The Curry Bookshelf: Leadership for Low-Performing Schools

In this series, we interview a Curry faculty member about their latest book.

Leadership for Low-Performing Schools
Daniel L. Duke
Published January 15, 2015
Rowan & Littlefield Publishers

Dan_Duke_220.jpgLeadership for Low-Performing Schools pulls together decades of Daniel Duke’s work and the work of others engaged in preparing educators to turn around chronically low-performing schools.  For Duke, this work began with the development of the Darden-Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education and its School Turnaround Specialist Program. Subsequently, Duke has helped to design and launch the Texas Turnaround Leadership Academy, the Florida Turnaround Leaders Program, and the South Carolina Turnaround Leaders Program.

What is the central message of the book?

The central message of the book is that low-performing schools can be turned around, but not without focus, continuous planning, and a commitment to honest inquiry into the symptoms and causes of low achievement.

The book begins by examining some of the attributes needed to be a turnaround leader.  Then it provides a step-by-step examination of the turnaround process, from the diagnosis of the conditions holding down achievement to the building of confidence and momentum to scoring early victories and finally to sustaining success beyond the first year or two. The last chapter looks at the role of the district office in supporting school turnarounds.  I showcase what Deborah Jewell-Sherman was able to accomplish in Richmond, Virginia (another inspiring story).

For whom was this book written?

Based on my work, I designed a course required for students seeking administrative endorsement at the Curry School of Education entitled Leadership for Low-performing Schools.  I initially wrote the book for my students, but it is appropriate for any individual seeking to lead the school turnaround process, as well as central office administrators and policy makers.

Why is there a need for this message?

The book is timely because some observers have given up on efforts to improve low-performing schools.  Their answer is to close these schools and promote charter schools.  Such “answers” are simplistic and ignore the wishes of the communities in which low-performing schools are located.

Leadership for Low Performing Schools
Can you share a particularly meaningful example of a principal leading a turnaround in a school?

Perhaps the most inspiring case involves South Hills High School in Fort Worth, Texas, led by Nancy Weisskopf.

It is impossible to turn around a low-performing school without the expertise and active involvement of the faculty.  Leaders attract lots of attention and capture the headlines, but no principal or “school turnaround specialist” can singlehandedly reverse a school’s downward slide, nor can a superintendent or team of central office specialists. Hiring capable and committed educators, Weisskopf knew, was just the first step toward turnaround. 

After assembling a group of veterans & newcomers, Weisskopf and her team spent 3 days together planning for the upcoming year.

Weisskopf’s plans for turning around South Hills depended a great deal on getting students to buy into the process.  Student input became an important part of the planning process at South Hills and focused on increasing school pride, the creation of a student leadership team, and improving the tutoring sessions offered for students.

Much of school turnaround planning at South Hills centered on developing opportunities for teachers to collaborate on instructional improvement and interventions to assist struggling students.

In addition, special attention was paid to incoming 9th graders, including, among other things, Freshman Camp; the three-day summer program for rising ninth graders was designed to instill a sense of “Scorpion Pride” in newcomers and teach them the “basics” of high school survival.

Weisskopf also hired Gerry Magin, who was recruited specifically to work with students who were falling behind in their coursework.

All the careful planning and hard work that Weisskopf and her colleagues had invested in turning around South Hills paid off.  By the end of the year, disciplinary incidents had dropped from 4,720 the year before to 1,752.  The dropout rate shrank from 28.3 percent to 18.0 percent.  Instead of missing 12 out of 21 state standards, South Hills hit all 21 Texas benchmarks.  Best of all, the community’s pride in the high school had been restored.