Colorado’s Turnaround Schools 2010-2013: Make a Wish

Over the past five years, the U.S. Department of Education has invested $4.7 billion into turning schools around, including $58 million into Colorado’s lowest-performing schools. The government’s expectation has been that dollars be used for drastic school turnaround efforts. As President Obama described the problem, 12% of schools are responsible for 50% of the nation’s dropouts.7 President Lyndon B. Johnson, President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, and President George W. Bush called attention to the growing crisis. Just over a decade ago, the Clinton administration called on Congress to enact a “$250 million Education Accountability Fund, to help communities turn around failing schools or shut them down. [The executive order] directed the Department of Education to compile and publish key data on low- performing schools across the country and help states fix those schools.”8 This problem isn’t new, nor is the proposed solution: “turn around” schools. What was new about the Obama administration’s turnaround initiative was the specificity about how to turn around schools that included bold proposals to close or restart schools, matched with an extraordinary dollar figure.

The Obama administration’s grant guidelines mandated that bottom tier schools be either (1) transformed, (2) turned around, (3) restarted under a different governance model, or (4) simply closed. Once the department issued guidelines, it was left to the states to allocate funds to districts and schools to oversee. (ED has a monitoring office that provides some oversight regarding state processes for managing the SIG grants.) Many of the policies were informed by the 2007 Mass Insight report, The Turnaround Challenge, 9 which recommended that districts and states abandon the light-touch improvement efforts of the past and embark on fundamental changes at the school level with serious consequences for failure to improve.

In April 2010, Colorado began distributing funds to schools and districts based on need. The districts submitted applications to CDE that showed which of the four turnaround models the schools would use (though only a certain percentage of schools in a given district could use the same turnaround model) and a plan for how the schools would implement the models. CDE reviewed the plans and granted funds to the districts. Over four years, the state selected four cohorts of schools—each school having three years to use the funds.

In all, 38 low-performing schools in Colorado were awarded funding. Several schools were restarted as multiple schools, so there are now 46 schools (including five closed schools and two schools where the funds were withdrawn) that technically qualify as “turnaround” SIG schools because they have received SIG funds.

Roughly two precent of all of Colorado’s students attend schools that received funding. Many of the SIG schools have seen multiple rounds of interventions and leadership changes. This effort marked a unique opportunity to put millions of dollars into schools to allow them to make the drastic changes needed to help the small percentage of students falling far behind. 6