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Inside a Commissioner’s Network School

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Lately, we’ve been looking at policy in action in each of our 6 recommendation areas. We’ve already looked at the use of longitudinal data systems to drive accountability, and a teacher’s perspective on the Common Core. Now, let’s take a look at the Commissioner’s Network Schools to learn about their turn around efforts.

This month, we visited the James J. Curiale School in Bridgeport to get a school-level look at what real turn around looks like. One of the four first Commissioner’s Network Schools, Curiale School has undergone a significant transformation in only a single year under the leadership of Principal Brett Gustafson.

Katie McLeod, a 4th grade teacher at Curiale School who served on its turnaround committee, says that before Curiale joined the Commissioner’s Network, its teachers did not have professional development opportunities and weren’t supported by the school’s administrators. Because the school didn’t have enough textbooks, teachers had to photocopy materials for their students. As a result, teachers were frustrated and morale was low. Students were frustrated too, and the school had high absentee rates for both students and teachers.

The building was also falling apart, with dilapidated ceilings and walls that were covered in graffiti. In fact, Gustafson says that when he first arrived, he struggled to convince the then-custodian that it was worth cleaning up the school’s walls at all because they might just get re-vandalized.

Then everything began to change. When the school became part of the Commissioner’s Network, the idea that a true transformation was about to take place quickly boosted morale. The school adopted its own turnaround model, rather than bringing in an outside educational management organization. In an almost grassroots-style intervention with complete union support, teachers were asked either to opt in or opt out to a new way of doing things.

The result is a meaningful collaboration between education leadership, teachers, parents, and students. Curiale teachers have shifted to a flexible scheduling model that has allowed them to add 45 extra minutes per school day, and almost 150 extra hours per year. Rather than thinking of this time as “school time” and “after school time”, all of the time is treated as one block that is used flexibly to cater to student needs.

To give teachers helpful professional development and support, leadership asks teachers what types of training they need. The school has been given funding for new curricula, books, and computers. It also boasts trendy “smart boards” and online lessons that help adapt to students’ different learning levels.

According to Curiale’s staff, there has been a huge culture shift in the school. As we walked the halls with them, we noticed clean walls and happy students. There was clear order, no students lingering in the hallways, and the classrooms were filled with students who were captivated by enthusiastic teachers.

In a year in which most CMT and CAPT scores went down statewide, Curiale has more than doubled its third grade math scores and almost doubled its third grade reading scores. Although scores dipped slightly in 8th grade math, they went up in 8th grade reading too. Overall it seems that morale is up and so is achievement. In this school, a pocket of intensive state intervention, real reform is underway!