The reality of turning around low-performing districts

“Why is school turnaround so challenging?” is a question often asked. While how to turn around a school is a complex process, the reason for why it’s so challenging is simple… the adults in the system. Adults often lose their focus, lose their commitment to children, and lose control over the school and the district. The first step in turning around a school or district is to make sure the right people are in the right positions – people who have the authority to make changes and will make the tough decisions.

The Thornton School District in Illinois is currently going through the politics and drama caused by adults. Excerpts from the Chicago Tribune story are below. Emphasis added.


The Thornton Township High School District 205 board has stripped its newly selected board president of his power and shifted his duties to the vice president position. Kenneth Williams will keep his title, but he will no longer lead the board meetings, manage the committees or sign off on contracts, officials said. Instead, Edward Crayton will assume Williams’ duties, the board decided.

The power shift comes just a week after four members of the board accused Williams of abusing his authority. The four members said Williams, among other things, offered the new interim superintendent a work contract, placed a school administrator on leave and established a transition team, all without board approval. A frustrated Williams led the meeting, which was filled with audience disruptions, long speeches and awkward pauses. Twice, Williams walked out of the meeting, his microphone in hand.

In recent months, the board has been consumed with conflict and division. This latest turmoil is another blow to the struggling school district, which is without a permanent superintendent and still has to determine how it will repay portions of a forfeited $18 million federal grant.

The district is paying an interim superintendent who was placed on administrative leave and has not worked since she was awarded a contract in June, officials said. And the district is paying the assistant superintendent to act as leader of the school district until a permanent replacement is hired.

According to school district records, 43 percent of freshmen read below the fifth-grade level.

Three new board members were elected in April on a campaign to reverse plans to convert Thornridge High School into a freshmen-only campus. After the board halted those plans in May, the district’s longtime superintendent and several top administrators resigned.

At the special meeting, the board members bickered for hours about how individual members conducted school district business and the technicalities of running a public meeting.

At times, other members of the board tried to remove him from presiding over the meeting, and his wife, school board member Toni Williams, spoke up in his defense.

“What’s the urgency to move a person out of the position?” she said. “He’s still capable to do his job.”

But when the item was eventually put to a vote, it was approved 4-2, drawing both ire and applause from the audience. Kenneth Williams abstained from the vote. His wife and another board member voted against the measure.

School in the district is scheduled to start in less than a month.


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