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Evansville Schools Attempt Historic Turnaround

Claire McInerny
Indiana Public Broadcasting

Glenwood Leadership Academy’s statistics are bleak: 96-percent of students qualify for free/reduced price lunch. Only 29-percent passed both the English Language Arts and Math sections of last year’s ISTEP. And for the past five years, the school received an F from the state.

Glenwood is one of those five schools the district is working to improve, but these low numbers don’t seem to affect the attitudes of students or teachers.

Glenwood has been in the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation’s “Transformation Zone” for one complete school year, and now that’s it’s almost halfway through this current school year, the State Board of Education thought it was a good time for a check up.

Board members recently visited Glenwood to see the progress, and board member Tony Walker left the visit with one sure takeaway.

"Glenwood Leadership Academy, I don’t think under my definition, is not a failing school anymore," Walker says.

Although their ISTEP scores didn’t increase much this year, there’s more going on at Glenwood that signifies improvement. Two years ago, around 21 kids were sent to the office every day for behavior problems. Today, the average is two. They also saw a 25-percent increase in third grade IREAD scores.

And the most promising statistic, the number of kids within 20 points of passing both sections of the ISTEP is climbing. So how are they making these strides in only one year?

"I think the key ingredient here for the success that we’re having in Evansville is we have a rock star superintendent there in Dave Smith," Walker says.

A rock star in school turnaround.

"When I was appointed superintendent I knew that continuing to do the same thing and then expecting different results was not a good way to do business," Smith says.

Instead of waiting until year six, the benchmark when the State Board of Education intervenes on a failing school, Smith did the unexpected: he intervened on his own district before the state could. The district created an internal lead partner, a completely different approach from other districts in failing schools.

For example, in Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Community Schools, the State Board of Education hired an outside organization to intervene at the schools, which has led to hostile relationships between the district and lead partners over who should do what.

"School reform in my view has to be a holistic approach, and I don’t know of any external lead partner that can bring that to an individual school," Smith says.

The Evansville lead partner is a group of district employees solely focused on turnaround efforts. They work with education turnaround non-profit Mass Insight to come up with strategies, but it’s the Turnaround Zone employees who are stationed in the school.

So what are the strategies?

"We absolutely believe ISTEP is one snapshot of this school," says Shannon Strieter, the Transformation Zone specialist based at GLA.

Here’s a list of other things they’re doing besides ISTEP prep: increasing community partnerships, letting teachers opt out of teaching at a failing school, providing hands-on support for teachers and making sure kids own their progress.

Posters all over the school ask “What have you done to reach your goals today?” and visitors to the school are welcomed by posters on the front door with ISTEP progress over the years as well as this year’s goal.

If all of Evansville’s schools improve at the rapid pace Glenwood did, they could all avoid state takeover and continue to turn around by their own devices.

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