University Heights

1. The Backstory Back in 2006, a few of us school geeks had a 5-hour meeting. Doug Lemov (pre-Taxonomy fame) and Jeff Clark (who runs a network of 60+ charter schools called National Heritage, mostly in the Midwest) pulled it together. I recall there was Thai food involved.

Doug and Jeff -- both HBS grads -- would get together as a duo and spitball about data, so this time they invited some more folks. Any question was okay. They were already wondering (particularly Jeff, I think) about whether there was a way to measure Ed Schools based on individual teacher results (since Jeff hires a ton of teachers). Funny to think that's becoming policy now in some states.

They gathered Matt Candler and Glenn Liebeck (now launching a charter network in Nashville and the Southeast), Heather Caudill (who went on to help start a charter called La Cima), and me.

There was also a guy named Misha Simmonds. At the time he was working for New Schools Venture Fund, analyzing "turnarounds" before that became a common term.

2. University Heights.

Many charter schools are crappy. Several hundred, easily, out of the 5,000+ charters. They rarely get shut down though. This is the Achilles Heel of the charter movement.

University Heights was one of the bad ones. It was one of the 3 lowest performing schools in Newark, district or charter.

At the time, our man Stig Leschly (our board chair for many years, about to become our CEO) was the head of the Newark Charter Fund (commuting by Amtrak from his home in Brookline).

Stig pulled in Misha to lead a turnaround effort at UH. Misha in turn hired a great principal named Rahshene Davis. Off they went.

The results were terrific. UH has won awards for the learning gains of the kiddos.

Two years ago, in Spring 2008, the school debuted next to last (#57 out of 58) in NJASK performance when compared with all other Newark district and charter schools serving grades 3 and 4. Two years later, in Spring 2010, UHCS finished in the top quartile (#13 out of 58), posting double-digit percentage point growth over 2009 NJASK results in all grades and subjects:

Stig asked Misha about lessons learned. Misha wrote:

1. Fundamental change starts at the top, not just with the executive leadership, but the board as well. Substantially retaining the board of a failing school will likely impede, if not thwart, any real progress. At University Heights, nine out of eleven board members changed and both the academic and operational leadership was replaced. This set the stage for dramatic turnaround.

2. In the crisis situation that is a failing school, there is no time for democratic deliberation. Leadership must take action and implement what research shows works.

Do it in a nice way, and with explanation, but don't wait for buy in or consensus -- by the time that happens it may be too late. Rahshene and I moved forward without much teacher input, and at the end of the year the feedback was "Thank you for telling us what to do -- we never knew how to do it before."

Gradually, in the second and third years, we have incorporated more teacher leadership and input in order for our progress to be sustained. But it is much better to do this too late than too early.

3. A wise venture capitalist once told me the worst sin in HR is to "hire too early, fire too late" and we found ourselves making both mistakes.

When we needed a teacher replacement, we circumvented our typical multi-stage process and ended up with someone who didn't last. And many times, we gave people too many chances when we knew deep down there was no hope of change.

My new rule is that if a teacher is not working by Thanksgiving, it's over. At that point, there's still time to get someone else and salvage the year. After that point, it may be counterproductive to fire and be left with no one to cover (unless they did something truly unacceptable).

I am cheering on the turnarounds. Three of our MTR teachers are off to a neat new one called UP. But the task seems even tougher than starting a new charter. Stig wonders:

How will the school look in the long run (tests are just tests, so beyond that)?

What does this imply about the feasibility of the district turnarounds (can the "plumbing" of district schools be redone to the degree that it was redone at UHCS -- and if not, do results deteriorate in a linear way, or just flat out fall off a cliff?)

Why don't funders and authorizes get after charter turnarounds more?

Rahshene is moving on (fyi - Misha would love to add new folks to his leadership team). What happens if and when Misha leaves?