Tacos and School Turnaround

This is a guest post from Puja Thakkar, a Program Associate for NCTL's State & District Engagement and School Transformation team.

Have you ever wondered what tacos and school turnaround have in common?  Last month, state and district leaders from 26 districts across the country came together in Washington, DC to find out.    Hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, and kicked off by Secretary Duncan, the School Turnaround Summit aimed to address as many essential turnaround challenges as possible while building a strong network of turnaround leaders. 

Setting the framework for the summit by leading a whole-group discussion of a cross-sector case study, Monica Higgins, Professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, begin by drawing the parallels between tacos and school turnaround.  The case, focused on the evolution of the Taco Bell food chain, related to a series of turnaround business strategies that raised important questions about turnaround initiatives that are applicable to all sectors - public and private.  Ranging from issues of customer service to employee uniforms to hours of operation, it turned out that managing a fast food taco restaurant was quite similar to managing a successful school district.  I was thrilled and inspired to see this room full of 200 educators collaborating and using “out of the box” ideas to strategize about school turnaround in their districts. 

During the summit, participants attended panels, discussions, , session debriefs, and team action planning sessions.  In NCTL’s breakout sessions, Maximizing Learning Time, district teams strategized to design and implement creative ELT initiatives in their schools.   Districts collaborated to share ideas around creative staffing, community partnerships, building intervention blocks during the school day, designing data systems to monitor ELT, and strategies to sustain ELT after SIG funding has expired.  While some districts struggled with preparing the tacos, other struggled with operations and the effectiveness of their employees.  Throughout the three breakout sessions, we saw school leaders come together to offer each other advice and ask one another for suggestions.

As a former teacher in a large urban district where many schools were failing, I greatly appreciated the content and expertise offered to state/district leaders during the School Turnaround Summit.  Often times, content knowledge and lack of first-hand experience stand in the way of school improvement. Not only did the sessions provide content on key issues such as external partnerships, data management, expanded learning time, and creating effective leadership teams, the summit also provided participants with access to the national experts on each of these issues.  Overall, the School Turnaround Summit proved to be beneficial to the NCTL team as we continue to work with SIG schools across the nation.  I am excited to see the progress these districts make as they return to their teams, continue thinking creatively, utilize the provided resources, and begin executing their action plans!