Developing Leaders to Turn Around Schools and Outcomes in Philadelphia

I joined TNTP in 2014 tasked with designing a new program to prepare school leaders to turn around struggling schools in Philadelphia. Leading a school that’s failing its students—despite the best intentions of the staff—is work that’s as important as it is challenging. I learned that lesson from my own personal experience working in tough school settings.

In 2004, I was a teacher in a maximum security prison in Wilmington, Delaware. As I taught, I was required to wear a body alarm, just in case students decided to attack me. They were teenagers with varied academic backgrounds: some were just learning to read, others had completed some high school courses. What they did have in common were documented psychological, emotional, and academic disabilities, and a history of serious criminal exploits.

Despite the circumstances, many students excelled: they earned diplomas and GEDs, and took college courses. Heartbreakingly, more earned return tickets to prison upon being released. The alarming recidivism led me to become a school leader. I realized the only way to stop kids from cycling in and out of prison was to make sure their schools never put them on the path there in the first place.  

For a year, I was a turnaround resident principal in one of Baltimore’s most notorious schools. We had modest gains during my residency year: a few less fires, a few less suspensions than the previous year. But I learned lessons that were instrumental when I led a school slated for alternative governance in Baltimore City. During my three-year tenure as principal, we decreased the suspension rate by 80 percent, removed 100 percent of teachers rated unsatisfactory, and significantly increased student performance in reading and math.

My time in Baltimore taught me that being a successful turnaround leader means more than just doing things right, it means making tough decisions about hiring, retention, and school culture with kids at the center, and acting as a lever of change to make sure failure is no longer the status quo. Our new turnaround principal training track—PLUS Turnaround—is modeled after this tenet.

Building off of the success of PhillyPLUS, PLUS Turnaround is a specialized track designed to produce a small cohort of four to six turnaround leaders to transform the city's lowest performing schools. To cultivate and enhance the skills needed to do this work, our residency will help leaders committed to the work of school turnaround to learn the valuable lessons that will allow them to go into schools and hit the ground running.

First, there is an intensive summer training that explores change management and building strong relationships with families and the communities leaders serve. Residents then spend a year serving as an assistant principal—or comparable role—in a local turnaround school under the guidance of a mentor principal and an experienced turnaround leadership coach. During the year, residents also participate in five externships in schools in Philadelphia and high-performing turnaround schools across the country, exposing them to what successful turnaround efforts look like across districts.

To make sure residents deliver on the change we train them to lead, we’ve committed to a thorough evaluation process that considers residents’ impact on student outcomes, their ability to invest and authentically engage with families and school communities, and their ability to drive teacher growth through an unwavering focus on instruction. We’ll support these goals by providing weekly coaching, and monthly professional development sessions.

It is my hope PLUS Turnaround will help us train and enable leaders who can turn some of Philly’s toughest schools into places of learning and love for all kids—especially those most marginalized. At the heart of doing that is creating experiences that will expose residents to the realities of this work and build the tough mindset needed to drastically alter school experiences for kids who deserve better. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP