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Leandro | School turnaround is vital to educating all kids. How does it happen?

According to the consent order signed by Judge David Lee, a plan of action for the provision of the constitutional Leandro rights must ensure a system of education that includes “an assistance and turnaround function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts.”

This is the fifth piece in a week-long series that will examine each of the components of the Leandro consent order through the lens of schools and communities in North Carolina. Follow along with the entire series here.

The Boston Thurmond neighborhood, located a couple of blocks north of downtown Winston-Salem, is a predominantly black community and one of the economically poorest sections of the state’s highest-poverty city. It’s also home to Cook Literacy Model School — an elementary school with 94% black and brown students that has gone from a struggling school to a model for turnaround success.

Paula Wilkins knows the neighborhood well. Now principal of that school, she lived in Boston Thurmond the first five years of her life. Her grandfather still lives at the bottom of a hill she can point to from her office window.

“I grew up here,” she said. “So this neighborhood is home. Literally. Which is really neat, to be able to come back to a community that you’re a part of, and to work and to really try to make an impact. I don’t think there is a greater opportunity than to work to give back to where your roots are planted.”

And give back she has. In the year before Wilkins arrived at the school, it was identified as a Priority School by the federal government as one of the lowest-performing Title I schools in the nation. In terms of state performance grades, it was the lowest-performing elementary school in North Carolina. It had undergone two failed school improvement attempts between 2009 and 2015.

The year after Wilkins’s arrival in 2016, the school met growth expectations and then exceeded growth expectations for the past two years.

It’s an interesting case study — especially relevant after Judge David Lee’s recent consent order in the Leandro case charging the state to find ways to better assist turnaround at low-performing schools.

What does ‘low-performing school’ mean?

Students in Courtney Morrison’s third-grade class line up for lunch at Cook Literacy Model School. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

North Carolina keeps a list of its lowest-performing schools. It comprises schools scoring in the bottom 5% of the state’s performance grades, which measure academic growth (weighted at 20%) and academic achievement (weighted at 80%). Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, home to Cook Literacy Model, had more schools (eight) on the list of 69 low-performing schools than any other district.

But many people think North Carolina’s performance grade model needs to be reconsidered. Researchers and educators say that though these schools may need to increase their performance, the real issue is not as much students performing poorly as conditions that set them up for failure.

The most prevalent of those conditions is low socioeconomic status, according to WestEd, the consulting company tasked with providing recommendations for statewide education improvement by Judge Lee. In fact, WestEd’s report hardly discusses low-performing schools, focusing instead on high-poverty schools.

A high-poverty school is one where 75% or more of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. They largely overlap with the state’s most under-performing schools, which often sit in lower-wealth communities. In the two census tracts where Boston Thurmond lies, between 43% and 52% of households live in poverty, and the median household income is between $15,816 and $22,243.

Statewide, this issue affects more than 400,000 students — over a quarter of North Carolina’s public school students — who attend the state’s 843 high-poverty schools.

“The concentration of at-risk and low-achieving students in high-poverty schools requires that these schools receive focused attention,” the WestEd report says, “as the state seeks to remedy its failure to provide all students with the constitutionally-required opportunity for a sound basic education.”

Why? Here’s what the WestEd report tells us.

Kids in high-poverty schools are less likely to graduate and be prepared for college. While 90% of students overall graduate from high school in four years, the rate for economically disadvantaged students is 82%. Among those economically disadvantaged students who do graduate, only 40% meet college- and career-readiness benchmarks on their End-of-Course exams (compared with 71% of other students).

High-poverty schools tend to be blacker and browner than low-poverty schools. Across all traditional public schools, enrollment is 52% students of color; in high-poverty schools, it’s 77%. In charter schools overall, enrollment is 44% students of color; in high-poverty charter schools, it’s 93%. A total of 567 (70%) of the state’s high-poverty traditional public schools enroll 75% or more students of color; 694 (86%) enroll at least 50% students of color.

