Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

02.27.18The University Prep Turnaround, Part 1: David Singer Sets the Stage

Things are getting brighter…


This is the first in a series of posts written by David Singer and his staff at University Prep – Steele Street in which they describe their lessons in taking over and turning around a previously failing school.  I describe a bit more about the series here. In this first post David sets the stage:

University Prep – Steele Street opened its doors on August 8, 2016 with nearly 230 children in grades K through 5. The previous year, the same students attended school in the same building, but with a different name, different leadership, and a different academic program. At the close of the 2015-16 school year, the previous school was ranked 166 out of 166 Denver Public Schools on the city’s traditional report card, the School Performance Framework (SPF). It was rated 1,000 out of 1,015 elementary schools across the state according to Colorado School Grades. Proficiency rates were in the single digits, 6.9% and 6.4% in math and English Language Arts respectively on average across 3rd through 5th grade. We were there that day to launch a school transformation – it was time to turn things around.

Wearing colorful backpacks and sharing hugs and smiles with their families, the children walking into our building that first morning were beautiful, talented, capable and deserving of a high quality public education.  We were optimistic that we could partner with their families to deliver exactly that.  We assembled an incredible team, spent nearly eighteen months in preparation, and met regularly with the community.   And, we’d done our homework in one other way, learning what was possible by studying a similar school turnaround—Uncommon Schools’ restart of Alexander Street Elementary in Newark under the leadership of then-principal Juliana Worrell.

The work of building a school worthy of our children will be years in the making. But one year later, the difference was clear.  Our school moved from a 1st percentile ranking to the 91st percentile compared to all schools in Denver on the School Performance Framework. Our scholars achieved the largest academic growth in the state. The graph below illustrates the transformation of our 4th graders, who demonstrated high levels of proficiency on their ELA Colorado Measure of Academic Success (CMAS – State Testing), and one of the highest Median Growth Percentiles in the state.

In this series of blog posts I’ll share a bit more about how we made these critical first steps to turnaround a school, and I’ll ask our key leaders who did the work to share our story in their own words.

But first, I have to tell you about five life altering days in New Jersey.

That late summer week in 2014 served as a catalyst for our work two years later when we restarted what had once been Pioneer Charter School and is now University Prep – Steele Street. Principal Juliana Worrell and her team opened the doors to Uncommon School’s Alexander Street Elementary to us. They let us observe everything they did. They were transparent about the successes and the struggles. They created a proof point of what’s possible for a school to accomplish for all young people and they shared it with us. They proved school transformation could be done.

The school was bright, orderly, loving, and rigorous; the adults were organized, honest, and self-critical about the school’s outcomes from the moment the first scholar walked in the door until the last teacher left each evening. As a result of this hard work, the children thrived. I believe a genuine education revolution was apparent in the first days of the school’s opening, and results have confirmed this belief and provided hard evidence of Alexander’s transformation. Every adult understood the potential in their children and was ready to do whatever it takes to unlock it. They inspired us and set the stage for our efforts in Denver.

(I should note here that other partners such as Mastery Charter Schools, Unlocking Potential, as well as many individuals and organizations shared generously and taught us a great deal in the months leading up to our urgent and critical work.  The selflessness and willingness of these partners are some of the most positive aspects of the school reform community for district and charter schools alike.)

So with gratitude for our friends and humility in recognizing how much more work lies ahead, we’d like to share what we think is the ‘how’ behind our promising start. How did a school shift from 1st percentile to 91st percentile over 12 months?

To tell this story, I’ve asked three critical members of our founding team who were on the ground and directly responsible for planning and executing our restart. They lived and breathed the work. Jessica Valsechi, our founding Principal, Clare Lundquist, our founding Dean of Academics, and Olga Rico Gutierrez, our founding Dean of Operations, will each share a portion of the story, covering three foundational components of the school transformation experience. In a final post, I’ll share a specific talent strategy employed by our organization to ensure our human capital was ready to go from day one of the school’s opening.

  • Adult and Student Culture – What does it take to build and sustain a culture that ensures both adults and children thrive in a restart context?
  • Academics – How do you work to meet the needs of children who are significantly behind grade level while simultaneously ensuring they regularly and successfully engage in rigorous grade level content?
  • Family & Community Relationships – What does it look like to love families with honesty and accountability within a restart context as you drive school transformation alongside of them?
  • Incubation Year – How can you use a planning year to ensure human capital is prepared for success from day one in a full school turnaround?

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