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Trending Toward Turnaround

With the help of HGSE professional development, educators work collaboratively to learn new ways to help turn their schools around
Principal Jackie Gilmore with her group from North End
Principal Jackie Gilmore (front right) with a group of educators from North End Middle School at the National Institute for Urban School Leaders in July 2023
Photo: Courtesy of Jackie Gilmore

Jackie Gilmore, principal of North End Middle School in Waterbury, Connecticut, has a long history with the school. She’s spent her entire career there, starting as a teacher in 1990 and becoming its principal in 2016. “There are many teachers that I've had that were students of mine who have come and joined our team,” says Gilmore. “So we are pretty much a very close knit family.”

Waterbury is a city of about 115,000 located northeast of New York City. North End Middle School, one of three middle schools in the Waterbury district, serves about 1000 students in grades 6–8. About 22% of those students are identified as needing special education services. Some 14% of students are English language learners. About 64% of students are Hispanic; 23% are Black, and 92% qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

In recent years, despite the efforts of North End staff, many of these students have been struggling. And in 2019, when the state of Connecticut identified North End as a turnaround school, it was time for the North End “family” to make some changes. As principal, Gilmore led the school to significant improvement over the next four years and professional development at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) played an important role.  

Turnaround Chart

Starting Turnaround, Looking Inward

According to Gilmore, the process of turnaround began with looking inward. “I had to do a lot of self reflection,” Gilmore says, “because I'm the leader of the ship. And how did I let it get here under my watch?”

The answer came, Gilmore says, in 2019, when she participated in HGSE’s School Turnaround Leaders (STL) institute. The intensive offered Gilmore a great opportunity to meet with peers from other districts who had similar problems, and work collaboratively to learn new ways to help turn their schools around. A big part of that, says Gilmore, was working to identify and solve specific problems of practice.

“[Faculty member] Kay Merseth’s presentation on school turnaround and instructional improvement was extremely helpful in getting me refocused on the importance of instruction and helped me self-reflect on what changes needed to occur in the building in order to put instruction [and students] first,” says Gilmore.

Upon her return to North End, Gilmore gathered her team and spoke candidly. First, she owned her responsibility for the lack of focus on students’ needs. Then she explained the team would take a new approach, and put student needs first. “Our staff needed to be reminded that we ALL needed to have high expectations for ALL of our students and we needed to improve Tier 1 instruction,” Gilmore says.

Professional Development Leads to Important Changes

The professional development Gilmore pursued at Harvard proved critical over the next few years, as she and her three assistant principals worked assiduously to transform North End Middle School. In fact, Gilmore felt so strongly about Harvard’s impact on her own leadership that she asked Harvard to create a custom session for her staff in October 2022. In addition, Gilmore brought her three assistant principals to HGSE to attend the National Institute for Urban School Leaders in July 2023.

The skills and strategies the team learned at HGSE have led to important changes in the way North End Middle School approaches teacher training and student instruction, she says. Now, Gilmore and her team do more than just demonstrate ways in which teachers can improve their classroom instruction. They also provide teachers with extra support and accountability so they can effectively implement what they have learned. To do this, the school established “improvement committees” focused on areas such as positive behavioral support and systems instruction. North End also created content coordinator positions to help teachers prepare and improve lesson plans.

“In addition,” Gilmore says, “I hired Cormier Consulting, a service provider specializing in school turnaround, to help with professional learning for our teachers to improve Tier 1 teaching. We implemented an intentional instruction planning guide that serves as the basis for all our teaching and learning that all teachers follow. We monitor the implementation through walkthroughs.”

David Cormier, with Cormier Consulting, has been working with North End Middle School since 2021. He notes that the extra support prevents things from falling through the cracks. “When things get busy or crazy or hectic, [people] don't necessarily follow through with those things. [But] that's not the case at North End… If I'm doing a workshop with the staff, the assistant principals are attending that workshop, or Jackie's attending that workshop, and then they're coming up to me afterward saying, ‘How can I follow up with teachers over the next couple of weeks until you come back again?’"

Recommitting to Professional Development

After four years, Waterbury’s turnaround effort is showing significant and measurable improvement. Connecticut’s audit system scores schools on six different criteria using a scale from one to four, with four being highest. And while Waterbury’s 2019 assessment included mostly twos, the 2023 assessment shows Waterbury in the three and four range. “All of the progress we have made is because of our hard-working teachers and staff who were willing to come out of their comfort zones to improve teaching and learning for our students,” Gilmore says.

Turnaround Chart

Still, the school’s standardized testing scores remain lower than desired. In response, Gilmore and her team are working hard to implement strategies learned in last October’s custom workshop, and at National Institute for Urban School Leaders in July 2023. They hope to see positive results as a result of this continued commitment.

“Leading a turnaround school is not easy,” Gilmore says. “[But] the Harvard experience came at the perfect time in my career. I came home with a sense of urgency, focused and energized to take on the daunting task of leading the turnaround at my school. The sense of urgency that I felt at Harvard is what drives me every day.”

—  Gary Miller is a writer and editor. His latest book is There’s No Way to Do It Wrong! How to Get Young Learners to Take Risks, Tell Stories, Share Opinions, and Fall in Love with Writing


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