By: Katie Duffy

The Lessons of School Transformation

On the day I moved into my new role as CEO of Democracy Prep Public Schools, I heard my daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. As I write this, I am sitting next to my 6-week old son as he sleeps. In the years leading up to this moment, it would be hard to imagine how quickly my world changed.

I share this because I think turnaround happens quite similarly. You name a desire within yourself for something different, and you rally your support system (however small or large) to be in on the initial thinking of what this new life, this new school would be like. You place orders for books and furniture, and in no time, it’s time to welcome wonderful brains with big dreams into your life. The years fly and the days sometimes crawl and then they go off to college. It’s gradual and a groundswell simultaneously.

But the stories of our lives and the stories of school transformation are incredibly singular. More than half of the students in Democracy Prep Public Schools are in our four turnaround schools,. Each one has been slightly different in composition – an elementary in Harlem, a middle school in Camden, an elementary in Washington and a middle and high school in the Bronx. People often ask us to share lessons learned from these endeavors. There were even several serious conversations between our Superintendent and me about writing the turnaround book. However, we only got as far as the title (they were extraordinarily clever!).

The issue with writing the book is that there is no manual for school turnaround; no two turnarounds are the same. The only lesson that I can share is that there will be no way to predict the challenges you will encounter. I can promise there will be at least one humdinger in the fall, and a bunch more throughout the year. The process will test you in ways you didn’t think possible. And much like parenthood, it doesn’t matter all the books you’ve read, what matters are the characteristics that will carry you over every large roadblock and tiny victory.

Flexibility (on inputs, focus on outcomes): Sometimes you may need to change curriculum or change dismissal time. You have to be able to think differently about how to get there, because it won’t be the same as the last time. Do not be committed to the plans you made, only to the promises you made; even when it takes longer than you anticipated, stay focused on the promises.

Resourcefulness: The best people are the ones who can find a way using all of the talent in the community – families, kids, staff, board members, friends, colleagues – to help solve problems. Sometimes the positions that we have initially aren’t our ‘highest competitive advantage’ – maybe your operations manager would be a fantastic technology teacher or your Physics teacher, an amazing operations guru. It is very likely that there are several parents in your school who will teach you more than you will ever teach their child.

Attention to the details (but not all of them at the same time!): As one of my colleagues says “If everything is important, nothing is.” I think the secret is that it all matters, just not right this second. Pick one thing and get it great, then another (but only after the first one is done properly). It’s a grind, but this is how we make change.

Data: In order to know if anything is working, you have to measure constantly and differently. But we also must question all the data – how did we get it, what does it mean, how does it correlate to the other data. Interim assessments are incredibly important, but so are classroom observations and student work. There will be milestones that are meaningful to you and your team that don’t compute with folks outside of the building (did you know that Deon wore his full and complete gym uniform for the first time?!). There will be data that make your teachers think that the hard work isn’t yielding results. Focus on growth, especially when it relates to assessments – the proficiency may lag behind the reality of the growth that kids have made, so analyze it. Tell the story of the growth to your kids, your families, your staff and everyone else.

Ability to be hopeful in the face of people who don’t think there is hope: There are so many who look at schools that are not successful and think that the only option is to close and start over – that the schools are simply too broken to fix. The people who are successful in turnaround are the ones who believe in the long game – the ones who are willing to do the tedious, grinding work of 1% solutions. The paradox of turnaround is that it is both gradual and immediate.

Sense of humor: Remember to laugh – this work is hard and long and incredibly important. At Democracy Prep Public Schools we say that while we take our work seriously, we do not take ourselves seriously


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