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Neerav Kingsland: School transformation is the cure for school closure, nuts and bolts edition

In a previous post, I argued that (1) school closure is driven by under-enrollment; (2) under-enrollment is caused by poor performance and demographic change; and (3) closures caused by poor performance can be avoided by transforming schools at the first sign of failure.

I believe that the best method of transformation is to change the governance of the school – so that the previous governing entity, be it district or charter, is replaced by a new charter operator. In this post, I’ll explain how we execute such transformations in New Orleans.

How to transform schools: The New Orleans model

When we transform schools in New Orleans, we use one of three options:

1. Full school turnaround: Under this model – the least disruptive model of transformation – all the students have the option to re-enroll at the school; only management changes. Unfortunately, this model has the lowest track record of success, as it is very difficult for the new management team to recruit dozens of effective educators, quickly remediate hundreds of students, and re-set a school culture. But there are promising signs that this model can in fact work – and our organization is currently funding multiple full turnaround efforts.

2. Phase out: With this model, the new charter operator assumes control of a portion of the school, while another entity (usually the district) manages the outgoing grades. This model prevents student displacement, but suffers from creating two different school environments (often of unequal performance) in the same building, which raises serious equity concerns.

3. Fresh start: The fresh start model involves the full disbanding of the school, with nearly all students being displaced. This model is the most disruptive to the community; new schools are rebuilt one grade at a time and often take years to get to full enrollment. However, this model has the highest track record of success. To ameliorate the equity issues posed by this model, New Orleans has begun to give enrollment preference at the city’s best schools to any student displaced by failing schools. Our goal is for every student who leaves a failing school to enroll in a higher-performing institution.

The tension between performance and equity – and the realities of supply

How a city chooses to transform schools will likely be driven by performance, equity and supply. The tension between performance and equity is very real. On one hand, annually displacing thousands of children from local buildings in order to open fresh start schools strains communities and even family relationships. On the other hand, relying solely on full-turnarounds risks delivering less than excellence to students who are in many cases already multiple grade levels behind.

In many instances, the tension will be resolved not by debate but by school operator supply – most cities that rely heavily on school transformation will quickly find that the current supply of operators requires educational leaders to support the growth of all high-quality operators, regardless of their model.

Other cities: School Transformation and the Iron Laws of Portfolio

There are now over thirty portfolio school districts across the country – theoretically provider-agnostic districts where, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education: “effective schools are replicated, struggling schools receive strong support, and chronically low-performing schools are closed.”

I’m encouraged that districts across the country are moving toward portfolio models. My worry, however, is that we’ll see a lot of “portfolio light.”

How do we avoid that? By following what I’ll call the Iron Laws of Portfolio, which are designed to augment CRPE’s great list of seven principles. In my mind these laws differentiate weak and aggressive portfolio strategies.

1. Transformation = governance change: Allowing the same governance entity to turn around the school it originally failed risks repeat poor performance. In a Relinquishment system (which is how I characterize the New Orleans’ approach), a new governance entity (usually a new charter operator) – transforms the existing school.

2. There is no delay: How many school systems in this country can state that every year they transform every eligible failing school? Perhaps none but New Orleans. First, few cities have strong enough accountability systems to clearly define eligibility for transformation. Second, even amongst those that do, few have the courage to take action every time.

3. Equity through unified enrollment: New Orleans has yet to perfect this – but equity concerns raised by school transformation should be solved by a unified enrollment system. Displaced students should get enrollment preference at high-performing schools; expulsion policies should ensure that students with disciplinary problems are not simply warehoused in failing schools that continue to turn over. Taken together, the enrollment and expulsion policies should guarantee that high-performing schools do not achieve their results via student selection effects.

Transformation is not easy, but the risk of less dramatic action is continued failure. Systemwide improvement depends on aggressive and equitable school transformation strategies. If this occurs, we will be able to reduce school closures, increase the number of excellent school operators, and serve families at higher levels.

Neerav Kingsland is CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. As CEO, Neerav manages the organization toward achieving its goals in the areas of citywide strategic leadership, school development, and human capital. In previous writings, he has advocated that charter school districts replace the traditional urban school system structure. 

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