- With early positive academic results and philanthropic support from organizations like the Dell and Walton foundations, Empower Schools has helped set up 10 “Empowerment Zones” in five states, and more states, districts and nonprofits are looking at the organization's model for school turnarounds, Chalkbeat reports.
- The model has been largely successful in Springfield, Massachusetts, and is currently being implemented in a group of schools looking to avoid a state takeover in South Bend, Indiana. There, Navarre Middle School is among those extending school hours, paying teachers for extra training and longer hours, choosing different curriculum option than other district schools, and expanding course offerings with greater flexibility on accountability.
- However, critics cite concerns over the elected school board’s loss of control, the model’s relative lack of accountability, and the feeling it's just another form of takeover by an outside organization, and teacher unions also tend to oppose the model because it weakens union influence and sometimes alters unions contracts.
As states have struggled with addressing low-performing school districts, takeovers became more common. The results of these efforts have been mixed, but any academic gains in some areas have also often been accompanied by resentment from parents and loss of local control.
Providence, Rhode Island, however, has faced a different situation, with many parents calling for state takeover after a scathing report on their conditions. In that situation, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has also mentioned the possibility of breaking the bargaining contract with the local union. Because of situations like these, unions are also often wary of takeover efforts.
True state takeovers, however, seem to be on the decline. The threat of takeover, in many cases, is often enough to make schools and districts seek dramatic turnaround attempts on their own. Sometimes, organizations like Empower Schools work with districts to aid in these efforts, though these organizations still receive their share of criticism from unions and others.
The best-case scenario seems to be when districts are able to successfully turn around schools on their own power before the situation becomes so bad that an outside agency becomes necessary.
Over the years, some districts have developed successful turnaround strategies that may offer help to others that are struggling, though they may not always scale to every district. Sonya Mora, principal of Samuel Houston Gates Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas, for instance, was able to transform her school from one of the lowest-performing in the state by collaborating with teachers, team-building and modeling proper teacher techniques herself.
Andrew G. Houlihan, superintendent of the Union County Public Schools in North Carolina, also suggests a recipe of turnaround success that includes an effective principal, effective teachers, more instructional time, in-school tutoring and more wraparound services for students.
According to the South Bend Tribune, the new Empowerment Zone plan will have education consultants who recommend changes, but “peer-elected ‘teacher leadership teams’ and school principals would have the autonomy to decide how to reshape curriculum and staff.”
As Todd Cummings, the district’s deputy superintendent, noted in the article, “We want to be transparent with the best practices we learn,” he said. “What we learn from the zone we want to apply to all other schools. … If we learn we need to give principals more autonomy and it works, then we want to replicate those practices.”