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Divisions > Academic Policy & Innovation
Breakthrough Center

Building A Community of Practice for Turnaround Within Maryland’s Priority and Focus Schools

1.    What is The Breakthrough Center?  

The Breakthrough Center was created within the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) to make it easier for districts and schools in improvement to navigate the logistical complexities of school improvement and to also learn about and receive the types of support and resources that will improve teaching and learning—and sustain it.


Just as principals aim to create communities of practice among their teachers in Instructional Teams—sharing a strategy that made the difference for one child or asking for feedback on a lesson that didn’t go as planned—The Breakthrough Center also aims to create communities of practice among various offices at the MSDE. It provides a dedicated space where discussion around the full-range of district or schools needs happens, followed by the streamlining of requests made and resources allocated to them. The result? Less time getting in the way of the hard work that must happen and more time supporting it.


2.    Who specifically does The Breakthrough Center support?


All schools aim to improve the teaching and learning in our classrooms. In that way, The Breakthrough Center will support every district and school in the state by sharing the research and the practices that have proven to improve teaching and learning in every classroom. The knowledge, experiences, and feedback from every district and school will inform and strengthen the community of practice for turnaround that we will build in Maryland. This is an emerging field in education and we are uniquely positioned to lead it.


The Breakthrough Center is prepared to work most closely with Maryland’s lowest-performing districts and Title I schools in the state, specifically those that are identified as Priority or Focus Schools. In partnership with these district and schools—and external partners as appropriate—we identify the precise nature and magnitude of needs and assemble customized and strategic supports and interventions to address them. Strong emphasis is placed on building the capacity of the schools and districts to not only achieve turnaround, but to also sustain it. 


3.    What is a Priority School and a Focus School?


Priority Schools are the lowest achieving five (5) percent of Title I schools in the State. In 2012-2013, there are 21 Priority Schools in Maryland. These schools require school-wide, systemic turnaround.


Focus Schools are Title I schools with a significant achievement gap between the all students group and the lowest-performing subgroup(s). In 2012-2013, there are 41 Focus Schools in Maryland. Unlike Priority Schools, low achievement is limited to one or two subgroup populations that require more intensive support and intervention.


4.    What types of support will The Breakthrough Center provide to Priority and Focus Schools?

Priority Schools. In order to receive School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds, districts with priority schools must adopt one of four intervention models identified by the US Department of Education, or develop their own model that meets USDE’s seven turnaround principles, both of which are listed below.


On a broad level, The Breakthrough Center serves as the interface between the Maryland State Department of Education and the district in the adoption of an intervention model.


As the interface, it will work closely with the state, the district, and schools to assemble very specific structures and supports aligned with the identified needs and congruent with the intervention model that is in place. The Breakthrough Center’s cross-functional team, comprised of decision-making staff from the various offices at MSDE, meet monthly to coordinate and deliver resources and support that will improve both operational and instructional outcomes at the district and school levels. Additionally, Breakthrough Center staff, including Title I staff, meet monthly with district staff to assess progress of and assist with implementation of the interventions.


Focus Schools. The Breakthrough Center works with districts and Focus Schools in the development and implementation of operational and instructional practices specifically targeted to close the gap between the achievement of specific subgroups and all students. Unlike with Priority Schools, where the needs are more systemic, Focus Schools have limited  areas of concern. There is unique opportunity in Maryland to create cross-district partnerships and support systems to address these common areas of concern, to learn from one another what works with whom and under what conditions. Just as The Breakthrough Center serves as the interface between the state and districts, it serves as the connector between districts.


Some examples of the kinds of support that The Breakthrough Center has already coordinated for Priority and Focus Schools:


·         Collaboration with Baltimore City and Prince George’s County school districts to create a internal structures, Turnaround Offices, dedicated to identify and delivering support to Priority Schools and their feeder schools.

·         Launch of the Aspiring Principals’ Institutes in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City Public Schools, which provides training to teacher-leaders on the required practices, skills, and nuances required to turnaround achievement in low performing schools and sustain it.

·         Conducting a two-day intensive professional development Academy for School Turnaround in July 2012 for principals serving in low-achieving schools along with their supervisors, Executive Officers, that presented the most current research on school turnaround along with 21 specific practices that leaders of Turnaround Schools could begin to employ immediately. Follow-up sessions are currently in production.


5.    What exactly are the four intervention models approved by USDE?


·         The “turnaround model in which the LEA replaces the principal and rehires no more than 50% of the staff, gives the principal greater autonomy and implements other prescribed and recommended strategies.    

·         The “restart model” in which the LEA converts or closes and reopens a school under a operator in a charter management organization or education management organization.    

·         The “school closure model” in which the LEA closes the school and enrolls the students in other schools in the LEA that  are higher achieving.    

·         The “transformation model” in which the LEA replaces the principal (except in specified situations), implements a rigorous evaluation of staff and school operations, institutes comprehensive instructional reform, increases learning time and applies community-oriented school strategies, and provides greater operational flexibility and support for the school.


Districts may also develop their own models for intervention that meet the following seven turnaround principles:


1.    Providing strong leadership

2.    Ensuring that teachers are effective and able to improve instruction

3.    Redesigning the school day, week, or year to include additional time for student learning and support

4.    Strengthening the school’s instructional program

5.    Using data to inform instruction for continuous improvement

6.    Establishing a school environment that improves school safety and discipline

7.    Providing ongoing mechanisms for family and community engagement


The MSDE electronic applications and templates for Priority and Focus schools are available online at the Title I website:



6.    What about schools that are doing well? How will The Breakthrough Center interact with them?


The Breakthrough Center is very interested in learning what works in schools—from the instructional approaches that are being used to the operational practices that support them and when possible, the Center find ways to bring it to scale in other districts and schools.


As part of Maryland’s Race to the Top Award, MSDE contracted with the Center for Application of Innovative Research in Education (CAIRE) to conduct a multi-year formative and summative evaluation to measure The Breakthrough Center’s impact on district and school capacity to implement turnaround practices (operational and instructional) and then sustain them.

The Breakthrough Center’s focus on building a community of practice for turnaround does not begin and end with Priority and Focus Schools. The Breakthrough Center aims to build this community throughout the state, and in many cases, the nation. Every level of education—State, district, school—and all of the people within must contribute their knowledge, experiences, skills, and resources to improve teaching and learning in the classroom.  The Breakthrough Center is committed to finding new ways to illuminate breakthrough ideas, breakthrough practices, and breakthrough results.



Contact Information


Dr. Mary Minter, Interim Executive Director of the Breakthrough Center
Maryland State Department of Education
Division of Academic Policy and Innovation
200 W. Baltimore Street Baltimore, MD 21201
410-767-1036 (office) 410-419-6279 (cell)

Email: Mary.Minter@maryland.gov


Robert Glascock, The Breakthrough Center

Maryland State Department of Education

200 West Baltimore Street

Baltimore, MD 21201


Email: rglascock@msde.state.md.us


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