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May 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 8

Book Review

Dramatic turnarounds of low-achieving schools—often achieved through reconstruction, mass firings, or bringing in a high-profile principal—have made headlines recently. But what's a school undergoing high-stakes turnaround like from the inside? What's it like to be an administrator charged with bringing a school back from the brink? And what's it like to teach in a school that changes from a place where—as one teacher in this book puts it— "[you'd see] three people in a class that was supposed to have 27, and two would be asleep" to a place where students wear uniforms and network with corporate executives?
These are the questions journalist Laura Pappano takes on, painting school portraits from her years of observing "adrenaline-charged" school districts in Hartford, Connecticut, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Pappano calls turnaround a new paradigm that's "not about trusting the process but about seeking results.… It is marked not by orderly implementation but by altering a lot at once and being willing to step in and change— and change again" (p. 3).
Part of the new paradigm is who steps in to make this change. In all the schools Pappano profiles, the change agents include a highly involved community as well as good administrators and teachers.
Pappano's perspective is refreshing. She's not advocating a model for U-turn schools. She's interested in recording what pursuing dramatic change looks like on the ground and in the halls. So there are no lists of essential elements or graphics of "change cycles" in this book—just good descriptions of school cultures in flux.

Not Just Better, More

One aspect of turnaround that Pappano notes is that to help chronically failing kids gain traction, schools need to do not just better— better instruction, higher expectations, higher-quality teachers—but more. Specifically, schools need to provide more time in the school day for teenagers to get additional interaction with trained adults, personal monitoring, and planned connections with mainstream institutions (the all-important social capital). The educators she profiles often state that a successful high-poverty school must be like a family. Teachers and volunteers must do for students what parents and neighborhoods once did.
Principal Sharon Johnson—the focus of a chapter called "Suits, Cowboys, and Surrogate Moms" who helped two schools in Cincinnati make deep change—keeps a closetful of clothes and a washer/dryer at Withrow University High School for kids whose families can't provide clothing. She gathers students into single-sex groups to discuss issues like sexuality and dealing with death, topics that in other communities might be addressed in homes.
A chapter on school-community partnerships reveals how tutors from Cincinnati Bell working with Taft Information Technology High School kids go far beyond what tutors usually do. Company representatives look at data showing what parts of the state's achievement test each tutee struggles with and match each student to a particular Bell employee suited to improve those skills. One tutor even came to the delivery room when her student had a baby. Cincinnati Bell's CEO Jack Cassidy gives every student at Taft his cell phone number and tells kids to call him if they're about to make a decision and don't know the right choice. Bell provides Taft students who earn a GPA of 3.3 or higher with a laptop and cell phone and wires their homes for high-speed Internet access.

Young Teachers with a Mission

One of the benefits of reading Pappano's book is learning about innovative models some schools are developing as they try to provide more for struggling kids. At Garfield Middle School in Revere, Massachusetts, community partners even teach classes during an extended school day. Garfield's school day runs from 7:50 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Noncertified educators from Citizen Schools (youthful Americorps volunteers receiving a stipend) teach elective classes the last two hours of each day. They also regularly contact students' parents and attend the same professional meetings as teachers. This arrangement doesn't just allow for more in-school time; Citizen School teachers organize engaging extras like hands-on projects, mock trials, and field trips, which parent volunteers might conduct in richer schools. These activities broaden students' life experiences, providing knowledge and motivation to help close the achievement gap.
So where's the person-power coming from for arrangements like these? Pappano bursts a partially true perception: that no one wants to teach in poor urban schools. She profiles highly educated young people who believe that education can level the playing field for poor children and who aim to do "turnaround"-style urban teaching. These young adults may not want to be classroom teachers for life, and many have a more entrepreneurial and policy-oriented bent to their sense of mission. We meet members of this army in Pappano's chapter on teacher quality. Here's one teacher on the brink of burnout:
She is the picture of smart, edgy, urbane. And she is depleted. "I'm exhausted," she says. "I am almost [at the breaking point]. Every year the well runs dry and I have a summer, but it never goes up to the level where it was before.… Thank God I don't have any children of my own."
As this teacher speaks, a former student who is now at Southern Connecticut State University returns to thank her for helping turn his life around. She rebounds, telling Pappano that teaching is like an addiction for her: "I'm exhausted right now, but I love my job."
The book isn't all about harmonious partnerships. It describes tensions over changes that school redesign guru Christina Kishimoto made in Hartford's many newly designed schools, such as hiring a noncertified restaurant entrepreneur as an administrator for a culinary academy. An interview with the president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers reveals that some teachers feel they were left out of discussions about school reform and that they are being forced to acclimate to change too quickly.
Pappano concludes that we don't yet know what exactly works in turning bad schools around, but that lots of people with passion, smarts, and funding are trying lots of things:
There is a particular vibe around urban school reform not unlike the passion of the organic farming and foodie movement. Only instead of handmade, batch-grown, and slow-made, the quest for results is urgent. Both, however, share an intense care, a dig-in-and-do-it-right ethos, an it's-bigger-than-me sensibility. (p. 22)
The good news is that much of this urgency is creating positive change in places formerly short on hope.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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