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Turnaround, Bright Eyes

Jun 19, 2015 06:07PM ● Published by Karena Rogers

Principal Theobald checks a student’s progress on a math sheet.

West Jordan - We’ve all overslept and been late to school. But how would you like to wake up to your grade school principal in your room? 

If you’re a student at West Jordan’s Majestic Elementary, this might have happened to you this year. “We’ve also given alarm clocks to students, and checked on them at bedtime,” says Principal Todd Theobald.  This is not your typical grade school. 

Majestic Elementary is one of three Jordan School District recipients of a pioneering approach to education founded by Partnership for Leaders in Education and The University of Virginia’s School of Business, called the “Turnaround Program.” The Turnaround Program is no cake walk. Awarded to at-risk Title 1 schools and federally funded, the program describes itself as “the only program in the country dedicated to establishing the school system conditions that set the stage for change and to building transformative leadership capacity to achieve that change.” 

The basis of the program is a belief that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race or any other societal hindrance, can learn and succeed. There are specific, measurable benchmarks that schools must follow: high attendance, consistently improving test scores, and personal growth within both students and their families, among others. The motto is: “Greater flexibility with more accountability.” (Principal Theobald only had to visit one sleeping student at home for word to travel that he was taking this program seriously). There are reduced class sizes and more personalized teaching strategies to accommodate specific needs. Along with these benefits, schools must stringently report all findings. In its second year at Majestic Elementary, the Turnaround Program is already making great strides.         
Kindergarteners at Majestic Elementary are 96% proficient in math and language arts.

 In 2013, the state of Utah gave Majestic Elementary a “D-“ grade. With adherence to the guidelines of the Turnaround Program, that grade was raised to a “B” in 2014. Historically one of the lowest performing schools in the district, kindergarteners at Majestic are now 96% proficient in language arts and math. District leaders and principals attended intense training to implement the program, and parents and students pledged to meet each benchmark stipulated. Four times a year, students are tested on language arts and math. Teachers then spend hours combing through those test results to determine what they can do better, what they did right and how best to tweak their curriculum for the next round of testing. 

This process, called “deep data diving,” is highly analytic, and many conversations take place among teachers and administration throughout the year, exploring different tactics that will best educate the students. “We know we are not going to have the highest scores in the district, but we focus on what we call ‘quick wins,’ which is simply emphasizing the positive,” Theobald said.   

Since its implementation at Majestic Elementary in 2013, the Turnaround Program has had its ups and downs. “There were times when I wanted give up,” Theobald admits. “We all felt this way, more than once. But when you see the pride and positive changes in these kids, many of whom struggle with tough personal lives, you want to come back and do it all again; we’ve never worked harder.”

The kids have also never worked harder. With the Turnaround Program, they are partners in their own learning, making responsibility mandatory. Students know that if they work hard, their test scores will reflect that, resulting in academic competitiveness that most of these kids have never experienced. But now that they have a taste for accomplishment, they aspire to the next level, proving the success of the program while also instilling pride and a thirst for success in the student. 

“When a fourth grader runs up to me in the hall with his eyes lit up and his face beaming to tell me that he rose two levels in Sage testing, I know we’re making a difference,” Theobald said. He implements “every minute matters,” underscoring arriving to school on time, ready to learn every day. To better assist the students, teachers identify specific skills in each child and target that child’s learning time, boosting personalized abilities. “These kids are trying really hard,” Theobald said. “I tell them, ‘Win or fail at the end, doing your best is really all that matters.’” But not only are they winning, they certainly are not oversleeping anymore. 
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