In 2001, Anthony G. Smith became the principal of the renamed Taft Information Technology High School and began turning it around. Over the past decade, Taft’s graduation rate has risen from 25 percent to 95 percent. In 2010, the percentage of 10th graders scoring proficient or higher in math is up from 33 percent to 96 percent, and from 68 percent to 96 percent in reading. The school, once in “academic emergency,” the state’s lowest designation, has moved to “effective”—and, just recently, to “excellent,” Ohio’s highest rating.
This is real progress. How did Smith do it?
There were the obvious fixes, like ending chaotic two-hour-long lunch periods and a badly organized tutoring program. But what has defined Smith’s success is his focus on the value of relationships. When he took the job, he went door to door in the neighborhood and asked for residents’ support. “My covenant was with the community, not necessarily with the board of education,” Smith said, explaining that, yes, the school is technically part of the district, but it is more powerfully a part of a neighborhood and of people’s lives.
Smith also did something counterintuitive: He kept the staff he inherited. Old teachers, the thinking goes, resist change and prevent transformation. In many turnarounds, much of the staff is let go as a “fresh start” message. Instead, Smith met individually with teachers in their classrooms and spent an hour hearing from each of them about what was working and what wasn’t. At his first staff meeting, he laid out the reality. “I asked them, ‘How do you feel about possibly being the worst school in the entire state?’ ” he recalls.
Real turnaround may require more labor intensive relationship-building than advertised.
Before a midday break, Smith told teachers that if they weren’t ready to sign on to do what was needed to help kids succeed, they shouldn’t come back after lunch. To his surprise, they all returned. “I believe they were good teachers,” he says. “They had lost their confidence. They had lost their spirit.”The tale from that moment of committing to try is about work in progress, yielding clear evidence of impact on student success from educators who are pulling together to make it happen. Pappano argues from the Taft success that "real turnaround may require more labor-intensive relationship-building than advertised."
Teachers don't do this sort of great work alone, following instructions to avoid consequences. They do it together, thinking through problems and finding solutions and building one another's skills on the way to building student performance. Without relationships that sustain that kind of lasting effort, change will be small, fragile, and easily undone. With those relationships and the courage to invest in them, children's lives and community possibilities flourish and grow.