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S.F. Mulls Retreat From 'Reconstituting' Schools

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The San Francisco school district, a pioneer in overhauling troubled schools by transferring their entire staffs, wants to retreat from the drastic reform measure.

The city's "reconstitution" program, part of a court-ordered desegregation plan, is one of the country's most closely watched experiments in turning around failing urban schools.

Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has agreed to stop reconstituting schools for two years in exchange for an unusual promise from the local teachers' union: not to interfere with the forced transfers of teachers who impede school improvement plans.

The agreement, however, requires the approval of a federal judge, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the state school board.

Mr. Rojas said reconstitution should cease because ''there are no lousy schools in San Francisco anymore." He cited improvements in test scores, dropout rates, and the number of graduates attending state universities.

He also acknowledged wanting to ease the animosity among teachers created by reconstitution, but he denied he was buckling to pressure from the union.

"I'm not caving in," Mr. Rojas said. "We're not doing away with reconstitution, we're fine-tuning it."

The agreement came after years of fierce opposition by the teachers' union and on the eve of the district's annual review of which schools need reconstitution.

It is particularly noteworthy because the 62,000-student district is one of the oldest and most aggressive practitioners of reconstitution, having restaffed eight schools since 1994 and eight others during the 1980s. Only a handful of other districts have experimented with the idea, and a few, including Denver, are launching similar efforts.

"San Francisco is beginning to carve a middle ground between people who view reconstitution as the answer and people who view it as the work of the devil," said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant. "Hopefully, the result will be improved student learning."

Desegregation Plan Involved

Reconstitution in San Francisco is required by a court-sanctioned desegregation plan that also sets racial enrollment quotas at each school. The plan requires the district to improve achievement among minority students, and since 1994 it has mandated restaffing three schools a year. ("S.F. Reforms Put on the Line In Legal Battle," Dec. 11, 1996.)

The district hopes by early next month to receive the needed endorsements from the NAACP, whose lawsuit led to the 1982 desegregation plan, the federal judge who oversees the case, and the state school board.

Ms. Koppich, a partner with Management, Analysis & Planning Associates, said that for the new arrangement to work, schools need authority to tailor their own budgets and staffs.

"Not having reconstitution hanging over their heads is likely to improve morale, but I'm more concerned that schools have the tools they need to improve," she said.

Under San Francisco's current version of reconstitution, the district removes every employee--from the principal to the janitor--at schools with weak test scores and acute discipline problems. Those workers, who are guaranteed other jobs in the district, are replaced by people who agree to educational tenets detailed in the desegregation plan.

Under the proposed agreement between the district and the teachers' union, the two would collaborate on standards for identifying low-performing schools. Those schools would be required to come up with improvement plans approved by an overwhelming majority of their employees. Any teacher who didn't sign on to the plan would have to transfer.

Transfer Process Unclear

The rub is that teachers who signed on but later ignored or thwarted the improvement plan would be forced to leave the school.

Last week, district and union officials were still debating who would determine which teachers must find other jobs in the district and how those employees would appeal the transfers.

"That's the part that has our people the most nervous," said Joan-Marie Shelley, the president of the United Educators of San Francisco. "The union would be waiving its right to grieve, and our members need confidence in a process that won't leave them open to capricious transfers."

Ms. Shelley estimated that reconstitution has affected about 10 percent of the union's 5,000 members over the past three years.

"You have walking wounded carrying a lot of depression and bitterness," she said.

Three years after her school was reconstituted, Hene Kelly is still fuming. She taught English and health for 20 years at Wilson High School before it was restaffed in 1994. Now, she enjoys developing the district's curriculum on the Holocaust but sorely misses teaching.

"I couldn't walk into another school and open myself up again after getting hurt like that," Ms. Kelly said. "The kids were also hurt that their school had been branded."

Denver is grappling with similar repercussions after its decision this month to reconstitute two low-achieving elementary schools. Like their counterparts in San Francisco, the roughly 50 teachers at the schools who aren't rehired will be forced to take other jobs in the district.

But unlike the current method in San Francisco, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Leonard Fox, helped identify problematic schools. Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the Denver schools, said that "having a union president on board makes the process a lot more credible."

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