The NCSL Blog


By Lesley Kennedy

Los Angeles—There was a time when Sergio Garcia, principal at Artesia High School in Los Angeles County, would get hung up on when contacting teachers about job openings in his classrooms.

When he took over the position 14 years ago, Artesia was an extremely low-performing urban school with a serious gang problem. But Garcia and his team were dedicated to making a cultural change and now, boasting a 98.9 percent graduation rate (nearly 16 percent higher than the state average) with 98 percent of graduates attending college (and 47 percent becoming the first in their families to do so), he says he’s fighting job applicants off.

“They know they’re going to work longer hours and they know that there’s going to be high expectations for them, but they want to be part of that winning team that is making a difference in what’s happening today,” he says.

Garcia was a panelist during the “Improving Schools: What Works … and What Doesn’t” session July 31 during NCSL’s 2018 Legislative Summit.

Monique Chism, vice president of Policy, Practice and Systems Change at the American Institutes for Research, says strategic leadership matters when it comes to turning around low-performing schools.

She points to leaders who have a vision, understand how to move things forward, seek out partnerships both inside and outside their communities and know how to leverage people, time and money. “It’s clear that teacher quality makes a difference,” she says. “Bottom line.”

Chism also says to see significant change, it’s not about rapid school turnarounds, but achieving continuous improvement. To get there, she notes five key elements as being essential to supporting and sustaining improvement, all with a focus on equity:

  • Leadership
  • Educator effectiveness
  • Student access and opportunity
  • Safe and supportive environment
  • Family and community engagement

“Turning around low-performing schools is extremely complex,” Chism says. “What we know is that when it’s driven by passionate, caring people, when it’s properly resourced, when things come together it’s not a question about skill or will, it’s a question of both. And we’re most successful when we have skilled people who have the will to challenge and disrupt ineffective systems.”

Panelist David Driscoll, an education consultant with David Driscoll Consulting, agrees in the importance of taking a strategic approach to school improvement.  

“There’s this balance between having the right goals, having the right strategies, having the right resources and having the Department of Education both monitor and provide support,” he says.

And committing to those tactics can be life-changing for students. “You change a culture by changing one behavior at a time. By changing one student at a time. By changing one commitment of a parent at a time,” Artesia’s Garcia says. “We can change their futures. Education is still the equalizer for any community out there. We have a way out of poverty. … We can actually make a difference in people’s lives.”

Lesley Kennedy is an editor at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.