School Improvement and School Turnaround: Local Accomplishments Of MetLife Foundation/NASSP Breakthrough Schools

School Improvement and School Turnaround: Local Accomplishments Of MetLife Foundation/NASSP Breakthrough Schools
School Improvement and School Turnaround: Local Accomplishments Of MetLife Foundation/NASSP Breakthrough Schools


The first in a series of AYPF forums highlighting successful high school improvement strategies, this event featured three 2008 winners of the prestigious Breakthrough Schools award, given by MetLife Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) to middle level and high schools that make and sustain dramatic achievement gains for large numbers of students living in poverty. The presenters focused specifically on the ways in which their schools have addressed the three key priority areas—collaborative leadership; personalization; and curriculum, instruction, and assessment—identified by NASSP in its well-known 2004 publication Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform and its 2006 follow-up Breaking Ranks in the Middle.


Mel Riddile, Associate Director of High School Services at NASSP (and 2006 National High School Principal of the Year), began with a description of the Breakthrough Schools program, which was created in 2004 with support from MetLife Foundation. The award recognizes secondary schools that have made dramatic progress in boosting the performance of low-income students, and that have sustained those improvements over three years or more. The process of identifying such schools is harder than it may sound, Riddile explained, given that they can range widely in size, demographics, grade-spans served, and other factors. While this year’s awardees differ from one another in many ways, however, they all share a core commitment to helping every student achieve at a high level, along with an emphasis on collecting and using data to improve instruction, a willingness to rethink standard school practices and organizational features, and an emphasis on building a sense of collective purpose among students, teachers, and staff.

John O’Neill, Principal of Forest Grove High School, explained that for his presentation, he was asked to show how his school addresses one of the three priority areas from Breaking Ranks: the personalization of the school environment. (Taton’s presentation focused on data-driven collaborative leadership, and Lowndes addressed curriculum and instruction.)

Seven years ago, when O’Neill became principal at Forest Grove, the school was already in the process of trying to create a more personalized environment. An earlier survey, commissioned by his predecessor, had revealed that most students felt themselves to be just “a number” to their teachers. Further, academic performance had been sliding for years, and increasing numbers of students were dropping out, nearly half of them before the end of the 9th grade, suggesting a real failure of the school to make new students feel welcome and engaged.

A 5-year Small Learning Communities grant from the US Department of Education enabled Forest Grove to implement new personalization strategies very quickly, O’Neill recalled. The school began by setting up a “buddy” system, whereby all new students receive summertime phone calls from upperclassmen, welcoming them to the school and offering to help them out with any questions or concerns. The school also set up an ongoing advisory system, with groups of 20-25 students meeting for an hour every other week with a teacher or staff member (and keeping the same advisor all through high school, if possible), and with additional counseling offered to new students who struggle with academics, attendance, or discipline. The school also has found it useful to group 9th and 10th graders into “houses,” O’Neill added, with English and social studies teachers integrating their classes. And for the 11th and 12th grades, the school recently created a career academy program, giving students another opportunity for membership in a smaller, stable group of classmates. (This year, the state of Oregon cut its funding for career academies, but the Forest Grove program still saw its enrollment grow from 25 to 125, and it expects the academies to continue.)

To date, Forest Grove’s reforms have had impressive results, said O’Neill. Enrollment in honors and AP classes has expanded; the dropout rate has been reduced from 7.7% to 2.7% (and if the district’s alternative high school is taken out of the calculation, the rate declines to 1.3%), the graduation rate has increased, and students’ sense of belonging to the school community has improved dramatically—according to a recent follow-up survey, 84% of the school’s students (polled anonymously) now report feeling “connected” to their classmates, teachers, and staff.

Finally, O’Neill pointed out that all of the strategies that have succeeded at Forest Grove are replicable—in fact, Forest Grove borrowed all of them from other schools.

Misti Taton, Principal of Cashman Middle School, began by noting that she is, according to state and federal accountablity standards, the principal of a “failing school.”

When she began at Cashman, she found that this wasn’t just an official designation. A sense of failure pervaded the building. In fact, the outgoing principal told her that she shouldn’t have taken the job, since “nothing more can be wrung out of this school” than has already been accomplished.

Since that time, however, Cashman—a school with a predominantly low-income, highly-mobile student population, with large numbers of non-native English speakers—has made great progress. Last year it missed its targets for Annual Yearly Progress in only one area.

