recommendations for school districts, including one on School Leadership:
Countless studies and results from past turnaround efforts point to the importance of the school principal. Districts should be prepared to put off any turnaround effort until the right school leader is in place. Districts also need to be prepared to replace leaders quickly if the school shows no signs of progress. When possible, districts should prioritize candidates for principal who demonstrate not only experience in leadership for school turnaround but also familiarity with the school’s surrounding community and population.
This past fall A Plus Denver asked three districts with the largest number of turnaround schools for their response to these recommendations.  I include part of their response on the leadership question here.[4]

Denver Public Schools

“During the 2012-13 school year we replaced five of the leaders at our turnaround schools. We provide intensive, ongoing support and coaching to every one of our turnaround leaders. However, if we do not see evidence that the school is moving rapidly to close academic achievement gaps and improve student learning, we work quickly to make the necessary changes.

“When hiring new leaders for each of our turnaround schools, we leveraged DPS’s existing principal pipeline program, LEAD in Denver, to identify high quality candidates. We augmented LEAD in Denver’s rigorous selection criteria, adding turnaround specific competencies that we had identified from both practice and in research. These criteria were then applied to all candidates throughout the selection process, helping us to choose strong, experienced leaders to serve as the new principals at each school.”

Pueblo 60

“All principals were replaced at the beginning of the Tiered Intervention Grant implementation. Guidelines for hiring turnaround leaders from Mass Insight were used in the national recruitment effort in hiring all principals. Of the schools that began the Tiered Intervention Grant program, 2 have been reorganized in some manner which necessitated new principals being hired.”

Westminster 50

“The importance of having an effective leader cannot be understated when facing the many challenges currently experienced in a highly impacted school. The district has ensured and continues to monitor that an effective leader is at the helm and it has taken the necessary steps when this was not the case. District 50 has made it a priority to ensure that the right leaders are in place to provide expertise in our struggling schools.…  Of the seven schools that were identified as ‘Turnaround’ in 2009-10, five of them now have new principals.  The two other schools have now moved to ‘Improvement’ status.”

Addendum B - “Turnaround competencies” of principals

The University of Virginia’s Partnership for Leadership has produced a number of studies on turnaround schools. One report, “Leading Indicators of School Turnarounds,” written by Julie Kowal and Joe Ableidinger, included this list of the “turnaround competencies” of principals who are successful in their turnaround work:

•  Driving for results — the leader’s strong desire to achieve outstanding results and the task-oriented
actions required for success.
•  Influencing for results — motivating others and influencing their thinking and behavior to obtain
results. Turnaround leaders cannot accomplish change alone, but instead must rely on the work
of others.
•  Engaging in problem solving — including analysis of data to inform decisions; making clear, logical
plans that people can follow; and ensuring a strong connection between school learning goals and classroom activity.
•  Showing confidence to lead — staying visibly focused, committed, and self-assured despite the barrage of personal and professional attacks common during turnarounds.

The report also includes the “specific turnaround actions” these leaders take:
•  Focusing on a limited set of high-priority short term goals
•  Signaling the magnitude and urgency of dramatic change
•  Discarding failed rules and routines and deploying new tactics for early wins
•  Releasing or redeploying staff not fully committed to the turnaround; bringing in new staff who can
help organize and drive change
•  Influencing stakeholders to support turnaround actions
•  Quickly trying new tactics and discarding failed ones, investing in what works
•  Driving decisions by openly reporting staff results and sharing results in open-air sessions

[1] “The eligible schools were identified as either Title I Schools that are low performing and/or have a low graduation rate OR Title I Eligible High Schools with low graduation rates.”
[2] $1,399,800 to Bruce Randolph; $2,377,157 to Aurora Central High; $1,097,854 to Lester Arnold High in Adams 14; and $1,607,508 to Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.
[3] On the state’s School Performance Framework, both schools were rated on “Improvement” in 2011. Here, too, ratings have fallen. Last week the state released its 2013 SPF, placing Bruce Randolph in the second lowest category, “Priority Improvement,” and Manual in the lowest category, “Turnaround.”
[4] Used with permission of A Plus Denver.

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