Leadership is paramount in turning around a school, district officials and teachers said.
"We recognized early you have to have good leadership," said Susan Swanson, director of urban education for the Hamilton County school district, which includes Chattanooga. "To ignore it is just absurd.
District officials recruited talented people who they thought could bring change and told them they would back them up.
Administrators in the central office then had to back up those words, walking new principals daily through problems, frequently visiting schools, and giving new leaders tips and criticisms.
They also established an urban academy, where young principals headed for central-city schools got an extra year of training. A master's degree and certification are not enough to lead a distressed urban school, officials said.
Principals are trained in how to manage their time, work a budget, create a disciplined school, and work with the community. The academy uses real situations for principals to practice the techniques, with trainers there to point out mistakes and offer advice.
Principals also can lean on each other. The 16 Benwood Initiative principals meet every month, sharing what is working and what is not.
Before, it was sink or swim, Ms. Swanson said. Now, principals have a team of support.
Stephanie Hinton has been principal at Red Bank Elementary in north Chattanooga for five years. Meeting with other principals is a vital support system, she said.
"Out of those meetings, I've gotten some great ideas," she said.
But being a principal at a Benwood school is not just a management role, Ms. Swanson said. Principals need to be well versed in elementary education techniques in all subjects so that when they observe a classroom, they give valuable feedback and accurate critiques. At Red Bank, for instance, Ms. Hinton and her assistant principal visited classrooms more than 400 times combined in the past school year.
Tenure systems are frequently criticized for insulating subpar teachers. Rarely scrutinized are the principals who didn't hold those teachers accountable in the first place.
"A lousy teacher has never gotten tenure without a lousy principal," Ms. Swanson said.