The LLIFT P-3 Networked Improvement Community (NIC) and the UIC Center for Urban Education Leadership (CUEL) hosted a three-hour symposium on June 25th that was the culmination of the LLIFT P-3 NIC’s first-phase of work into understanding the challenges of leading high-churn schools to improved PK-3 student learning outcomes. The Center for Urban Education Leadership defines high-churn schools as exhibiting instability in student enrollment and attendance.  There are about 125 high-churn elementary schools in the Chicago Public Schools, which is 30% of all public non-charter schools.  Most schools identified for intensive intervention by state (ISBE) and local (CPS) accountability systems are high-churn.  Leaders of these schools face multiple challenges, but because the churn of the student population is not generally recognized as a key variable in poor school performance, these challenges are not well understood.

The symposium began with a gallery walk of nine posters to engage participants with background research on high-churn schools and the problem of improving student learning outcomes in the early elementary grades in these schools. The following are a sampling of gallery walk posters:






The highlight of the symposium were panel discussions where NIC leaders presented their findings on the root causes of leadership challenges in high-churn schools. They described leadership challenges that span from the classroom to school organization to the district and require community support to address. Video clips are available here.

Findings were generated using concepts, processes and tools described in Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Anthony Bryk, Louis Gomez and colleagues.  A 90-Day Cycle Handbook guided NIC processes, and the NIC produced a fishbone and system improvement map to “see the system” that makes leading high-churn schools to improved student learning outcomes so difficult.

Identified challenges include:

  • entering leadership roles ill-prepared to diagnose and respond to non-instructional problems in attendance and enrollment;
  • entering leadership roles with insufficient understanding of how to build school culture and climate while prioritizing instructional improvement;
  • developing staff capacity to support academic learning and social-emotional development across a wide spectrum of student abilities and needs in classrooms;
  • high levels of staff turnover that compromise capacity-building initiatives;
  • significant gaps in the data infrastructure to diagnose and respond to the needs of students and families served by high-churn schools;
  • contending with an accountability system that does not account for the challenges of churn conditions and can erode the stakeholder commitments necessary for improvement;
  • accountability policies that create dilemmas for schools in responding to vulnerable family populations; and
  • learning to identify and tap community-based resources, supports and services.

The focus of the symposium was primarily on “seeing the system” that produces current outcomes. However, NIC leaders also discussed how system and school leaders could respond to these challenges.  A key theme was that high-churn schools are different and require different resources and supports, including in the development of leadership for these schools. Two driver diagrams illustrate their ideas:

In feedback comments, attendees were positive in their review of the improvement science approach to understanding leadership challenges with one noting that “it gave me the opportunity to look at this issue from various lenses” and another highlighting the NIC’s analytical process to improve support for high-churn schools. One observed that there is “power” in networking school leaders “to uncover root causes to major challenges.” Attendees observed that the process “should be used for other challenges in education” and that the “NIC is an exciting process…[that] can be brought to other collaborations.”

Overall attendees were highly positive about time well-spent at the symposium. They reported that they valued learning from the perspectives of principals about day-to-day leadership experiences in high-churn schools and the research in support of these perspectives. The theme of equity emerged in feedback as particularly important, as did recognition of the social and emotional challenges of leading and working in high-churn schools.

Responses indicate that the event was successful in raising awareness of high-churn schools as a prevalent type of high-need school. Although the symposium took on a systemic problem of practice that is not under the locus of control of any role or department, symposium attendees welcomed the discussion as “recognition by the [panel] participants that this is a problem that can and should be addressed.”

The symposium was attended by sixty school and system leaders, expert practitioners in PK-3 grade literacy, and community partners, as well as by faculty, graduates, and students of the UIC EdD Program in Urban Education Leadership.

Leaders in the NIC include the following UIC EdD program graduates and students: Dr. Michael Abello, Dr. Peggie Burnett-Wise, Dr. Sherly Chavarria, Romian Crockett, Dr. LaTarsha Green, Dr. Jacqueline Menoni, Aisha McCarthy, Dr. Stephen McClain, Laquita Louie, Regina Roberts, Dr. Joe Shoffner, and Sharon Sprague. The NIC is supported and facilitated by Drs. Lisa Walker and Steve Tozer.


LLIFT P-3, Literacy Leaders Improving Family-Community Ties in P-3, is a project funded by the McCormick Foundation. The work on early literacy learning in high-churn schools is also supported by the W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation and the Steans Family Foundation.