Cashman’s turnaround hinged on a change in the staff’s attitudes toward the use of student performance data. When Taton was hired, she found that the district had appointed a school support team (SST) to design a blueprint for reform, but the resulting ideas weren’t grounded in reality. Rather than looking carefully at the data to assess the school’s major areas of strength and weakness, the SST (or “the gang of six,” as Taton called it) came up with plans that looked good on paper but would never work in practice. So one of Taton’s first acts as principal was to create a new and greatly expanded SST (adding a number of teachers, who had largely been shut out of the previous planning process), asking it to begin with a serious analysis of the data and only then to discuss priorities for school improvement.

The result was eye-opening, said Taton. Most of Cashman’s teachers had never really looked at the data before, and they were surprised to find that it contradicted many of their assumptions. For example, rumor had it that Cashman’s attendance problems were due mostly to Latina students, but the data revealed that the school’s white students were skipping school far more often. And while many teachers had assumed that most of the school’s Latino students were reading below grade level, the data showed that many of those students were in fact testing at high levels and were languishing in classes that were too basic for them.

It hasn’t been easy to confront the data, said Taton, but this new openness and transparancy has forced the school to make much better decisions about its curriculum, student placements, teaching assignments, as well as empowering staff to say no to outside vendors and initiatives that may be well-packaged but which aren’t likely to work at Cashman.

Grounded in the data, several new programs have been created at the school, including a very popular after-school program, special Saturday tutorials for struggling students, and parent nights that routinely draw more than 800 people. Additionally, the school has created a uniform grading policy, reinstated a number of accelerated classes, improved its recruiting of new teachers, and much more.

The formulas that determine AYP aren’t able to capture many of the tremendous gains that Cashman has made in academic achievement, attendance, graduation rates, and community outreach. However, says Taton, the school’s own data make it clear to everybody involved that great progress has been made. Rejecting Cashman’s official status as a “failing” school, she now likes to declare that she is the principal of a school that is “highly successful but mis-labeled.”

Kevin E. Lowndes, Principal of Wheaton High School, pointed out that although Wheaton serves a mainly low-income student population, it belongs to a fairly wealthy district. Compared to the more affluent schools nearby, it is often viewed as lagging behind, so it is particularly gratifying to be recognized by MetLife and NASSP.

Key to Wheaton’s recent progress is a dramatic and ongoing expansion of its 10th-12th grade career academy programs (focusing on engineering, biomedical studies, global studies, and information technology), which are now open to all students who choose to participate—the goal, said Lowndes, is to have every 9th grade student enroll in an academy, perhaps within the next few years.

Not only do the academies offer students a relatively intimate and stable learning environment, focused on a theme of their own choosing, but they also give students a carefully sequenced course of study, benchmarked to college-ready standards. Further, said Lowndes, Wheaton now runs most of its student advising, college planning, and internships through the academies, so that students can be counseled by teachers who know them well and are familiar with their schedule and classes.  Also, the school has begun to house AP courses, honors classes, and dual enrollment programs within the academies. For example, 11th and 12th graders in the global studies program can take college classes through a partnership with Montgomery College, and University of Maryland Baltimore County.  Students in the other three academies can earn college credit through the Montgomery College partnership.

Wheaton is particularly proud that enrollment in the career academies has more or less mirrored the demographics of the school as a whole—all four academies are seen as equally rigorous and respectable, and none of them has come to be seen as a “dumping ground” for any particular group of students. Further, in order to help students meet the academies’ standards and goals, the school has ramped up its afterschool programs, SAT prep courses, and other supports.

The results have been terrific so far, said Lowndes. Enrollments in AP and honors courses have increased, greater numbers of students are participating in dual credit classes, SAT participation and scores are rising, state test scores are improving, and Wheaton graduates have had increasing amounts of success in obtaining college scholarships.

Mel Riddile, from NASSP, wrapped up the presentations with a brief description of some policy implications to be drawn from the success of these and other secondary school turnaround projects. Reformers have talked for years about the need to increase both the quality of the nation’s schools and the access that they provide to disadvantaged students. In practice, though, access and excellence have rarely been combined. Middle and high schools, in particular, have never had the kinds of resources they would need to scale up the sorts of high-quality programs described by the three panelists. In fact, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now known as No Child Left Behind) has directed only a fraction of its funding to the upper grades, despite the “secondary” in its own title. While parents and educators know full well that every grade level matters, policymakers have focused almost exclusively on grades k-3.  Secondary schools are equally accountable for meeting accountability standards, but they get very little of the support. That’s not a reasonable balance, concluded Riddile. In reauthorizing NCLB, Congress should find ways to direct significantly more resources to middle and high schools.

