Turning Around Tumbleweed

Roy Chan is the Director of  Effective Practices at NCTL and the lead author of Transforming Schools through Expanded Learning Time: Tumbleweed Elementary School

In school reform, few stories are more exciting or rewarding than a truly successful turnaround. These deserve our attention not only because they are (unfortunately) rare, but also because educators, policymakers, and anyone who has stepped inside a struggling school recognize that real, positive change requires tremendous talent and effort, as well as additional resources—including, occasionally, more time. 

We are thrilled to share another successful turnaround story through our Transforming Schools through Expanded Learning Time series. Two years ago, Tumbleweed Elementary School—located in Palmdale, CA, 60 miles north of Los Angeles—had little to celebrate as it turned 50 years old. Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, Tumbleweed’s student achievement had steadily declined; for instance, from 2004 to 2010, the school had never made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Not surprisingly, the state of California labeled Tumbleweed a “persistently low achieving” school in 2011.  
That year, led by a new administrative team; equipped with additional dollars through the US Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants (SIG); and given more time for students and teachers, the school achieved unprecedented gains. In 2011, Tumbleweed made AYP for the first time. School-wide proficiency rates on the California Standards Tests (CST) jumped 14 percentage points in ELA and 23 percentage points in math. Test scores reveal only part of their transformation. Today, students are more engaged; parents are more involved; and teachers are more collaborative.  “There wasn’t one particular thing we did that led to our improvement,” says Tumbleweed’s principal, Jezelle Fullwood. “It was a lot of hard work—getting new people, implementing professional learning communities, digging into data, changing the culture, and having a longer day.” Additional resources—SIG money and time—were undoubtedly essential for the school’s turnaround. However, they only provided the opportunity for Tumbleweed to transform itself. The case study and their results are a deserved acknowledgement that the school was able to capitalize on that opportunity.