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We’ve Been Identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement - Now What?

By Donna Warthan - November 21, 2022

It’s the day before the news hits the paper!  District and school staff know the phone calls will be arriving shortly thereafter.  “What do we say?  How do we explain what it all means?  Where do we even begin the work ahead of us? Who can help?” 

These are often the questions asked by district and school leaders when a state department of education announces their designation as Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) or Targeted Supported and Improvement (TSI). In our work with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and its Office of School Improvement, we created resources and helpful communication strategies to create a path forward for district leaders who are asking similar questions after ratings are announced.   

In our two previous blogs on IL-EMPOWER, we shared how ISBE first focused on building a solid foundation for IL-EMPOWER and then developed a three-pronged approach to supporting IL-EMPOWER coordinators (IECs) as they develop the skills needed to assist identified schools.  In this third and final blog, we detail the steps the IL-EMPOWER team implements to communicate supports available for schools identified as either TSI or CSI and provide initial steps your school can follow after being identified for improvement.  

Support for Newly Identified Schools: 

Gerald Campbell once said, “true communication goes beyond talking and listening; it is about understanding.” This means that everyone’s process of communication may be different and it’s important to adapt to different forms of communication from one person to another.  That is precisely what Dr. Christine Paxson- director, of ESSA/ IL-EMPOWER, had in mind when planning her communication and support strategies for newly identified schools.  Here are a few of Dr. Paxson’s communication strategies including links to resources that ISBE uses to implement them. 

  • Communicate Quickly: Within a day of being notified of their Targeted or Comprehensive designation, all schools receive information from Dr. Paxson on getting started with IL-EMPOWER. Shortly after, comprehensive schools receive information from their assigned IEC to schedule an initial meeting. 

  • Communicate Clearly: Dr. Paxson encourages schools to tour the newly redesigned Continuous School Improvement & IL-EMPOWER website to easily access information about the Statewide System of Support. For example, newly designated TSI & CSI schools can find links to information about getting started with IL-EMPOWER and many other resources.   

  • Communicate Virtually: A series of topical professional learning opportunities for school leaders to build their capacity to effectively implement and sustain evidence-based school improvement practices are available on the website.  Each series video runs about 10 minutes in length and includes the slide deck presentation and any corresponding fact sheet.  

  • Communicate On-Demand: In addition to dedicated IECs, designated schools can access support from an IEC via a dedicated IL-EMPOWER helpline.   

Now What: 

American journalist, Helen Rowland, once said, “You will never win if you never begin”.  That’s good advice to those that may find themselves newly designated for improvement. Based on my 25 years of supporting this work and my current collaboration with IL-EMPOWER, here are steps to follow as you begin this journey: 

  1. Contact your State Education Agency (SEA) with any questions you may have about your designation. They can be a great resource when developing a message that can be used for multiple audiences to help each better understand the “what” and “whys” behind the designation. 

  1. Register and attend webinars or other convening provided by your SEA that provide an overview for your designation along with understanding the next steps in the process. 

  1. Identify potential members of your school leadership team that can lead the processes designed for school improvement by transforming teaching and learning. Members should: be knowledgeable about school improvement efforts; represent the diversity of staff, student, and community; and represent all grade levels, departments, and specialty areas. 

  1. Conduct a comprehensive needs assessment to help your staff identify, understand, and prioritize the needs that the school must address to improve performance.  

  1. Develop SMART goals to address your identified needs. SMART goals, with their detailed structure, provide focus as well as a clear idea of what you want to achieve. This structure makes it easier to plan relevant action steps/activities, measure progress toward achieving the goal, and know when you have met your goal.  

  1. Lean in on the expertise of the SEA staff member assigned to support your school.  They can serve as thought-partner and provide guidance in areas such as: explaining school improvement requirements, school improvement planning, and data reviews. 


Receiving a Targeted or Comprehensive designation can be scary.  After all, improving outcomes for all students requires improving the system and supporting the schools that serve them.  It was this mindset that led to the development of IL-EMPOWER, Illinois’ Statewide Systems of Support for School Improvement. By setting a strong foundation, developing a strong support system, and creating resources and tools, IL-EMPOWER has delineated how it will help districts and schools through their school improvement journey. With tools and supports in place, IL-EMPOWER is primed and ready to achieve their vision:

"To ensure school leaders are equipped with research-based information, skills, and practices to lead districts, schools, and classrooms to make decisions that ensure each and every child receives significant opportunity for a fair, equitable, and high-quality education and is equipped to make meaningful contributions to society and live life to its fullest potential."   

For more information about IL-EMPOWER and R9CC’s support for ISBE, please visit the following websites. 


Donna Warthan, EdD, is a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and serves as a project lead with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC), supporting the Illinois Empower Project. Dr. Warthan has served as a project lead, coach, and trainer for several successful leadership coaching and instructional improvement projects in school divisions across the country. These projects leverage data-driven instructional coaching, utilizing data to close achievement gaps, and innovative approaches to professional learning and growth to support diverse learning needs.