School Impossible: Three Principles for Turnarounds

Erik EllefsenInnovation1 Comment

Happy summer, and I hope that you have some time to rest and relax. My encouragement this summer is to take some serious time-off and to actually do nothing, as recommended by this Forbes article. This wisdom resonates with me because of the inundation of stimuli that typically competes for my attention, especially because of my fondness of Twitter and my general workaholic tendencies.

But before I take my own summer sabbatical, I want to follow up on my last blog, A Year of School Visits: Four Lessons, with some principles I’ve learned regarding school turnarounds. Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to consult, advise, cheer-on, and invest in more than a dozen schools that many believed were destined for insignificance or even closure. I smile when Chuck Evans of Better Schools, whom I often call in to help, asks, “Where do you find these schools?” But some of these very schools have proven that drastic turnarounds are possible.


One of my favorite TV shows is Restaurant Impossible with Chef Robert Irvine. He responds to restaurant owners’ pleas for help as they face personal or financial failure. Irvine takes over the restaurant for forty-eight hours and returns to the owners a new and improved restaurant that usually goes on to succeed. I have found inspiration in his approach as I’ve had the opportunity to help schools survive, improve in impressive ways, and even become thriving communities in a number of cases.

These are the three principles I have found that make a big difference:

Invested People

Many board or school leaders come to me asking for help, but there is a difference between the plea for help and the full investment necessary to do turnaround work. I now know to avoid the person looking for the leader, model, or singular innovation that will make everything better. This realization came to me slowly over the years but stuck with me when a pastor told me that he wanted to build the “best” leadership team in the country to rebuild his school. However, a year into the turnaround he didn’t like what we, along with this new leadership team, had discovered (primarily because it pointed to his financial mismanagement and lack of leadership acumen), so he fired everyone involved. Of the many schools I’ve partnered with, this result is unusual. But this experience made it clear that it takes a significant, open-minded investment rather than just an “interest” in pursuing success.

If you want to build a great school, great people will need to invest deeply in the institution. I have witnessed board members, ambitious community leaders, or homegrown leaders who refuse to give up on a school, its mission, and its place in the community. The difference between these leaders and our modern concept of leadership is that they are not the superheroes we seek through national job searches or a lengthy job prospectus. I have written about and talked with innovative school leaders, and the best consistently come from within a community—individuals who intertwined their personal, professional, and spiritual lives into the life of the school.

Simply put, invested people build invested communities.

Focused Practice

Most schools have a mission, but very few schools know what it is, resulting in hodgepodge practice that lacks focus. Just like Chef Robert critiques multi-page menus of ho-hum meals that can be found at any average diner, many schools have a multi-page menu of everything from deeper learning, Harkness tables, blended learning, differentiated instruction, athletics, STEM or even STEAM, 1-to-1 technology initiatives, spiritual life activities including mentoring, missions trips, service-learning, and advisory, and AP, IB, or TfT. None of these programs are on their own problematic, but rather the lack of focus often leads to institutional ineffectiveness.

When I work with schools, I take encouragement from Jon Eckert’s ideas in The ‘No’ in Innovation. Before we do something innovative, we agree to end “3” things that do not contribute to our school’s mission or can’t be done well enough to meet student learning opportunities. We must know our purpose for existence, the opportunities to fulfill our mission, and the limitations to becoming a purposeful learning organization.

I love when Chef Robert dances with joy when he and the restaurant’s chef give an old dish a new flair. Keep it simple, but make it “sexy,” as he often says. For schools, any change needs to be tied to mission.

Updated Spaces

Just as Chef Robert brings in a design crew and gives them a budget of $10,000 to redesign the restaurant, most school facilities can be given significant facelifts without major cash infusions. Both restaurants and schools can be revitalized by decluttering, deep cleaning, repairing surfaces, applying fresh paint, and updating the décor.

This past year, I watched a school create a dynamic and vibrant community space when the leader removed the clutter, painted it, updated the lighting, and spent $5,000 on simple furnishings. Not only did this project become a hotspot on campus for positive community interactions, but it became an inspiration for change throughout the campus.

We know our lived-in spaces matter to the human psyche, so clean them up, paint them, update the lighting, and create a new atmosphere without raising millions for new facilities.

Final Thoughts

If you are entering the summer feeling overwhelmed, take some time off, watch Chef Robert’s show for fun, and dream about what you could do to make a difference in your school. Ask the following questions:

  • Are you invested?
  • What three things does your school need to stop doing in 2019-20?
  • What community space could use a facelift?
  • Who can help you accomplish this important work?



  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

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