Evaluation of a D.C. Elementary School Sheds Light on School Turnaround

April 15, 2015

Bethesda, Md. — There is hope for low-performing schools. For J.C. Nalle Community School in Washington, D.C., that hope came in the form of dedicated educators, online math programs, an extended school day, and community partnerships that allowed them to reduce the non-academic barriers to learning (such as unmet mental and physical health needs) faced by their students. It also came in the form of funding.

J.C. Nalle is a public elementary school in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods. Three-quarters of its students are low-income, 96 percent are black, and four percent are Hispanic. The school is also the first D.C. public “community school,” working with local organizations to address students’ non-academic needs; since 2000, school staff have collaborated with the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) for services such as counseling, support groups, and more.

In a 2011 report issued by the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the school was recommended for closure or significant turnaround efforts because of its standing in the bottom quartile of D.C. public and charter schools.

By 2013, the school had achieved the highest increase in math proficiency rates on D.C.’s standardized test, among all D.C. public elementary schools. At that point, the Freddie Mac Foundation, which had invested $11 million in supports for the school since 1994 (including funding NCCF’s work there), approached research group Child Trends to take an independent look at whether test scores were improving for students at J.C. Nalle, and if they were, to see what had contributed to this feat. (The Freddie Mac Foundation no longer exists, having ceased business in 2014, and dissolving entirely as of February 2015.)

The intervention

Following the report recommending either closure or turnaround, J.C. Nalle was granted a $275,000 Proving What’s Possible grant from D.C. Public Schools, underwent a $6.8 million building renovation, and saw continued support from the Freddie Mac Foundation.

In 2012-13, with these investments, J.C. Nalle extended its school day by 75 minutes for students in grades three through five, increasing time for uninterrupted instruction and for teacher planning. They also bought laptops and tablets for classroom use. NCCF worked with the school to provide Saturday school for low-performing students and their parents, that included having parents work alongside their children so they could better support their learning at home.

J.C. Nalle also invested in game-like online educational programs Spatial-Temporal Math and First in Math. These programs target material to students’ levels and provide data for teachers about areas students are struggling in. In 2013, the school implemented Lexia, a reading-focused online education program, too.

“The school was able to introduce many of these new interventions because of an influx of financial support,” said Zakia Redd, a senior research scientist at Child Trends and the lead author of the study. “But it’s important to recognize that all of these interventions built on earlier, longer-term investments by the school and community partners that addressed both academic and non-academic barriers to learning. The staff and families of J.C. Nalle were primed to take advantage of this kind of investment.”

Key findings

The evaluation found the following about the interventions at J.C. Nalle:

  • Interventions substantially boosted students’ math score growth, but not reading scores. Math was the focus of the bulk of the online interventions. Reading is harder to impact, the report says, and might have been affected by the presence of long-term reading substitute teachers in 2012-13.
  • In math, J.C. Nalle students’ average annual math growth was the equivalent of almost five months more than that of students from other D.C. schools with similar demographics.
    • At J.C. Nalle, online math programs contributed to boosting students’ math performance in a short timeframe, even with the school’s disadvantaged population. Technology access engaged and motivated students, and helped teachers individually target instruction.
    • The extended, reconfigured school day seemed to contribute to the score increase, by increasing the amount of time for uninterrupted instruction and teacher planning.
    • Staff and NCCF supported families in fostering a positive learning environment at home.
    • The cost for NCCF’s work in the school, per student, was comparable to the average cost per enrollee for out-of-school programs nationwide.

Action steps

Report authors call for research into increased use of interactive technology, such as online educational programs. They emphasize that these should be paired with training for teachers in integrating the technology. Parents can also be taught to use technology as one tool to support their children’s learning at home. Schools should look for interventions that have been proven effective with similar populations, and should consider partnering with community organizations to address non-academic barriers to learning, the report says.

“It’s not likely any one factor can turn around a low-performing school. This kind of effort takes time and the ability to leverage outside resources,” Redd said. “But committed leadership within the school, and trust among staff, are also crucial for a turnaround to succeed.”


Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development. Its mission is to improve the lives and prospects of children and youth by conducting high-quality research and sharing the resulting knowledge with practitioners and policymakers. Child Trends has more than 120 employees and annual revenue of about $14 million. childtrends.org