Low-performing schools tend to have more at-risk students, including students whose parents have lower education levels, who have limited proficiency in English, who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group, or who have families headed by a single parent.

With such a widespread and challenging issue, it’s not easy to chart a course for success. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has spent years working on it — piloting innovative schools and securing grants. Recently, the system hired a deputy superintendent whose previous job in Florida was focused on turnaround.

“Leadership matters,” district superintendent Angela Pringle Hairston said. “We have to have great leadership in all our schools, and especially our turnaround schools.”

How does it happen? Start at the top.

Paula Wilkins sits with some of her team, listening to an Orton-Gillingham consultant’s coaching presentation. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

As the WestEd report points out, underperforming schools have common characteristics but are not all the same. The variety in the factors impeding their path to success means that no one approach can be used to turn around all striving schools.

So where do you start?

“Turnaround does not come in a box,” State Board of Education member Amy White said after two days of turnaround presentations at the most recent board planning sessions. “It is not a program. It’s a leader.”

Wilkins is one of those leaders. In fact, she was invited by the state board to make one of those turnaround presentations.

When she attended Carver High School, less than 10 miles away from Cook Literacy Model, it was an underperforming school. That was still true when she returned for her first teaching job after graduating from North Carolina Central University as a North Carolina Teaching Fellow.

In fact, Carver was one of the 17 schools identified by Judge Howard Manning as needing urgent turnaround during an earlier iteration of the Leandro case in 2005.

“I was actually on a team that was a part of that Judge Manning turnaround,” Wilkins said. “So I guess turnaround is not new to me. It’s been something that’s been a part of my DNA.”

It’s also the culmination of myriad experiences that make her distinctively suited for the job.

After teaching in an underperforming school and receiving turnaround training in the wake of Manning’s mandate for improvement at Carver and other schools, Wilkins spent time as an instructional facilitator in Guilford County before returning to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools as a coach leading focused professional dialogue on student outcomes.

While working toward her doctorate, she moved into a role leading the district’s gifted and talented programs — focusing on expanding enrollment in those programs for underserved and underrepresented students by re-examining entry requirements, studying research on identification and adjusting how the district approached assessments and norms. During her tenure, enrollment grew so much the district had to open a second Highly Academically Gifted site.

“Then I started thinking that the way to the heart of change for children is through adults,” she said. Wilkins took on a professional development and recruiting role in the newly created position of Human Resources Director of Talent and Professional Development for the district.

“It was unique for a couple reasons,” she said. “Although my background was in academics, and teaching, and learning, this district position was about how do we think about talent development for every employee. Which I really loved because we got to do training and support for bus drivers and training and support for teacher assistants. It was really about how do we develop every single person in the organization.”

While Wilkins was entrenched in talent development, Cook Elementary — its name then — was in the midst of federal intervention. In 2013, the school received a $1.7 million federal School Improvement Grant for its second major effort at turnaround. The school re-staffed all positions, extended its calendar year by five days, and added 30 minutes to its school day.

When the efforts did not yield adequate student improvement (just 13% of students passed their end-of-grade math tests and 10% passed their reading tests in 2015), the school landed on the federal Priority School watch list.

The Winston-Salem Journal described the situation then:

For years Cook, which is on Eleventh Street, has been plagued by high poverty rates among its students, continually high turnover among teachers and now unstable leadership. Cook has consistently performed far below average on end-of-grade tests.

“I don’t think we’ve moved quickly enough for Cook students,” said then-district superintendent Beverly Emory, who is now director of district and regional support for the state. “We do not have time to let another grade level, another group of kids not have a different level of program.”

The district announced an innovation plan it would pilot at Cook (that plan was replaced before Wilkins’s first school year by the Restart model, which the state adopted in 2016). Under the innovation plan, the district had announced that every teacher at the school would need to re-apply — again — if they wanted to keep their jobs. Teachers and parents were surprised and frustrated by constant change and perceived blame.

In March 2016, the the district hired Wilkins as principal, even though she had no experience in the role. She also had to handle low morale both inside the school and in the community.

