Illinois and five other states today secured nearly $75 million in funding for school turnarounds, a controversial approach to school improvement that calls for wholesale staffing changes at chronically failing schools.

Illinois and five other states today secured nearly $75 million in funding for school turnarounds, a controversial approach to school improvement that calls for wholesale staffing changes at chronically failing schools.

Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit with emerging expertise in turnarounds, has committed to raising $30 million in private funding for an initial three-year “Partnership Zone” effort. The funding will mix with about $45 million in federal stimulus dollars that have been earmarked for School Improvement Grants. The group may also drum up additional funding to extend the effort by two years.

Mass Insight expects to work closely with clusters of schools—perhaps a high school and its feeder elementary schools—in one or two districts per state. Each state and local school district leaders will select the schools slated for overhauls.

Illinois requested an additional $9.7 million for its Partnership Zone effort as part of the state’s $510 million application for Race to the Top, the $4 billion pot of federal stimulus dollars set aside for states that best match a set of federal reform guidelines.

 The state’s application was filed with the U.S. Department of Education in January and already included details on the Mass Insight initiative. But today’s official announcement should add weight to Illinois’ bid.

Susie Morrison, a deputy superintendent for the Illinois State Board of Education, says fewer than 10 schools will land turnaround grants across the state. The schools will get a maximum $750,000 grant for each of the initiative’s three years of operation, money that will pay for extras like extended learning time and bonus pay for top educators. Morrison said Illinois will apply for $124 million in School Improvement Grants to help pay for the effort.

Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight, says Illinois won his organization’s support by demonstrating a commitment to the turnaround approach at the state level, plus support for local policies that will allow “lead partner organizations” to execute turnaround plans effectively. 

As part of the state’s Race to the Top application, Illinois has identified 12 “super LEA’s” or school districts in which union leaders have agreed to work with administrators to fast-track Partnership Zone efforts.

Chicago is not technically one of the super LEAs. But the district has clearly established itself as a leader in turnarounds and could very well land money through the initiative, notes Cohen. (Chicago’s turnaround initiative, in fact, started under former Chicago CEO Arne Duncan, who has pushed the aggressively pushed the approach at the national level as US Secretary of Education.)

“[ISBE Superintendent Christopher Koch and other state leaders] understand that you can’t do this work in piecemeal fashion. You need systemic improvements,” says Cohen. “They realize the old programmatic approach, with one coach visiting a school once a month, doesn’t work.”

The state will allow any district to apply for the turnaround pilot, says Matt Vanover, a spokesman for ISBE. But the 12 “super LEAs” andChicago “are probably very strong candidates for this because they have already indicated a willingness to take on whole school improvement…and they have a community of learning that is already in place.”

Cohen says Mass Insight has gathered research that shows the best way to fix deeply troubled schools is to grant a lead organization the flexibility to implement staffing and other changes that can dramatically impact student performance. These “lead partners” need to stay “relentlessly positive” as they work through controversial school changes, and they need to demonstrate an ability to identify people who can work effectively with underserved students.

Illinois has already approved nine organizations to operate as “lead partners.” They are: Academy of Urban School Leadership; America’s Choice, Inc.; Consortium for Educational Change; Diplomas Now; Edison Learning; Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools; Learning Point Associates; Success For All, Inc.; and Talent Development.

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