Is a school that turned around a “turnaround”?

The quick answer in my mind is no. A school that makes rapid improvements (academics, leadership, environment & climate), but that doesn’t serve the same demographic of students that it served before is not a “turnaround.” It may be a good school now, but it’s not a turnaround.

Chicago Magazine’s January issue includes a story about a neighborhood school (Nettelhorst Elementary in Lakeview) that served mostly low-income students and had abysmal test scores. Most of the students were bussed in from other areas of the city; most of the neighborhood students attended other charter, magnet and private schools. A group of active parents took on the cause and transformed the school by gathering thousands of dollars of donations to renovate the building, the school climate, and eventually the overall school operations (many of the naysayer teachers left). In effect, neighborhood students now choose to enroll in the school, test scores have increased, and the school is generally performing well.

Transforming a low-performing neighborhood school into a good (or better) school is commended and is the result of a tremendous amount of work and money, but it doesn’t change the reality for the former Nettelhorst students: Now that the school is better, why can’t they attend? Will they get to go to a good school? Who will transform their schools if their parents don’t have the time, skills, or social and professional networks to fundraise thousands of dollars in cash and donations?

The parents that took on the cause of saving their community school should be recognized for their work, and the corporations that provided donations should be appreciated. That said, Nettelhorst may have transformed into a high(er) performing school, but I would not classify it as a “turnaround” because the demographics of the student population has changed so much.

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