“The morale was very, very low,” said Courtney Morrison, a ninth-year teacher who has seen all three turnaround efforts at Cook. “The way they had come in and told us we need to re-apply, it basically felt like we weren’t doing a good job. A lot of people were debating on even applying, because we had put in all this blood, sweat, and tears, and now you’re telling us we’re not good enough.”

“Parents were upset,” Wilkins added. “They said, ‘You told us the school was getting better and now it’s not. That doesn’t make sense. Explain.’ Plus, they’re wondering, who’s this leader?”

Wilkins’s first job was building bridges and relationships.

“I think the community, and for sure the parents, they wanted an experienced principal,” Wilkins said. “So how do you support and justify the fact you put a brand new principal in the school? Initially, that seemed hard until people met me and got to know me.”

She visited the community — her old home — and met with community leaders and residents. One of the first things they did was create a community resource steering committee. Wilkins also met with teachers at a Starbucks during the spring and summer, getting to know them while making hiring decisions.

After time, frustration settled. For some, it didn’t take much time at all.

“Once I met her, I knew I wanted to work for her,” Morrison said.

With a reinvigorated community, Wilkins started securing investments — both financial ones and the more important, intimate investments that solidify a community’s ties to its school.

The school started a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters to get every student a mentor. At the time it rebranded to become Cook Literacy Model School, Cook was a uniform school — but it would need new uniforms. Rather than ask parents to shell out the money, the school worked out a deal with a local shop for the printing and with Winston-Salem-based HanesBrands for the material.

Working with the community was not a one-sided affair. The school wanted to find ways to give back, too — an important part of turnaround, Hairston said.

“Schools are a reflection of community,” Hairston said. “Not always, but often times, underperforming schools are in communities that also need support.”

The school created spaces on campus for neighborhood residents to gather. Through assistance from a local church, the school also has nurses and a mobile health clinic that visit the school to help both students and staff.

Wilkins also worked with community groups to better align community events with the school’s new vision.

For example, Reynolda Rotary had held an annual book fair at the school for years, but Wilkins wondered whether that was the best way to leverage the school’s partnership with the group. She sat down with them and conveyed her vision: to get as many books into the hands of her students as possible.

They replaced the once-a-year book fair, got rid of the frills and knick-knacks that used to accompany book-purchasing options, and moved to a book-shopping event three times a year.

“So by the end of the year, kids have at least 15 books in their own, personal library that they get to keep. They own them,” Wilkins said. “How powerful is that?”

There were cosmetic changes at the school, too: a fresh coat of paint, accent walls, new walls that are also white boards, and desks and chairs that have wheels so the classroom is easy to shape based on the day’s needs. And then there were academic changes — helped by the charter-like flexibilities under Restart with respect to use of funds, the school calendar, curriculum, and testing requirements.

“My leadership challenges have not been about the vision of the work,” Wilkins said. “It’s been more about the managing of the minutiae of stuff. It’s been, how do you manage this successfully because you’ve got all of these things that are possibly imposed by a lot of other people, but here’s the vision of the real work. So how do we keep this vision the main thing while we get these other things done? How do we stay true to the vision of the work?”

It’s tireless work. Her first two years, Wilkins was working herself to exhaustion — often at the school on weekends and until midnight on weekdays. In fact, during her second year, she passed out while getting ready for work. She’s revisited her work habits — in part out of fear she was setting a bad example for the teachers and staff. But, she’s still there into the evenings. And she sneaks in some weekends without telling anybody.

For her, the work is as rewarding as it is challenging.

“I think when you grow to love something and you see the possibilities, you want to be a part of that change,” Wilkins said. “And that was evident with Carver, and now with Cook.

“I want our community to have great schools for every child to be able to attend, and to be really proud — for parents whose children go there, and for students to have an environment that they love and they thrive in, and for the community to be proud of,” she said.

