What would it take for the lowest-performing schools in Silicon Valley to become great?

That was the central question of “It Can Be Done: A Convening on School Turnaround,” which Innovate Public Schools held on May 1, 2014, featuring speakers Russlynn Ali of Emerson Collective, Scott Given of UP Education and several local panelists.

For far too long, too many students across the country have been stuck in chronically low-performing schools that are not preparing them for college and 21st century careers. Over the past decade, an increased focus on this issue and diverse efforts across the country by educators, business leaders and policymakers have advanced what we know about how to effectively turn around the lowest-performing schools. Now is the time to take advantage of what we’ve learned and find solutions for students stuck in struggling schools in the Valley. To that end, Innovate Public Schools is working on a report to be released later this year that will include an analysis identifying the area’s chronically lowest-performing schools and highlighting effective turnaround strategies from across the country.

Highlights from the Convening on School Turnaround


Russlynn Ali

Chair, Emerson Education Fund for the Emerson Collective
Former head of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights


Scott Given

Scott Given, CEO, UP Education Network

UP Education Network has restarted four of the lowest-performing schools in Massachusetts, all of which which are now posting among the strongest academic growth of any schools in the state.

Transformation to Excellence Powerpoint Presentation

More Resources

Early study shows SIG is working in California

One of the biggest efforts in school turnaround to date is the federally initiated School Improvement Grants (SIG). In 2009, the federal government provided an unprecedented $97.4 billion in funds for education, of which $3 billion were allocated specifically to expand the SIG program. This expansion enabled a low-performing school to receive as much as an additional $2 million in funding annually for three years.

In California, participating schools received around $1.5 million dollars to support the implementation of one of four intervention models promoted by SIG: school turnaround, restart, transformation and closure. Read more on the four models.

The first cohort included 89 schools. The results are especially striking for those that implemented the transformation and turnaround models. These schools increased their API by roughly 34 points more than expected. Schools that implemented the turnaround model (only 29 in California) improved the most—highlighting the importance of significant changes in human capital management and school culture in improving student outcomes. This article summarizes the key findings of “School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus.”

SIG Schools in Silicon Valley

Only four of the 180 SIG-eligible schools in this region applied to the program during the first cohort—all four received the annual $1,500 per student in SIG funding offered to do this work.

School District SIG Model Total 3-Year Grant
Pescadero Elementary and Middle La-Honda Pescadero Unified Transformation $1,985,398
Costano Elementary Ravenswood City Elementary Turnaround $4,074,186
Ronald McNair Academy Ravenswood City Elementary Turnaround $4,074,186
Stanford New School Charter Transformation $3,354,119

Systemic Approaches to School Turnaround in California

While SIG and other school turnaround efforts are mostly focused at the school site level, systemic approaches by districts and charter school networks are also key. The California Collaborative for District Reform prepared a brief that highlights the trends from eight districts in California that are overseeing turnarounds in multiple schools.

These were some of the keys to success identified in the report:

  • Establishing a system-wide, district culture that supports school turnaround
  • Developing and deploying strong leadership
  • Fostering and deploying strong teaching
  • Using data to identify effective and ineffective practices

“While school leadership contributes to the learning environment in all schools, leadership has particular implications in the context of persistent low performance, where challenges like unable staff, low expectations for students, and the need for a dramatic change in culture might require a specific set of leadership skills.”

– CA Collaborative

The Three C’s of School Turnaround work: Conditions, Capacity, and Clustering

MassInsight, a non-profit with significant expertise and experience in school turnaround, analyzed early turnaround results and identified these bold strategies that several leading states, districts, and charter networks are adopting to turn around the lowest-performing schools:

Conditions: Education leaders in this work recognize that turnaround schools need the right conditions—a strong leader, autonomy over instructional practice, staffing and budget, and clear and high expectations for performance, among others—to significantly change a school’s culture and performance.

Capacity: Investments need to be made to ensure turnaround schools have a strong leader, partners, and highly competent teaching staff.

Clustering: Leading districts have established partnership zones to vertically cluster around a high school and its feeders to ensure students who attend dramatically improved schools at one schooling level have access to quality schools for their entire K-12 education.

For more information, contact Jeimee Estrada, Director of Research and Policy for Innovate Public Schools, at jestrada@innovateschools.org.