Profiles in Transformation: Turnaround for Children

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students Overview

Turnaround for Children works with high-poverty, low-performing schools to address students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

Turnaround for Children was founded in 2002 in New York City after a study of the impact of September 11 on public schools found that the number of students needing mental health supports was far beyond what the schools’ capacity could address.

Dr. Pamela Cantor, a psychiatrist, and Greg Greicius, an educator, piloted the Turnaround for Children model at P.S. 132 in Washington Heights, New York City. It is currently employed in more than twenty New York City public schools and several in Washington, D.C.

Turnaround for Children supports schools in building their capacity to support positive behaviors and meet the mental health needs of students, both within the school and by connecting them to community resources. 

Turnaround for Children Principles

Turnaround for Children begins with the proposition that schools are not structured to adequately meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in high-poverty environments. Students living in poverty are also often faced with the social-emotional impacts of things like immigration status, homelessness, community violence, and abuse. When these issues and others affect even a relatively small proportion of students, they can compound to overwhelm a school’s capacity and disproportionately impact school climate and instruction, resulting in negative academic, social, and emotional outcomes for students overall.

Teachers and principals are rarely trained to deal with high-needs students. Pressure to meet achievement targets and shrinking budgets compound the barriers that already exist in schools and communities.

According to Turnaround for Children, many schools are structured to be reactive and often operate in crisis mode. They rely too heavily on punitive measures and referrals to special education services. The surrounding communities often suffer from a shortage of critical care and mental health resources, poor coordination between schools and service providers, and limited cultural and linguistic competency on the part of providers and school staff. 

Turnaround for Children helps schools develop the capacity to proactively meet student needs and maintain a focus on rigorous instruction. The model focuses on three key areas:

  • Building systems to support positive behavior and a culture of high expectations as well as school-based capacity for academic interventions.

  • Expanding and improving school-based services like counseling and providing pathways to community-based mental health services.

  • Improving school staff’s skills through professional development in proactive classroom management and behavioral development.

Turnaround for Children works with schools to build trusting and collaborative relationships among school staff, faculty, and families and to improve collaboration and coordination between the school system and other systems serving children and families. According to Turnaround for Children, a successful transformation should result in a schoolwide culture of high expectations for all students; well-managed classrooms that support rigorous teaching and learning; teachers skilled in instruction and student engagement; better self-regulation, social skills, and persistence on the part of students; and effective schoolwide systems for addressing barriers to student success. 

In Practice

Turnaround for Children is approved to contract with schools in New York City under the New York City Department of Education’s Safe and Supportive School Communities program. It also serves as “Lead Transformation Partner” for district-run and charter schools, including those implementing Transformation, Turnaround, or Restart under the federal School Improvement Grant program. It describes its model as a “powerful approach” to the federal Transformation model.

Turnaround for Children works with a school for three-and-a-half years, during which time it helps to build the school’s capacity to continue the reforms after the formal partnership ends. A transformation team consisting of a project director, an academic coach, and a social work consultant is deployed to support the school. Each team supports three schools at most.

Each school also hires a skilled clinical social worker who receives training from Turnaround for Children. This “Student Support Social Worker” becomes an integral and well-known member of the school staff, facilitating the triage process, connecting students with the community mental health provider.

The social worker and student intervention teams coordinate a range of supports both within and outside of school and work to engage families in interventions. At P.S. 85 in the Bronx, for example, the school’s mental health partner conducts intake evaluations at the school and makes sure a parent or caregiver is present. This facilitated intake process has resulted in much higher levels of continued care than a standard referral to an outside agency.

During the first year of work with a school, the transformation team provides training and professional development to teachers on classroom management, child development, and strategies for addressing and de-escalating conflict. The team helps school leaders and staff design systems to support instruction and positive behaviors and develops a partnership with a mental health provider. Over the next two years, the team supports school staff in building its own capacity to implement these new practices and strategies. 


Turnaround for Children’s intervention model costs approximately $500 per student per year, or around $250,000 to $300,000 per school per year. The cost of hiring the Student Support Social Worker accounts for about half of the price of the intervention. To date, most of Turnaround for Children’s work has been funded by philanthropies, including the Carnegie Corporation, United Way, and a number of local foundations. The organization has worked with nearly sixty schools, but not all have implemented the full model.


An independent evaluation by the American Institutes of Research found that five Turnaround for Children partner middle schools in New York City had become calmer and more productive environments, with higher ratings on the New York City Learning Environment Survey. Turnaround for Children’s work supported school improvement in two key ways, according to the evaluators: connecting high-needs students to appropriate in-school and community-based supports and improving the climate for teaching and learning across the whole school.

The 2008 evaluation found that the schools experienced a 51 percent reduction in police-reported incidents and a 32 percent decrease in suspensions. Teacher turnover declined by three-quarters and teacher absences by a third. At P.S. 85 in the Bronx, for example, teacher turnover has decreased from 27 percent in 2008-2009 to 2 percent in 2010-2011. While 123 students were suspended in 2008-2009, only 54 were suspended last school year.

Turnaround for Children’s New York City partner schools showed gains in math proficiency on par with the citywide average and slightly better than the average for English language arts.

General Reflections

Most interventions for struggling schools focus almost exclusively on instruction and student achievement. Turnaround for Children’s model emphasizes that addressing students’ non-academic needs is a basic precondition for good instruction. Proven strategies and systems for dealing with students’ needs exist, but teachers and principals are rarely prepared through their pre-service or in-service development to effectively manage non-academic issues. When they encounter high concentrations of need in their classrooms, they shift to a reactive crisis mode and develop negative relationships with the families most in need of support.

Besides its direct work in schools, Turnaround for Children has been in conversation with the federal Department of Education and Congressional staff about how federal funds can incentivize schools to provide non-academic supports to students and create positive school cultures.

Additional Information  

  • Turnaround for Children website

  • “Failing Schools Get Tough Love.” The Wall Street Journal. July 22, 2011: A profile of P.S. 85 in the Bronx and its experience partnering with Turnaround.
    Available onine

  • “Turning Around Failing Schools from Within.” Beth Fertig for WNYC News. June 10, 2009.
    Available online