Alumni News

Alumnus Gus Martin, Associate Professor Kathleen Brown partner with DPI in working with turnaround schools

Photo of teacher with administrators

Hoke County High School biology teacher Carrie Brewington shows her students’ improved test scores to (l to r) leadership coach Bob Barnes, Principal Steve Hagen and Superintendent Dr. Freddie Williamson. More on Hoke County High School
Photo by Patricia Hollingsworth, Hoke County Schools, N.C.


Photo of Gus Martin and Kathleen Brown

Alumnus Gus Martin and Associate Professor Kathleen Brown discuss their work with turnaround schools.
Photo by Jessica Lindsay

A few years ago, North Carolina leaders realized that strong action was needed to improve a group of schools across the state where student achievement was low. In 2005, Gov. Mike Easley asked the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to intervene with low-performing high schools. DPI sent teams to Charlotte-Mecklenburg to conduct needs assessments of 10 high schools; then an experienced educator, Pat Ashley, came on board to work with those schools.

Two weeks later, a letter arrived from Judge Howard Manning Jr., who presided over the Leandro v. State of North Carolina school funding equity case. Manning identified 18 high schools that he said would be closed the next fall unless a valid plan to redesign the school was underway. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Easley expressed concern about an additional group of high schools where fewer than 60 percent of the students were proficient on state assessments.

To address these growing challenges, DPI established a Division of District and School Transformation, and Ashley became its director.  The Turnaround Program was established to work with struggling schools to improve their student performance.

School of Education alumnus Gus Martin (M.Ed. ’73, Ph.D. ’82) and his company, The Leadership Group for the Carolinas, are partnering in this work by providing leadership coaches to the principals of the turnaround schools. With his business partner Bob McRae, Martin trains and oversees the coaches who assist principals in improving their schools.

DPI has identified the “turnaround” schools and worked with each school for three years to facilitate change. If fewer than 60 percent of the students at a school were proficient, then the school became a turnaround school. A leadership coach was assigned to work with the principal. The school developed a framework for action, which included many forms of support such as curriculum assistance and professional development for teachers.   

“We have provided leadership coaches to the principals of all the turnaround schools – high, middle and elementary – for four years now,” says Martin. “In this role, we provide on-site assistance to principals needed to transform struggling schools into successful places for teachers and students.”

Martin notes that the coaches are at the schools regularly to help the principals internalize contemporary practices and build stronger academic institutions. “The work has been daunting, of course. The schools didn’t become ‘struggling’ overnight and the changes needed to improve them and sustain improvement over time run deep. There are lots of success stories emerging from this group and plenty of challenges remaining.”

The leadership coaches and their direct involvement in the schools with the principals are a cornerstone of the turnaround initiative, according to Ashley. “Most of the coaches have been very successful high school principals themselves. Because of their own experience, they understand how to help a new principal or a less experienced principal really examine the school and identify the areas that need improvement,” she says.

“They also know, when needed, how to assist principals in identifying and implementing strategies for improvement,” notes Ashley. “It’s one thing to be able to recognize areas that need improvement; it’s yet another to have the knowledge and ideas needed to implement successful improvement.”  

DPI is preparing to phase out the Turnaround Program as schools reach the target goal and move the support services into other schools and districts needing support. The goal is for local educators and community members to become the driving force behind local school improvement efforts.

What has been the impact of these efforts so far? At the high school level, 66 schools have been receiving turnaround assistance. Many have made big gains, but some haven’t. Moving forward, DPI wants to know which strategies were most effective and what the variables are.

School of Education Associate Professor Kathleen Brown plans to begin working with DPI soon to gather and analyze data on the impact of the Turnaround Program. "An initial review of three years of data indicates some impressive gains in performance composite scores and graduation rates for 75 percent of the high schools,” says Brown. “From a qualitative perspective, it will be interesting and informative to investigate, document and make sense of the theory of change used, the capacity built at each site and the sustainability of these reform efforts."

Ashley notes that the turnaround work is a continuation of previous initiatives to improve schools in North Carolina. “The state has been trying to assist schools that have been underperforming since the ABCs started in the ’90s,” she says. “The Turnaround Program is like version 2.0 of work that began with state assistance teams. We are building upon work that has gone before.”

Hoke County High

Hoke County High, where the Leandro case began, has made large gains as a turnaround school, increasing student proficiency from 46 to 75 percent over the last four years. As a result of its significant improvement, the school is now operating on self-directed monitoring.