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03.02.18The University Prep Turnaround, Part 5: David Singer’s Reflection

This is the fifth and final 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.  This post features David’s reflections on the role of a planning year to ensure that staff members were  prepared for success on day one.

After completing the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship, a year-long leadership training program to develop founders and leaders of charter schools in historically marginalized communities, David Singer served as founding Principal of University Prep’s Arapahoe Street campus in 2011. After five years, Singer became the organization’s Executive Director and launched the full school turnaround that is now University Prep – Steele Street. During his time in leadership, both as a Principal and an Executive Director, David has had the opportunity to participate in RELAY Graduate School’s National Principal Academy Fellowship and is currently a part of the Leverage Leadership Institute.


In 2010, I had the privilege of listening to a presentation by Chris Barbic, former Founder and CEO of YES Prep and former Superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee. Chris’s words have stuck with me for nearly a decade and I do not suspect they will ever leave my frontal lobe, “Bet the farm on people.” What Barbic knew and shared, and what I have never erased from my whiteboard is that talent is the driver of any and every organization and if you get talent right, the chances of everything else working out is dramatically increased. Barbic’s lesson may play its most important role in the urgent, critical, and life altering work of school turnaround. Transforming a chronically underperforming school is rare. Sustaining such a turnaround is rarer – a near impossible feat.


With the grim reality of nearly consistent failure when it comes to school transformation, other than a handful of anomalies nationally, our team set out to approach the effort through the lens of talent. What if we could “incubate” a critical mass of staff members to be fully prepared for day one of school restart? What if 100% of the leadership team had a full year together before the first family was greeted and first lesson was taught?


Ultimately, school turnaround has nothing to do with the children sitting in seats. Children are ready and able to learn. Children are talented, brilliant, and gritty. School turnaround has everything to do with adults. Are the adults who run the operations team, answer the phones, engage with families, stand in front of our classrooms, plan and execute interventions, tutor our childrenready and able?


In our incubation year, we dramatically over-staffed our first campus with nearly fifty-five employees. To provide perspective, that represented a 45% increase in staffing from the previous year with the same number of children enrolled. If “talent drives everything” then you better get talent ready. We over-staffed with paraprofessionals, teaching fellows (year-long internal teacher prep pipeline), teachers, community engagement staff, and leaders on the operations and academic side of the work. The over staffing strategy was in place to ensure two outcomes: one, there would be a critical mass of U Prep team members ready to go on day one at our turnaround campus; and two, when folks transitioned from our first campus to our second campus we could fill their spots with other individuals who had at least a year of experience with our organization under their belts.


The result of our human capital strategy had a few significantly positive byproducts (some more predictable than others) and a critical challenge that we hope to learn from in the future as we work to repeat this effort.




  • Roughly 40% of the teaching force at our turnaround campus was comprised of U Prep teachers with at least one year of experience within our organization. At the same time, more than two thirds of our first campus remained U Prep team members from the year prior.
    • *The “brain space” needed by teachers (and leaders) to meet the needs of scholars who are two and three years behind grade level in third through fifth grade is immense. Having internalized our core values, our systems, and our structures/procedures, staff members who were already a part of the U Prep family were well positioned to not only run our U Prep “playbook,” but adapt and be flexible along the way to meet the needs of the environment.
  • 100% of the leadership team had more than six months together in advance of the school’s opening.
  • 85%+ staff retention from year one to year two of our turnaround campus (when folks are successful in their endeavors the likelihood of staying in the work dramatically increases – our human capital strategy was one piece of the puzzle that helped support that success).
    • An additional and critical piece of the retention success was the incredibly thoughtful and deliberate team building led by our founding principal, Jessica Valsechi. You can read more about Valsechi’s highly intentional efforts in her earlier blog post.
  • Intentional and meaningful community engagement and family relationship building (having additional team members ensured that our leaders and our community-focused team members could spend time with families as far as a year in advance of our restart efforts launching).


Critical Challenge:


  • Our first campus, under my direct leadership, was not prepared to fully support and manage the dramatically increased staffing size. Shifting from a team of 37 to 53 when you’re a small entity requires significant planning, intentionality, and preparation. Having more people is great, but having more people who are growing at a rapid rate, being supported intentionally and thoughtfully, and receiving the management and development they deserve is far better.
    • In hindsight, the year prior (or early part of that year) should have been spent doing far more work of training and growing the management and leadership skills of our leadership team (including me) and teacher leaders (in addition to the ongoing development of technical skills tied to the craft of developing teachers).


In the work of school transformation, curriculum matters, assessment systems matter, school culture matters, intentional and strategic scheduling matters, data-driven instruction matters, community engagement and authentic time with families matters.  But, what matters most – adults in the building. Following the words of Chris Barbic, “bet the farm on people.” Stack the “human capital” deck in advance to ensure adults are ready to do the work. Children and families are ready. They’ve been ready. Our commitment to do right by those we serve is predicated on our adults keeping the promise of a high quality public education for each and every child – get the adults ready and they’ll be much more likely to keep their promise.


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