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Professional Education

Story of Impact: School Turnaround Leaders

Dr. Byron Ernest is the principal of Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Among his many distinctions and honors, Dr. Ernest was named the 2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year. As an educational leader, Dr. Ernest has participated in a number of leadership development programs with Programs in Professional Education and The Principals’ Center. In June of 2013, Ernest attended School Turnaround Leaders with 109 other educators from across the country. The program helps educators understand the core elements critical for a school’s turnaround plan, and addresses key leadership skills and strategies for turnaround success. We caught up with Dr. Ernest recently to hear his reflections on the program and how it has helped him make an impact at his school.

What are the two most important challenges you face in your position, and how do they impact your role as a school leader or in supporting school turnaround efforts? 

Our biggest challenges right now are student attendance and family engagement. We are doing research on how best to provide transportation in such a way to get students to school each day. Our data suggests that when students are here, they are learning, so we believe it is our number one challenge right now to get every student to school.

We are also working diligently to increase family engagement and empowerment by establishing Parent Universities that our teachers hold to help parents be effective in helping their students through the educational process. We also hold Family Expos twice a month as a result of what I learned at the School Turnaround Leaders program.

How has School Turnaround Leaders helped you address these challenges?

STL provided strategies that we were able to implement quickly. Also, the strategy planning activity was outstanding!

We were to have come prepared to the program with two major initiatives, or “problems of practice,” somewhat thought through. We then worked through the strategy-planning process in a small cohort throughout the week to create a ready plan to take back to our schools. This plan involved the creation of two priority initiatives (major initiatives for the school), strategies (policies, practices, and programs necessary to achieve the priority), technical benchmarks (high-level to-do list of tasks to implement each strategy) and expected outcomes (evidence of impact toward goals). The plan that was put in place when I returned to Emmerich and it is driving a successful school year right now!

In your context, have you seen change in the alignment between stakeholders, district policies, resource allocation or other key elements that support increased student outcomes?

Yes! This program really helped me to understand how to reduce the number of initiatives down to the most important ones, and how to share this vision with our staff so they could understand their role in the vision. It also really drove home the thought of there almost being too many resources—both monetary and programmatic—in turnaround work, and how to navigate to the most important components to drive our schools to the goal of high student achievement.

How has School Turnaround Leaders helped you with the core elements of your turnaround strategy?

Again, the theory of action was crucial. All of the sessions during the program provided necessary information to complete this project. Our plan is in place around the strategies we developed, and we are doing a weekly analysis of strengths and areas for growth.

What would you say to someone who is considering School Turnaround Leaders or another of HGSE’s programs?

I was so proud to be a part of School Turnaround Leaders. One of the leadership lessons of the week was how we need to step into the balcony as school leaders, and watch the dance above all the chaos and noise. This analogy was driven home to me as I returned to the urban turnaround school where I lead. As transformational turnaround school leaders, it is important for us to get above the clouds and take stock of where we are. This clear awareness gives us the opportunity to sort through the clutter and stay focused on the important work at hand of putting students first.

Checking in one year later.

Dr. Ernest has returned to Harvard to continue learning with Programs in Professional Education. We caught up with him on the final day of Think Tank on Global Education, following a lecture by world-renowned educator Palsi Sahlberg who Dr. Ernest described simply as, “Awesome.” Ernest reported that Emmerich Manual has had a successful year, and that he and his staff have seen increases in student achievement, as well as increased family engagement due to the major initiatives and strategic plan of action developed in School Turnaround Leaders. And he is not done yet, he is looking forward to returning in August to attend Family Engagement in Education: Creating Effective Home and School Partnerships, in order to take his family-engagement strategies to the next level.   

About School Turnaround Leaders

School Turnaround Leaders is a five-day leadership program for both teams and individuals. The program brings together educators, seasoned practitioners and Harvard faculty for an intensive experience that provides the tools to develop a plan of action specific to their school context, focusing on establishing priorities to achieve rapid and meaningful improvement.

About Programs in Professional Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

For more than 40 years, HGSE has offered professional development programs for education leaders. We offer programs that make a positive difference—in the lives of students, in the work of institutions, and in the practice of educators. Through Programs in Professional Education, the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education, and The Principals’ Center, our goal is to be the leading source of professional development based on the most current research and practice.