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Thomas Darden outlines top tools for public school 'turnaround'

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Thomas Darden is a long-time entrepreneur who is deeply invested in the effort to turn around troubled schools in the Philadelphia area. He is a seasoned entrepreneur with experience in the world of venture capital, but he is also a compassionate advocate for public education and closing the achievement gap. Most recently, he led the Renaissance Initiative – and effort dedicated to turning around chronically under performing schools. The Renaissance Initiative has successfully transformed 17 area schools in just three years’ time.

Through his work with the Renaissance Initiative, Thomas Darden built relationships in each neighborhood with parents, guardians, teachers, community leaders and others who shared the same goal of transforming their school. The act of turning around a troubled school is never easy, but with his drive and experience, Darden helped each of these schools and communities reach unique goals.

Darden’s turnaround process:

  • Increase parental engagement
  • Transform the culture of the school to focus on academic achievement
  • Assist in altering the staff – including the principal if needed – to establish a new culture
  • Rebuild expectations among staff and students - emphasizing a culture of rigor and high expectations for all
  • Motivate teachers toward data-driven educational standards
  • Create appropriate leadership teams to sustain progress

Thomas Darden Explains the Philosophies of Public School ‘Turnaround’

According to Darden, thousands of schools nationwide fail to educate students effectively. Some schools have even failed to extend a basic education. To respond to this great need, community leaders and education advocates like Thomas Darden step up to provide better tools and strategies for schools, fixing failing organizations in a variety of ways. School turnarounds undergo extensive transformation in which staff and students are offered resources to aid the school district and more.

Engaging teachers

Driving teacher excellence through individually based professional development based on competency-based evaluation is just one piece of the puzzle in public school turnarounds. Making effective use of data and adjusting instruction based on "real-time" formative student assessment data is another key element. Indeed, successful turnaround schools in the Renaissance Initiative went to higher learning levels because of these crucial factors.
Engaging teachers and putting efficient efforts in place to sustain teacher excellence is paramount to a turnaround school’s success. According to Darden, the United States also needs "coherent" reforms to teacher training, professional development, evaluation, career advancement, pay, retention and other human capital systems. He stresses that teachers are the key resource in any school improvement effort, and that coordinated efforts in fairly and effectively reforming the entire human capital system in a public school district will lead to better student results.

Inspiring leaders

Darden is keenly aware of the need to turnaround leaders and examine competencies and actions – the habits of behavior and underlying motivations that help predict how newly hired individuals will perform in their jobs. Understanding this when hiring new employees can help administrators gain a better sense of expectations required to create the vision and culture required in a turnaround environment. According to Thomas Darden, only 30 percent of turnarounds succeed – in education and other fields. Schools thrive when they are pushed by leaders with clear visions and a newly rigorous hiring process. Ensuring that the principal and other staff leaders are supportive is crucial.

Engaging underperforming students

In order to engage underperforming students, schools must implement a consistent business model that works in the classroom daily. Tips to engage and empower students include:

  • Asking essential questions: Constantly reinforce what the intended goal of the lesson is meant to be, and engage students by reiterating that there is one essential question per lesson. With essential questions, teachers have to be intentional and students are encouraged to perform at high learning levels. According to Thomas Darden, these questions teach students to develop critical thinking skills rather than simply answering with a “yes” or a “no.”
  • Making clear connections: Teachers are advised to get students actively thinking or making connections with the material presented to them on a daily basis. Technology is imperative, as short video clips or other methods help students to engage and make connections with the content or with the outside world.
  • Relevant vocabulary: Engaging with underperforming students requires an effort to keep vocabulary limited to what they are familiar and comfortable with. According to Thomas Darden, the more relevant vocabulary that is presented in the lesson, the easier it is to convince students to interactively use the words during the lesson. Teachers are encouraged to select works that are most effective.
  • Opportunities to conceptualize information: Using technology to visually categorize new information or review old information is an excellent way to engage underperforming students. Graphic organizers are student-friendly, and they are often less intimidating to look at. Presenting learning material in a non-threatening way is crucial in improving turnaround schools.
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