The Washington Post

Turning around a school: The right principal is the key

There’s no set formula for the notoriously difficult task of turning around a failing school. But if you find the right principal and give him or her enough resources and freedom, you might be on your way.

The pace of improvement at DCPS schools has generally been painfully slow, but a few have seen significant gains in proficiency in recent years while continuing to serve high-poverty populations. One of those is Wheatley Education Campus in Trinidad, where proficiency rates have more than doubled since 2008. Is there a way to replicate that success?

When Scott Cartland took over as principal of the pre-K-8 campus six years ago, he was in for a shock. He had spent the previous seven years as an administrator at two high-performing elementary schools in Upper Northwest. Wheatley — or, as it was then known, Webb-Wheatley was something else entirely.

“I felt like we walked into total chaos,” he says. “The culture was just so negative and dysfunctional.”

In a way, Cartland was lucky: The school’s performance had been so poor that it was being reconstituted under the federal No Child Left Behind law. That meant Cartland was free to replace the staff, and he ended up keeping only four or five teachers out of about 30.

But that had its disadvantages as well. With so many new teachers, “the kids don’t know anybody,” he says, and “relationships are important.”

Proficiency rates — the usual measure of a school’s success — barely budged for the first several years. But the past two years have seen a marked increase. The 2013 rates were 37 percent in math and 31 percent in reading. That may not sound impressive, but consider that in 2009 they were 13 percent in both subjects.

[Continue reading Natalie Wexler’s post at Greater Greater Education.]

Natalie Wexler is the editor of Greater Greater Education and a member of the board of the D.C. Scholars Public Charter School. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

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