To an audience representing some of the worst-performing schools in New York, including five on Long Island, Kerstin Le Floch offered sympathy and "a little bit of hope."
Turning around a struggling school, the education researcher told administrators and school board members last week in Albany, is "incredibly hard," but there are proven paths to success.
Le Floch and turnaround consultant Catherine Barbour said educators can drive positive change by shifting the culture of a troubled school and celebrating early, tangible improvements that can build momentum.
Theirs was the last of many presentations at a two-day conference for district leaders who recently learned their schools have been placed under receivership under a new law enacted this year.
Those schools could be placed under outside managers, or receivers, unless they start improving instruction and student engagement within the next year or two.
This month, the state placed 144 schools statewide on the receivership list, including Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip, Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School and Hempstead High School in Hempstead, Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch and Roosevelt Middle School.
"A history of low performance takes its toll on adults in the school, through years of being labeled a failing school" and after years of interventions, said Le Floch, of the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit educational research firm in Washington, D.C. Reform fatigue often sets in, she added.
Schools identified as "struggling" have fallen short of standards for three consecutive years and have two more years to show improvement under local superintendents before further management steps are taken.
Schools labeled "persistently struggling" have failed to meet state and federal standards for at least a decade, and have one year to show progress under local superintendents before being turned over to outside managers.
The state Education Department held the conference to give school leaders a chance to ask questions and to learn about turnarounds from consultants and former principals. On Wednesday, New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia offered the attendees encouragement mixed with a dose of tough love -- underperforming schools will not be allowed to stand pat, she warned.
The conference served as a crash course in improving school performance, often emphasizing community involvement and the vital role of parents in helping students achieve.
Barbour, who works in school turnaround services in the education program at AIR, recommended using teacher effectiveness data, which shows a teacher's track record of student achievement on state tests to determine their effectiveness, in every hiring decision.
It's also important to build trust within the staff so they feel they can be honest about problems they're facing, so everyone shares the same mission.
Barbour offered an example of her time as a principal of an underperforming school where students were consistently failing the fractions portion of standardized tests. When she asked her teachers why this was happening, one blurted out that they weren't teaching fractions, because they didn't totally understand them themselves.
Barbour said she was shocked, but she thanked the teacher for her honesty and set up professional development for her staff.
Barbour and Le Floch's presentation on Thursday resonated with Roosevelt Superintendent Deborah L. Wortham, who said later her district has been doing its research and using some of the same methods to improve its schools.
"When teachers believe that they have the capacity to improve student achievement across the board no matter who is in their classroom, when we have highly efficacious teachers, that is key," Wortham said, calling the building of trust and relationships among staff "the silver bullet." She said she doesn't expect Roosevelt Middle School to stay on the list of struggling schools.
During other sessions last week, administrators expressed frustration about what it would cost to turn a school around and where the money would come from, since the state hasn't promised extra money to struggling schools.
That was the main rub for Wyandanch school board vice president Shirley Baker, who attended the meetings.
"I'm not saying money is everything, but you have to have resources," she said.