Highlights from the Question and Answer Session

A question was asked about the efforts that these three schools have made to ensure that all students benefit from their reforms, and not just those students who take advantage of honors courses, AP classes, and such. Taton explained that her school has tried to ramp up the rigor of all of its classes, not just the accelerated courses. The effort has been to provide whatever scaffolding kids need in order to get them onto a college-prep trajectory as quickly as possible. O’Neill concurred, saying that Forest Grove’s goal is to put 100% of its students on what is now the “honors” track, and to get every student to take and pass at least one AP course.

A second question had to do with teachers’ willingness to rethink students’ capacity to succeed in high-level courses. How have these schools helped teachers to change their philosophies, and what sorts of professional development have they given them? O’Neill acknowledged that he did have to confront many of his teachers’ beliefs about students’ abilities—many faculty and staff had long held the attitude that what they were doing was “good enough” for the given students, mostly the children of parents who lack college degrees. He found it very useful to engage teachers in book groups and discussions, O’Neill said, mentioning a title by Robert Marzano and Douglas Reeves’ study of “90/90/90” schools. Also, he found it to be very important to include administrators and school board members in retreats, along with teachers, in order to get everybody onto the same page with respect to the school’s mission and goals. Also, he added, he was judicious in offering early retirement to older teachers who didn’t seem willing to rethink their approaches. Taton said that her school, located just off the Las Vegas strip, had long been seen as a dumping ground for a poor and transient student population. When her teachers and staff looked closely at the school’s data, though, they were forced to confront their own myths about the students and to figure out better ways to engage them and their families—such as offering afterschool help for students whose parents worked late and/or who had left school at a young age and couldn’t help with homework. As for professional development, Taton said, she was all in favor of teacher-led meetings and book studies, rather than one-shot workshops and external consultants. Over the long run, it’s the teachers at Cashman who’ve pushed each other to see the students as “our kids.”

A third questioner asked what the speakers would do, if they had magic wands, to enhance new teacher preparation. Taton said she would want to make sure that teachers learn how to understand and use data for planning and instruction. Lowndes noted that most teachers today still spend too much time lecturing—he would focus on showing new teachers how to get students engaged in projects, group activities, and hands-on learning. O’Neill echoed Taton’s desire to help teachers understand and use data, and he added that many new teachers could use better preparation in some of the basics of instruction (such as the teaching strategies described in Madeleine Hunter’s work). Riddle said that he would like to see more preparation in content-based literacy instruction, with teacher education programs expanded by a year, so as to give candidates a more solid grounding in content and instruction.

A final question pointed to the nation’s current economic crisis—given that budgets are likely to be very tight in coming years, what advice would you give the federal government about how best to approach secondary education? Riddile pointed out that in hard times school systems tend to cut funding for teacher professional development, which is unwise; the federal government might be able to help flll that gap. Taton argued that federal policymakers should rethink the ways in which schools are labeled under NCLB—for example, kids with special needs tend to be defined as “failing” almost by default. Lowndes acknowledged that extra funding—from his wealthy district and from federal grant programs—has been key to his school’s improvement, and he said that policymakers need to understand how important it is to provide money for teacher planning time, class size reductions, and other strategies that may look expendable to them. O’Neill agreed that money spent to give teachers more time is money well spent. But, realistically, the current fiscal crunch will force superintendents to cut back on resources for teachers, even as accountability demands increase. O’Neill added that he is encouraged, though, by recent federal investments in growth models of accountability, which will not cost much money to implement but which will give schools a better chance to measure and demonstrate progress.

Speaker Biographies

Mr. Kevin E. Lowndes is principal of Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, the 16th largest public school system in the nation. Mr. Lowndes leads the district’s high school most impacted by poverty, language differences, and mobility. Wheaton High School is an open academy school which serves 1333 students from many different countries and speaking a variety of languages. The racial/ethnic composition of the school is 57% Hispanic, 22% African American, 11% Asian, 10% White, 1% American Indian, 62% male and 38% female. Wheaton High School was recently nationally recognized for its support for students, outreach to parents, small learning communities and innovative staff development and named a national MetLife-NASSP Breakthrough School. The College Board recognized Wheaton High School as a Dr. Asa Hilliard Models of Excellence school for developing successful programs that have positively impacted African American students. The Engineering Academy has been highlighted in Education Week and The Washington Post and was named the state of Maryland’s 2008 Outstanding Secondary Career and Technology Education Program. The Academy of Biosciences and Health Professions was also highlighted in the Washington Post and was recognized at the Maryland Project Lead the Way Biomedical Science Conference. He earned his undergraduate degree in Business Management at Marietta College and completed graduate work in Special Education and Administration at California State Dominguez Hills and Johns Hopkins University.


