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Memphis Reform Plan Targets Cluster Of Inner-City Schools for Deregulation

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The Memphis school system would carve out an experimental "deregulated" district within its borders under a dramatic plan aimed at rescuing inner-city schools and students.

The plan, which the school board is expected to vote on next month, would deploy an array of widely touted reform strategies at eight of the city's most problem-ridden schools.

It includes such provisions as site-based management, year-round schooling, and a $50,000 base salary for participating teachers, who would be chosen by "local school councils."

"I think we have to move off a dead-center approach that has engulfed us in mediocrity," Superintendent of Schools W.W. Herenton, who proposed the plan, said last week. "We must experiment with reforms. We must be willing to change."

Mr. Herenton's "Comprehensive Reform Plan" for the 105,000-student district would concentrate efforts on four elementary schools, two junior high schools, and two high schools.

Most of the 5,100 students enrolled in the targeted schools--which serve four public-housing projects on the north side of downtown Memphis--are locked in a cycle of failure and poverty, district officials acknowledge.

Even if the school board adopts the blueprint, a number of potential obstacles would remain. The district has not yet secured the estimated $12 million to $15 million needed to enact the changes, officials said. In addition, some of the plan's elements would require state approval.

And the president of the local National Education Association affiliate, while commending the school chief for his "bold initiative," has voiced concerns over the adequacy of the plan's protections for teachers' job rights.

Failure of 'Establishment'

Mr. Herenton said his motivation for developing the reform package stemmed from a statement by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett: "The irony of American education is that the most formidable obstacle to improving schools is the educational establishment itself."

"That particular statement motivated me to re-examine what we4have been doing in education in the last 10 or 20 years," Mr. Herenton said. "I felt the time had come for the education establishment to admit we have failed to educate students and we need to reform schools."

The schools selected for the Memphis experiment provide a stark example of that failure.

Fewer than 30 percent of 3rd graders and 20 percent of 8th graders at the schools can read at grade level, according to Cathy Bennett, a district spokesman. At the high schools, nearly 13 percent of the students skip school on a given day.

Black students constitute virtually 100 percent of the schools' enrollment, Ms. Bennett said.

Reductions in Bureaucracy

As envisioned by Mr. Herenton, the targeted schools would constitute a "deregulated school district" whose officials would report directly to the superintendent. The idea, he said, was to remove a layer of bureaucracy that could potentially stifle creative reforms.

Under their special status, the schools would be exempt from some rules and regulations. In return, the teachers, administrators, and parents at each school would assume greater responsibility for decisionmaking, instructional leadership, and development of specially tailored programs.

A seven-member "local school council," consisting of the principal, teachers, parents, and students, would be selected at each site. The councils would be responsible for budgeting, staffing, curriculum and instruction, programs and services, and building operations.

$25,000 Salary Boost

In one of the blueprint's most sweeping provisions, all administrative and teaching jobs at the eight schools would be declared vacant at the start of the school year next fall.

Teachers and principals from all 158 schools in the district could apply for the 300 vacancies. Each school's council would make the final selections.

The base salary for teachers hired by the deregulated schools would be $50,000 a year, nearly $25,000 above the current average salary of $26,890 earned by district teachers.

Pay bonuses also would be available if teachers met school goals for increasing achievement and decreasing dropout rates. Such bonuses, combined with career-ladder stipends, could increase a participating teacher's salary by another $10,000, Mr. Herenton said.

To implement the element of the plan involving teaching staffs, officials said, they must seek approval from the federal judge overseeing the district's desegregation court order for a faculty-transfer provision that would allow the mandated 50-50 racial balance to fluctuate by 15 percent instead of the 10 percent currently allowed.

The district is under a 1972 court order but, as its population has shifted to 88 percent black, it has pared down its cross-town busing efforts. Ms. Bennett, the district spokesman, said the assignment of students to the eight targeted schools has never been affected by the court order.

State Action Needed

If Memphis officials can persuade Tennessee legislators to change certain laws and the state board of education to issue needed waivers, the eight schools would also move to a 240-day instructional year and expand the school day to eight hours. Those changes would begin in the 1990-91 school year.

The 1989-90 school year would mainly be a planning time for administrators, staff members, and parents at the eight schools, according to district officials. The legislative changes and waivers would be sought during the 1990 legislative session, the officials said.

Mr. Herenton is also seeking to expand the early-childhood intervention programs in the four elementary schools and to strengthen parental-involvement programs.

In one of its few provisions that would affect schools outside the deregulated district, the blueprint also calls for a parental-choice plan involving six elementary schools in various areas of the city.

Ms. Bennett said it was still unclear whether the choice plan would be subject to judicial review.

Obstacles to Plan

The major concerns about Mr. Herenton's blueprint center on its pricetag, according to Ms. Bennett. So far, she said last week, district leaders are still looking at potential sources of funding.

The boost in teachers' salaries would account for most of the additional costs, she noted.

Under a legislative idea being advanced by Mr. Herenton, she said, the state would supply some of the money as part of a proposed initiative to provide more aid to school districts that tried innovative programs.

Carrie Harris, president of the4Memphis Education Association, said teachers were among those concerned about where the district would get the funds for the reform effort.

She said officials of the association were also continuing to discuss with the superintendent their worries about protecting teachers' rights in school assignments and salaries under the plan.

The union, she said, believes there should be guidelines for moving teachers in or out of the participating schools.

But Ms. Harris said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the plan.

"The program is a good one," she said. "I commend the superintendent for taking this bold initiative and for involving mea in the planning stages."

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