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The Untapped Potential of Charter School Turnaround

Posted on 11.13.2019

Student on Computer


  • Policies typically offer two options to underperforming charter schools: reconstitution or closure. Much less commonly offered is support for pursuing turnaround.
  • WestEd is exploring conditions under which this third option can be effective, and developing resources to support charter turnaround.
  • An evaluation of one school’s experiences highlights some challenges and successes of charter turnaround.

In 2014, Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School was on the brink of closure. One of the oldest charter schools in Washington, DC, it was struggling with low academic performance, a weak school culture, and monthly suspension rates upwards of 25 percent. More than half the teachers had left in one year. Subsequently, though, Perry Street successfully engaged in turnaround, pointing to new possibilities for charter schools and the field of school improvement.

Although the very existence of charter schools has been considered a model for improving public education, policymakers and education leaders are increasingly focusing on what to do when a charter school is itself underperforming. There used to be only two primary options — restarting from scratch under a different charter operator, or closing. Perry Street and other schools are demonstrating that a third option — undergoing the hard work of turnaround — may be worth consideration for at least some charters.

Closure used to be considered preferable as “the assumption was that students could move to nearby higher-performing schools,” says Aimee Evan, Senior Research Associate at WestEd. “However, studies have pointed out that there are not always other higher-performing schools the students could attend.”1

In the District of Columbia (DC), where charter schools serve nearly half of all students enrolled in public schools, charter school accountability is taken seriously, and many low-performing schools have had their charters not renewed. Recently, Perry Street became one of just a few DC charter schools allowed to pursue comprehensive improvement in lieu of closure. A WestEd-led independent evaluation of the turnaround effort found evidence that the school has made progress in improving its overall culture, leadership, and student achievement.2

A Window Into Charter School Turnaround

Perry Street’s improvement efforts began in 2014 when the school’s board of directors engaged an experienced turnaround partner, TenSquare. “Year One of turnaround required us to assess every part of our school, and we found problems in every category,” says Rachel Crouch, principal of the school, where almost all students are African American or Hispanic, and a majority are economically disadvantaged. Originally the school served students in grades PreK–12, but the DC Public Charter School Board, the school’s authorizer, required the high school grades to be eliminated for Perry Street to remain open, so its turnaround proceeded as a PreK–8 school.

At the start of its partnership with Perry Street, TenSquare conducted a data-driven audit, gathering data to inform a turnaround plan. According to Evan, “This audit was comprehensive, looking at the competency of leadership and staff, instructional programs, professional learning, operations, and finances. Recognizing that all of these elements are connected, Perry Street dug into everything and kept a comprehensive focus throughout the whole process.”

Importantly, though, “they did not tackle everything at once,” Evan notes. TenSquare helped Perry Street develop long-term goals within a five-year plan, with specific priorities for each year. Together, they also identified evidence-based interventions and monitored indicators to ensure interventions were leading to progress toward higher student outcomes.

Evaluating Impact and Challenges

In 2017, the Perry Street board contracted with WestEd to examine the impact of the school’s turnaround efforts and to document and disseminate information about the improvement process so charter authorizers and other educators could learn from Perry Street’s successes and failures. Through interviews, observations, and data reviews, WestEd staff conducted a comprehensive review of Perry Street’s organization, practices, and services, including its partnership with TenSquare.

The evaluation was designed to surface and address conditions that could affect the school’s success, such as the importance of transparency and communication. Evan notes Perry Street staff were initially concerned that if they shared too much information with parents, the parents might disengage and leave the school. Sharing too little information turned out to be more problematic, as some parents and teachers left in part because they perceived a lack of transparency in the turnaround plans and process.

Despite such challenges, Perry Street’s turnaround efforts ultimately have resulted in significant, positive impacts on student achievement. WestEd also conducted an impact evaluation using student-level longitudinal data to compare the academic performance of Perry Street students against that of comparable students in the district. Specifically, researchers created a comparison group of students from other DC charter schools and traditional public schools, matching students in terms of race, baseline test scores, and other characteristics, then examining changes in math and English language arts (ELA) standardized test scores from the 2015/16 school year through the 2017/18 school year. The analysis found that Perry Street students enrolled in grades 3–8 in 2015/16 performed better, relative to the matched comparison students in other charter schools and traditional schools over three academic years, on both math and ELA assessments after exposure to the turnaround initiative.

