Turnaround for Children Inc., formerly the Children’s Mental Health Alliance, was founded in 2002 by Pamela Cantor, M.D. The Turnaround model emerged directly from work conducted by Dr. Cantor with the Partnership for the Recovery of New York City Schools, a consortium that assessed the impact of 9/11 on the City’s public school children. Their study found that the number of children needing mental health supports was beyond anything the City’s school system was equipped to address. Not surprisingly, the high-poverty communities that had the greatest intensity of needs were the ones that had the fewest resources. For what was clearly a systemic problem, a holistic response was indicated.

Dr. Cantor collaborated with educator Greg Greicius to create the first iteration of the Turnaround model, which infused its mental health focus with awareness of the reality of classroom conditions in high-poverty schools and the attendant trauma experienced by students. The model they developed was first piloted at P.S. 132 in Washington Heights, one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the City. With this intervention, the school experienced rapid, measurable changes in school climate. This dramatic success captured immediate attention, and Turnaround was asked by the United Way to become lead managing partner of a public/private collaboration, Safe Schools Successful Students, piloted in six very high-need Bronx middle schools.

A 2008 evaluation of the program by American Institutes for Research (AIR) established definitively that the model supported the transformation of high-need middle schools in two key ways: connecting high-risk students to appropriate school- and community-based services to promote their adjustment and academic success, and helping schools improve their climate for teaching and learning, leading to academic gains for all students. Even for this early iteration of the Turnaround model, AIR’s report showed that schools became calmer and more productive, with fewer problem behaviors.

To date, Turnaround has refined its model through work in over 80 schools across New York City, Washington, D.C. and Newark, New Jersey. In recognition of Turnaround’s potential impact nationally, New Profit Inc., the nation’s leading venture philanthropy organization, made a major investment in the development of Turnaround’s core capacity, as did the Carnegie Corporation of NY. In 2011, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust announced a $2.75 million grant to support a major new Turnaround program in two Bronx districts. Together, these investments in Turnaround are supporting the growth necessary to serve more communities in the coming years, and discussions are underway to serve locations throughout the Northeast.

As these positive developments draw the attention of policymakers, Turnaround is developing a presence in policy arenas. In August 2010, Dr. Cantor was one of five presenters invited to speak at the Aspen Institute Congressional Retreat on Education Reform, which led to her appearance before the House Education and Appropriations Committees to offer insight as they prepare to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Additional conversations with Congressional  and US Department of Education staff are centered around finding ways to use existing funding to incentivize the use of public dollars to improve school culture, support effective professional development, and increase the capacities of schools to provide academic and non-academic support services to students. 

Turnaround is playing an increasingly important role highlighting an under-recognized piece of the reform puzzle—the skills and practices that enable schools to successfully overcome the obstacles that poverty presents to learning. Our intervention model emphasizes the importance of a whole school approach, in which every adult in the school is committed to and accountable for the successful development and learning of all children in the school, and prepared with the skills and tools they need.