Themes for turnaround at Cook

Third-grade teacher Courtney Morrison has taught at Cook Literacy Model School for nine years, watching two failed turnaround efforts before these last three years of meeting and then exceeding growth. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Many themes stand out when you review the turnaround at Cook Literacy Model. Among them, though, are two that seem to form the foundation for the school’s success: resiliency and empowerment.


Resiliency is far easier to talk about than to demonstrate, Wilkins says — though it doesn’t sound so easy even as you hear her talk about it.

It’s about outside-the-box problem solving.

At Cook Literacy Model, resiliency means staying goal-oriented and true to vision, having the discipline not to let urgency cloud that vision, and having the courage to cut ties with something that’s not working and move in another direction.

“How will you deal with difficulties as they come? And how will you push past them when your first plan doesn’t work?” she asked. “If I had to list for you every plan that didn’t work, that cost us a staff member or cost us something — I have a long list. But if I choose to sit in that, I am resigning to saying it won’t work.”

Wilkins gave the example of setting boundaries around discipline.

“If I could take a kiddo with me to do what I needed to do, fine,” she said. “But if I couldn’t, I was not going to deal with discipline. Not because I wasn’t willing or didn’t want to, but if I was the only one prioritizing instruction, I can’t waver with that. You have to be really clear about priorities.”

It takes the right personnel to make that happen. Initially, Wilkins wasn’t focused on that, though. When she came on board, she said, she hired for results and outcomes, looking for results in a previous context, verification of what results looked like, and ideas and examples of solid lesson plans.

“That’s not what we do now,” she said. “Now, we try to hire for a combination. I always talk about skill and will. I will never negotiate for will. But skill, you can develop. If someone has a growth mindset, you can grow them.”

Which brings us to the second major theme.


Wilkins isn’t trying to be unemployed, but her approach with her staff and teachers is to create a situation where they are independent leaders.

“For me, it’s about how do I coach myself out of a job,” she said. “Because the more I coach everybody else to think about what’s the next step or how do I collaborate with this person, I begin to coach the need for me out. … I think a true testament of a leader is, how many leaders can you grow?”

Indeed, while the WestEd report recommends actions to reduce teacher turnover in high-poverty schools, Wilkins is quick to point out that some turnover is a function of succeeding in leadership development. And that’s OK. At her school, she’ll hire someone else with a growth mindset and coach them up, too.

Wilkins instituted a coaching model, reasoning with her teachers and staff that everyone in any profession needs coaching to get better.

“Every great athlete has a coach,” she said. “The coach is always giving them feedback in service of performance. But in the teacher world, we have very limited feedback. And if you get feedback, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going to fire me.'”

Wilkins was determined to provide every employee coaching along the way. Even she has a coach.

She also has an open-door policy, with little hierarchy in place at the school. She wants employees to feel empowered and take ownership of ideas and situations, and when they need help — she wants them to know they can come directly to her.

“So there’s no real hierarchy here?” she says in a mock tone of shock, relaying comments she frequently receives. “I can just come in and talk to you? It’s not like that in other schools.”

But for Wilkins, she can’t empower her leaders if she doesn’t know what they need.

“It’s about breaking down barriers to really get to the root of what people need,” she said. “Just going to talk to people. Because if you get into the ‘tell somebody who tells somebody who tells me,’ I never get to the real need.”

And at turnaround schools, real needs are abundant. Malishai Woodbury, who chairs the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education, says that resiliency and empowerment are important — and to some extent can be taught. But she goes back to top-level leadership as essential — someone like Wilkins, whom she worked with through Judge Manning’s turnaround trainings.

“You approach it first by getting the best people who know school turnaround to come in and help you do the work,” she said. “It can’t be just [that] you’re going to do it because you love children. It is very intentional work.”

Leandro resources

Video | What is Leandro?

Everything you need to know about the Leandro litigation by Ann McColl

Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina (WestEd Report)

Executive Summary of WestEd’s Report

WestEd’s supporting reports:

Supplement to the Investment Overview and Sequenced Action Plan in the WestEd Report

Judge David Lee’s consent order

Draft priorities from the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.