Earlier this month the Duval School Board voted unanimously to hire a consulting firm for $480,000 to help turn around eight low-performing schools, including three in danger of takeover if they don’t earn a C this school year.

 

The consulting firm, Turnaround Solutions, was founded in Jacksonville by James Young, a former Duval schools principal who had turned around three previously failing schools — from Fs to a C or better — within three years each. He left Duval schools in 2012, after moving Jean Ribault High School from an F to an A.

He now is back with seven other former Duval principals and district leaders to accelerate improvement at Matthew Gilbert Middle, Northwestern Middle, Arlington Middle and Lake Forest Elementary, Arlington Heights Elementary, George Washington Carver Elementary, Gregory Drive Elementary, and Ramona Elementary schools.

Gilbert, Northwestern and Lake Forest have less than a year to achieve a C grade; the other schools have until the end of the next school year.

If they don’t, a new state law requires that the district either allow the schools to be taken over or close them.

Districts have several options, including letting the schools become charter schools, but Duval has chosen takeover by an outside entity, which will run the schools and remove ineffective teachers. The firm has to be chosen by the end of January.

Young said it’s Turnaround Solutions’ job now to make sure that there won’t be a need for a takeover.

“My goal is not to be an external provider but to get those schools to a C,” he said. “What consultants do is they put themselves out of work. If you do your job, you’re not needed any more.”

To be sure, Young said his team will be among those pitching for the takeover, if necessary.

Young said his team’s top task is to get reading, writing, math and science scores up. Each team member will be assigned a school to closely support the principals, coaching teams and teaching staffs.

District officials who recommended Young said his company will provide leadership coaching, support and “mentoring” to principals, none of whom has more than five years experience leading a school. Six have two or fewer years at the helm.

The firm will “provide weekly site-based, focused leadership support” and will “focus on fidelity of instructional programming” as well as boosting parent and community involvement and school culture.

“The accountability time line for school closures … provides an additional layer of stress for these less experienced principals,” the Board’s agenda item states.

Young said he hopes that one-on-one attention for principals will “build capacity so the schools can function without us.”

The district contract breaks down the team’s work into three phases and pays them after each phase. The first phase involves developing a plan for each school, Young said, while the other phases include a variety of activities, such as classroom observations and data tracking.

“We don’t really have to wait until the test scores to determine if what we’re doing is effective,” Young said. There are ways to measure “teacher readiness, principal tenets and culture and climate changes.”

The schools also have many inexperienced teachers because it’s hard to attract high-performing teachers, even with thousands of dollars in pay incentives.

Young said his team will support young teachers often through their principals. “The principal has to be the leader; we are behind the scenes, supporting the principal,” he said.

Of course there may be a few times when consultants get directly involved with students, he said, such as mentoring a student who needs extra care.

Young left Duval with a track record of turning F schools into higher-scoring schools.

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1986-92, Young studied education and became a science and reading teacher in Winder, Ga., before Duval Schools hired him in 1993 to teach science at Fletcher High. He then became an assistant or vice principal at Wolfson High and Andrew Robinson Elementary.

In 1999, Duval put him in charge of Pine Estates Elementary, which went from an F to a C during his three years there. Next, he led Rufus Payne Elementary from an F to a B in three years.

Young says his only regret was that he didn’t stay at either school long enough to reach an A.

In 2005, Young left Duval for Clay County, where he ran A-rated Orange Park Junior High for four years.

“I was still trying to find out for myself what … an A school looked like,” he said. “I needed to know what it looked like so I’d know where to take a school. “

Former Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals lured Young back by talking about how challenging his next assignment would be: turn around Ribault High, which had earned only D and F grades.

“He said, ‘You’re a Marine. You can do it,’” Young recalled. “Once I got to Ribault I knew exactly what kids needed to think and how teachers needed to respond … to make an A school.”

His first year there the high school earned a C. By 2012 its grade was an A and Young felt he “had a knack” for righting underperforming schools.

“He was very in-tuned to the skill set of his (school) staff,” said Paula Wright, Board chairwoman. “He actually looked at teachers’ resumes and saw what other skills each person had for where he could use them holistically.”

Wright said he talked to every class at least 20 minutes, and he had personal relationships with many students.

“He’d encourage them to not let externals define them,” she said. “He would say, ‘I believe in you. I know what you can do.’ He brought them all in and looked them in the eyes and let them know that they were Trojans for a purpose.”

As a education leader he was an “out-of-the-box” thinker, she said. He encouraged teachers to look for alternate ways to reach students, including using different content or departing from district academic pacing guides. He scrutinized academic performance data, she said, but he also listened to parents, teachers and students.

Young later wrote a book called “The One-Year School Turnaround” that’s still on sale on Amazon, and he began consulting for schools in Louisiana and Atlanta and two charter schools in Duval County. He also applied but didn’t get the Duval superintendent’s job, which went to Nikolai Vitti.

Young said he wasn’t disappointed about that; that’s not why he left the district and Ribault.

“I only like working with turnaround schools,” he said. “I like to make A schools, but I don’t like to lead them.”

For this current assignment, Young called in seven other Duval heavy-hitters out of retirement: Larry and Pearl Rozier, Lawrence Dennis, Nan Brookes Hoyle, Rita Franklin, Kenneth Francis and Jill Budd.

His team has met with their assigned principals and are visiting the schools, he said. They only have a few months before state testing begins, he noted.

Denise Smith Amos: 904-359-4083