The Turnaround Principal Interview

During those first conversations, it looked like a once-in-a-career opportunity.  The school was clearly being set up to be the model for urban turnaround.  The previous year, the district had remodeled the school to the tune of $28 million.  It now had a full time health and dental clinic inside, a swimming pool, smartboards and wifi everywhere.  It shared grounds with a longstanding community center.  Partnerships with community mental health agencies augmented the two social workers on staff with four more colleagues to provide social work and counseling support. 

On the drawing board was adding 300 hours to the school year—the equivalent of ten weeks of school.  This expanded learning time was to include enrichment and targeted intervention for the kids.  For faculty and staff, the extra time was to be dedicated to professional development, data-driven instruction, and collaborate planning.  While the teachers’ contract would remain in effect, another tool for turnaround was keeping labor relations local within the building; addressing and resolving our problems together, and breaking from a longstanding pattern of every dispute becoming a proxy war for the larger struggle between teachers, central administration, and community.

And on top of that, we had a full year to plan how to use those considerable resources.  We were being given the latitude to innovate, “dream big,” and design from scratch. 

I was skeptical about how much innovation was really on the table.  The district had just completed its first round of similar reform, and those seven schools had bought into the Pearson curricula for math and ELA whole hog.  However without my asking, the interview team told me that they were not entirely pleased with that decision, and were more likely to use district curricula in the second wave of five schools for which I was being vetted. 

I was encouraged by that. They weren’t necessarily taking pre-packaged models of reform off the shelf and forcing schools to duplicate them.  Furthermore, they had not balked at my explicit references to organizing and social justice work throughout my career.  I heard school district leaders who felt that turnaround was an urgent matter of social justice, and also prized the ability for the organization to learn as it grew.

There was a catch, of course.  The grant to fund all this came with a gigantic string attached.  Not a string, really, more like a cleaver.  For the district to get the money to turnaround this and four other schools, half the faculty would have to be transferred at the end of the planning year, prior to implementation. 

Taking the job as turnaround principal, I brought with me learnings, practices, beliefs honed as a community organizer, union leader, and school board rep.  It seemed to me that the only way to get substantial and sustainable change was to do so democratically. 

At the end of most interviews, the candidate gets to ask a question.  I wanted to be strategic with my one shot.  So, I asked the superintendent, “Will this turnaround work be done by us, with us, for us, or to us?”

I was hoping for “by us,” but would have settled for “with us.” “With us” at least implied a partnership between stakeholders in the school and the central office.  “For us” would have been a sign of the paternalism with which I was very familiar.  “To us” would have signaled the top-down corporate approach promulgated by the Broad Academy, Teach For America, and the like. 

The superintendent didn’t miss a beat.  “It’s being done to you.”

I was taken aback, but decided to seize the chance anyway, undaunted.  In that moment, I took her answer to mean that she was kicking ass and taking names in a school district that was dismal by almost every standard.  I heard urgency in the answer, and already knew her to be committed to social justice.  I was on board.

I figured I would approach the first year as an opportunity to develop a strength-based grassroots design for the “new” school.  Those who could get involved enthusiastically and creatively would certainly be at the head of the line to stay on for implementation.  Others may decide that this just wasn’t for them, and transfer.  At year’s end, I might need to use that cleaver with still others who might be either intractable or so incompetent as to require such harsh measures, but hopefully only a few. 

As the year progressed, it became clearer to me that I was being naïve. I wasn’t hearing my boss. 

Stay tuned for more reflections on how that all played out over the course of the year.

But, to keep this blog interesting, I wonder how other folks have experienced that moment of promise, potential, and forewarning.  Please join me in a conversation here.