When Ted Husted became the principal of Public School 85 in the Tremont section of the Bronx, one of the poorest communities in America, he knew that turning around the chronically failing school was going to take more than just creative restructuring of the school’s administrative and teaching staff. Only 40 percent of its students were reading at grade level and student behavior was completely out of control.
Although the leadership at PS 85 had consistently attempted to implement school programs to address learning styles, curriculum, and lesson planning, student reading scores remained static, and classroom disruptions from poor student behavior continued to increase. Husted believed that without addressing the social needs of his struggling, low-income students in partnership with their learning needs, PS 85 could not establish the environment necessary for students or teachers to make educational improvements.
Husted worked with his school community and initiated programs to engage students, including partnering with Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit that works to transform some of the highest-poverty, lowest-performing public schools in the country by addressing critical social, emotional and academic issues that affect students and their families. In just one year, student reading scores at PS 85 improved by 13 points, bringing 49 percent of students up to state standards. The number of student being suspended also dramatically decreased. The school still has a long way to go but it is on the right track.
Breaking the Cycle of Failure
PS 85's story is not unique. Based on the No Child Left Behind Act's standards, nearly five percent of all public schools qualify for significant school, administrative, and staff reforms for failing to meet academic standards for five consecutive years. Moreover, nearly all affected students at these schools are low-income minorities. Research has shown that children living in poverty face heightened individual, family and environmental risk factors that often translate into academic and behavioral problems at school. These issues impact not only each child's learning but also the culture of the whole school. Unfortunately, the schools serving these children have neither the capacity nor the strategies to address their barriers to learning. Consequently, these schools cease to function as teaching and learning environments, further exacerbating the achievement gap.
While many organizations attempt to break the cycle of failing schools by implementing stand-alone interventions, Turnaround engages in three-to-five-year partnerships with high-poverty, underperforming schools that build sustainable systems for academic and behavioral improvement. These partnerships develop a school's capacity to address its students’ social, emotional, and academic needs, ultimately creating sustainable environments for effective teaching and learning.
Partnerships to Improve Performance
Turnaround for Children accomplishes its mission by deploying an education coach, instructional coach, and social work consultant to a partner school, which must have a committed principal and a school-based social worker. During the partnership, Turnaround's team works with the principal and staff to:
- Establish school-based teams that identify and address the behavioral, mental health, and instructional needs of high- and moderate-risk students, who typically make up 5 to 20 percent of the school student population;
- Develop services for at-risk students by creating relationships with community mental health organizations;
- Train teachers and administrators in classroom management, effective behavioral intervention, family engagement, and social-emotional learning strategies.
Over time, Turnaround's work enables school leaders to run a safer, calmer school with a culture that promotes effective teaching and learning. Because it embeds these systems in the school, reforms become self-sufficient and Turnaround can systematically disengage from the school after three to five years.
Founded in 2003 by Dr. Pamela Cantor, a child psychiatrist, Turnaround has built a promising evidence base of success, demonstrating significant student improvement rates in mathematics and language arts. Additional positive changes resulting from Turnaround's program include significantly decreased police-reported incidences, suspensions, and teacher turnover.
As Turnaround prepares to expand its program to new schools and districts, the organization is increasing its capacity to collect data in an effort to continually build evidence that supports the link between a school's capacity to address the social and emotional needs of students and student achievement.