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“This is Not a Lifetime Story”: A Case Study of Organizational Growth and Learning in School Improvement Open Access

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This qualitative case study focuses on the leaders of a single charter operator within a state takeover portfolio district to learn how a new organization attempts to leverage limited capacity and resources to design and implement a school improvement model. Specifically, this case study analyzes how the organization moved from a theory of school improvement rooted in community relations and improved school climate to a more multi-faceted strategy incorporating formal structures for supporting the technical work of professional learning and instruction. This dissertation demonstrates the limitations of such a model to grow teachers’ capacity for instruction in a high needs setting and establishes the need for more nuanced methods of evaluation of school improvement models and accountability frameworks. The analysis is framed by the literature on the interactions of social and human capital as essential elements of building the diverse organizational capacity required for school improvement.This case demonstrates the importance of building formal structures and systems that facilitate collaborative growth within high-needs schools. Using qualitative data collection and analysis, this study presents findings related to the experiences of a diverse range of stakeholders involved in the state takeover effort and creation and operations of a portfolio district. Interviews with a variety of district and operator stakeholders informed the analysis, along with data gained from observations of in-school events and artifacts.This case demonstrates the required capacity of charter organizations engaged in the work of school improvement. Local knowledge, though useful, proved inadequate for the scale of results required by the district. In addition, the district’s structure and mission did little to support the charter operator in learning from and compensating for their gaps in capacity. This case provides important insights into the capacity of authorizing organizations to support diverse school models in improving low-performing schools. This research contributes to the literature on the learning and capacity-building required of operators of low-performing schools, exploring how charter leaders develop, test, and learn from attempts to build the capital necessary to do the difficult work of school improvement.

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