Turnaround: A Third Way

Larry McKenzie of Pillsbury United Communities–Office of Public Charter Schools (PUC), knew that academic data for LoveWorks Academy for Visual and Performing Arts (LWA) warranted charter revocation and closure. The authorizer needed to compel foundational change at the school but was limited by its statutory role in the interventions it could entertain.

Larry and PUC knew the human costs of closure. For families involved in earlier experiences, closure represented trauma and betrayal of trust in educational institutions. And what does closure accomplish if there are few other high-quality options available for displaced students? That motivated PUC to explore alternatives that could stave off school closure and honor their dual commitment to respect parent choice and ensure appropriate oversight in accordance with statute.

As captured in the case study, Community-Driven Change: An Idea Whose Time has Come. PUC set out on a “learning journey” to build knowledge of turnaround strategy. PUC gave LWA leaders and parents a choice: “Unless you engage in a turnaround process with us, we are not going to renew the charter.” The authorizer made the consequences crystal clear. LWA accepted the challenge so the school could be saved.

Key to this strategy, however, was PUC’s decision to dedicate financial resources to third-party parent education and project management support. They invited The School Leadership Project (TSLP), a Twin Cities educational consultancy, to design and manage the implementation of a “Third Way.”

Why was this important? Parental engagement is key, but unless their engagement can be focused in a positive way by educating and guiding them on the journey to a Third Way, parents can be barriers to constructive change. School leaders do not have time and resources to do this. Secondly, PUC recognized that it was not its role to do turnaround “in-house.” Minnesota’s charter law gave PUC a specific power–the power to close. They don’t have other change levers. So to respect their statutory role as authorizer, they needed to bring in a third party.

I give credit to this authorizer. They stayed true to their oversight role, making clear they would close the school unless fundamental turnaround occurred. Many authorizers end there, because they see themselves only in the compliance role. PUC was willing to invest resources to try a different way–to help LWA become the school that could provide the high-quality options that were so needed for students in their community. They brought in TSLP to work with the parents and manage the process.

In short, PUC held the school accountable, invested in turnaround resources, but did not lead it. That’s important. Soon PUC will be tasked with the statutory responsibility of evaluating whether or not the turnaround worked.

I expect it will. Why? The turnaround was community-driven and operator-led. More next week.