Consistent with the evaluation’s findings, Perry Street improved by 30 points from 2014 to 2018 on the Performance Management accountability framework of the DC Public Charter School Board. In 2019, Perry Street was, for the first time in its history, recognized as a Tier I school, DC’s highest-performing tier. DC Chancellor Hanseul Kang recognized Perry Street for having one of the highest test score gains for students with disabilities in DC between 2017 and 2018. Perry Street was also recognized as 1 of 13 schools in DC that has been closing achievement gaps 10 times faster than other schools in the city and nationally. Between 2017 and 2019, Perry Street retained 90 percent of its effective teachers and, as of midway through the 2018/19 school year, had reduced its suspension rate to zero.3

Popularizing Charter School Turnaround Lessons

Evan hopes Perry Street can shed light on the prospects for charter turnaround elsewhere. To that end, WestEd has begun creating products such as From the Brink of Closure: Key Factors in One Charter School’s Successful Turnaround and a video that highlights the coaching model Perry Street used to build the capacity of teachers and leaders.

WestEd is also creating a new version of a turnaround framework that has been adopted by 25 states, Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement: A Systems Framework. The new version specifically addresses turnaround of charter schools. “We found the four domains — turnaround leadership, talent development, instructional transformation, and culture shift — were largely consistent with the budding literature base on charter turnaround, and verified in the successful approach of the Perry Street turnaround,” says Evan. “In the four domains framework for charter schools, however, we’ve added discussion about governance because we saw the need to also build the charter board’s capacity to lead an improvement process.” In addition, the new framework emphasizes alignment of resources for turnaround, however limited they may be. “Research on traditional public school turnaround found principals need the autonomy to make decisions based on the needs of their students and school. Such autonomy is already inherent within the charter model. The adapted four domains framework underscores the importance of autonomy for school turnaround leaders.”4

WestEd also recently created a guide that provides criteria to inform decisions about when to invest in charter school turnaround. Considering Turnaround for Low-Performing Charter Schools identifies internal prerequisites to navigating the turnaround journey, such as: Do bright academic spots exist? Is school leadership strong and committed? Are the necessary resources available, such as a capable turnaround partner?

Perry Street had these important conditions in place when it started its turnaround process. For example, some grades had met performance targets in some years, providing a platform on which to build. And, although the principal, Rachel Crouch, lacked previous principalship experience, Evan says Crouch brought another invaluable leadership quality: a vision for what a high-performing school could look like.

In addition to having criteria for turnaround, authorizers need to consider the entire ecosystem, such as examining what the school offers students within the larger portfolio of education options in the area. Evan explains, “If the market is saturated with higher-performing schools, investing in turnaround for an underperforming charter school may not be the best way to serve students.”

Evan also notes that sustainability was baked into the Perry Street plan from the beginning. “To be sustainable, you have to build everyone’s capacity to perform at a higher level, and that doesn’t happen overnight.” Perry Street’s approach to ensuring sustainability has been to invest heavily in ongoing coaching and feedback aimed at building capacity of staff to improve instruction, though some teachers at Perry Street were not initially receptive to having a coach. “Deep down, I really wasn’t happy about it,” says a Perry Street teacher. “But as I built relationships with the coaches, I understood they weren’t there to criticize me, but to make sure I was as effective as possible.”

1 Chunping Han, Margaret E. Raymond, James L. Woodworth, Yohannes Negassi, W. Payton Richardson, and Will Snow, Lights Off: Practice and Impact of Closing Low-Performing Schools, Volume I (Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2017); Matt Barnum, Five Things We’ve Learned From a Decade of Research on School Closures (Chalkbeat, 2019); Molly F. Gordon, Marisa de la Torre, Jennifer R. Cowhy, Paul T. Moore, Lauren Sartain, and David Knight, School Closings in Chicago: Staff and Student Experiences and Academic Outcomes (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, 2018).

2 The District of Columbia’s state education agency, the Office of State Superintendent of Education, awarded a dissemination grant to Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School; part of this grant was used to have WestEd document and communicate Perry Street’s turnaround process.

3 District of Columbia, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, Lessons from the DC All-STAR School Tour (Washington, DC: Author, 2019): 9.

4 Julie Corbett, Chartering Turnaround: Leveraging Public Charter School Autonomy to Address Failure (Washington, DC: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; and San Francisco, CA: Center on School Turnaround at WestEd, 2015).