John O’Neill Jr. has served as the principal for the past six years at Forest Grove High School in Forest Grove, Oregon.  He holds a Master of Education Degree in School Administration from Azusa Pacific University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Social Studies Education from Oregon State University.  Forest Grove High School has posted significant gains in student graduation rates and in reading and math performance.  In 2008 the school received the MetLife/NASSP Breakthrough Schools Award and was named a Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education; is the second largest high school in Oregon to achieve AYP; received an overall rating of Exceptional on the 2006-07 School Report Card; has been recognized for the 2006 Student Success Award and the 2007 and 2008 Continuing Student Success Award for Closing the Achievement Gap by State Superintendent Susan Castillo for significantly raising Latino, Limited English Proficient, special education and economically disadvantaged student academic performance.  John has 15 years of administrative experience and has previously served as a middle school principal and high school principal in southern California.  John currently serves on the Oregon Diploma Implementation Advisory Task Force; on the Oregon Department of Education Assessment & Information Advisory Committee; a member of the Oregon Advisory Committee for the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools; a regional panelist for the Oregon Quality Education Commission and is a 2007 Milken National Educator Award recipient.


 Dr. Mel Riddile: In July of 2008, after a distinguished career as the Principal of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County Virginia and T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, Dr. Mel Riddile joined the staff of the National Association of Secondary School Principals as the Associate Director for High School Services.  Dr. Riddile was the 2006 National High School Principal of the Year and was the 2005 Virginia High School Principal of the Year. His work as a high school principal has received national and international recognition from National Geographic Magazine, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the International Baccalaureate of North America. As a principal of both a Breakthrough High School and an ICLE Model School, Dr. Riddile is a recognized leader in efforts to reinvent America’s high schools. He has received White House and U.S. Department of Education recognition and was a member of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s High School Reform Task Force. His pioneering work in the field of adolescent literacy has been featured in the publications Breaking Ranks II, Creating a Culture of Literacy, and Edutopia Magazine and has led to his active involvement in advisory boards including those of the National Governor’s Association, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Scholastic Publishing. Dr. Riddile has been a keynote speaker and presenter at numerous conferences and conventions.


Misti Taton: was raised in a family of teachers and principals.  Her father created a school of math and science in Anchorage, Alaska that was recognized as one of the top 100 schools in the nation. After working in the engineering field, she obtained a Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and endorsements in middle level theory and gifted education from the University of Alaska Anchorage.  She received an Ed Specialist in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeast.  In 2006 she completed her doctorate coursework at the University Nevada Las Vegas and is currently completing her dissertation.  She has taught both middle school and high school science working with both at risk Title 1 students and magnet students.   She was involved in CCSD’s smaller learning community grant.  During her first year of teaching she was recognized as the middle school new teacher of the year and she won a Nevada Community Foundation award for her students’ achievement.  As a teacher, she was a trainer for the District’s New Teacher Training Cadre.  She has served as a Dean of Students, an Assistant Principal, and a Principal in the Clark County School District.  Ms. Taton is a B.R.I.M. trainer.  Under her leadership and application of the B.R.I.M. cornerstone strategies, Cashman Middle School was recognized a MetLife NASSP Breakthrough School.  Her core belief is that every decision must be based on the best interest of the student, not what is expedient for the adult.  Currently, following in her father’s footsteps, she is overseeing the implementation and integration of the Academy of Mathematics, Science, and Engineering program at Cashman Middle School, ensuring that academic rigor, integrity and high expectations are afforded to all students. She is a member of the Nevada Association of School Administrators, the International Confederation of Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Administrators.

Cashman Middle School Fast Facts»

Recommendations from Breaking Ranks II for Creating Systems that Support Successful High School»

John O’Neill Jr., Power Point Presentation»

Dr. Mel Riddile, Power Point Presentation»

Misti Tation, Power Point Presentation»

Kevin E. Lowndes
Wheaton High School
12601 Dalewood Drive
Wheaton, MD 20906
301-929-2081 fax


John O’Neill
Forest Grove High School
1401 Nichols Lane
Forest Grove, OR 97116


Mel Riddile
Associate Director of High School Services
National Center for High School Leadership
National Association of Secondary School Principals
1904 Association Drive
Reston, VA 20191-1537
703-476-5432 fax


Misti Taton
Cashman Middle School
4622 W. Desert Inn Road
Las Vegas, NV 89102


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