Photo of Wheatley Education Campus from DCPS website.

There’s no set formula for the notoriously difficult task of turning around a failing school. But if you find the right principal and give him or her enough resources and freedom, you might be on your way.

The pace of improvement at DCPS schools has generally been painfully slow, but a few have seen significant gains in proficiency in recent years while continuing to serve high-poverty populations.  One of those is Wheatley Education Campus in Trinidad, where proficiency rates have more than doubled since 2008. Is there a way to replicate that success?

When Scott Cartland took over as principal of the preK-8 campus 6 years ago, he was in for a shock. He had spent the previous 7 years as an administrator at two high-performing elementary schools in Upper Northwest. Wheatley—or, as it was then known, Webb-Wheatley—was something else entirely.

"I felt like we walked into total chaos,” he says. “The culture was just so negative and dysfunctional.”

In a way, Cartland was lucky: the school’s performance had been so poor that it was being reconstituted under the federal No Child Left Behind law. That meant Cartland was free to replace the staff, and he ended up keeping only 4 or 5 teachers out of about 30.

But that had its disadvantages as well. With so many new teachers, “the kids don’t know anybody,” he says, and “relationships are important.”

Proficiency rates—the usual measure of a school’s success—barely budged for the first several years. But the past two years have seen a marked increase. The 2013 rates were 37% in math and 31% in reading. That may not sound impressive, but consider that in 2009 they were 13% in both subjects.

Change takes time

One of the lessons Cartland draws from his experience is that change takes time. And it takes even more time before it shows up in proficiency rates.

DC’s standardized test scores group students into 4 categories: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The system is set up to measure a school’s success primarily by the percentage of students in the Proficient or Advanced categories.

But at a school like Wheatley, where over half the students were Below Basic in math in 2008, it takes a while before significant numbers can move up to Proficient. The vast majority will move up to Basic first, and the school gets little credit when they do.

Another challenge is the tremendous amount of movement between schools in DC. Cartland says that a third of his students are new every year, and about 20 of them arrive after having been “kicked out of charters.” So each year the tests are assessing a different group of students.

How has Cartland managed to get the school on an upward trajectory despite these obstacles?

First, he was careful about who he hired. He looked for teachers and administrators who would be willing to work as a team, and who would “buy into the idea that this is important work, not just a teaching job.”

Cartland says that to be successful at a high-poverty school, teachers need to be able to build strong relationships with kids, and they need excellent classroom management skills. Perhaps most important, they have to be constantly striving to improve, and they can’t quit when the going gets tough. “It never gets easy,” Cartland says.

Second, he focused on creating an environment that was calm enough to allow teaching to take place. That required “lots of conversations with teachers” about making behavioral expectations clear and being consistent about consequences. Creating this kind of positive school culture, Cartland says, isn’t just about punishing kids but also about “giving kids the tools to work out problems.”

Finding the right partners

Third, Cartland entered into a number of beneficial partnerships with other organizations. The Flamboyan Foundation has helped teachers engage parents in their children’s education. Turnaround for Children has been crucial in connecting kids who are struggling with the social services they needed.

Reading Partners provides tutoring. (Disclosure: I volunteer as a tutor with Reading Partners at Wheatley.) A couple of other organizations sponsor cultural field trips that are tied to the curriculum.

Another kind of partnership that Cartland clearly values is the DC Collaborative for Change, or DC3, a network of 9 DCPS elementary schools that share ideas and engage in professional development together.

Some of the schools are struggling to improve, like Wheatley and Walker-Jones Education Campus, while others, like Janney and Mann in Upper Northwest, serve a more affluent population. The premise of the collaboration is not that the higher-performing schools will “teach” the lower-performing ones, but rather that all of these schools can learn from one another.

Cartland says being part of DC3 has helped him maintain a consistent instructional philosophy. It’s also enabled him to operate with more autonomy than some other principals have, because DCPS has given the DC3 schools greater control over things like budgeting and professional development.

And now that Wheatley has a positive school culture more or less in place, Cartland is turning more of his attention to academics. With the help of a Breakthrough Schools grant announced today, next year he’ll introduce a new competency-based approach in the middle school grades. He says that will give kids more ownership of their educational experience and also allow them to move at their own pace.

That approach, he says, should also enable Wheatley to engage and challenge kids at any ability level, including children from middle-class families now moving into the neighborhood. The school hasn’t yet seen any effects of gentrification, but Cartland says Wheatley will be ready if and when that happens.

Autonomy plus the right leader

The relative autonomy Cartland has enjoyed may be the key to Wheatley’s transformation. It’s enabled him to basically choose the staff he wanted and to shape the school largely as he saw fit. Every school is different, Cartland says, and there’s no fixed menu of improvements that will work across the board.

Some argue that autonomy is the basic reason for the success of high-performing charter schools. And some have advocated giving greater autonomy to traditional public schools in hopes that it will have similar effects.

But autonomy only works when the individuals exercising it have clear goals and understand how to achieve them. Most DCPS schools where principals have had the authority to replace teachers haven’t seen the kind of improvement Wheatley has. Low-performing schools that have made progress, including Kelly Miller Middle School and Tubman Elementary School as well as Wheatley, have been led by strong principals.

And while there are programs that have brought good results in a number of high-poverty schools, like Flamboyan and Turnaround for Children, even the best program will only work if a school implements it well. And good implementation depends largely on the school’s principal.

So if we’re going to replicate the kind of success Wheatley has experienced, the first step may be to replicate Scott Cartland, or at least identify others like him. Then we’ll need to give those principals the time, the freedom, and the resources to figure out what will work to improve their schools, and to make it happen.

The question is: with so many low-performing schools in DC, are there enough Scott Cartlands out there to go around?

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.