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Reconstitution Gaining New Momentum

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Once considered an act of near desperation, the practice of ousting most of a school's staff and starting over--known as reconstitution--is gaining currency as a means of resuscitating public schools deemed to be chronic failures.

Newly reconstituted schools opened this year in Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Prince George's County, Md., and San Francisco. In Philadelphia, the district tried to reconstitute two high schools this summer, only to be foiled in a bitter dispute with the teachers' union. And in New York City, officials used their own less-drastic version of reconstitution to shake up 20 schools over the summer--on top of 10 last year.

The overhauls are coming at a time of growing demands from politicians, reformers, and the public for solutions to the seemingly incurable ills of many urban schools. These pressures are prompting more superintendents--whose own job security, especially in urban districts, is often precarious--to look for accountability measures with a capital A. Few fit the bill as well as reconstitution.

"Here are these schools that have not only not reformed, but they haven't even met traditional standards," said Frank L. Smith, a professor of educational administration at Teachers College, Columbia University. "I think people are just losing patience and saying these kids can't wait."

All Jobs Posted

As patience wore out in these districts, the entire staffs at targeted schools--including teachers, custodians, support workers, and administrators--were required this summer to reapply for their jobs. The number of teachers who wound up staying at the affected schools ranged from only a handful to as many as two-thirds, depending on the city.

  • In Cleveland, the state-appointed superintendent announced he was cleaning house at two elementary schools just three weeks before the start of school. Despite protests from parents and labor grievances by the teachers' union, more than two-thirds of the teachers at the schools were replaced when classes resumed in the 72,000-student system late last month. ("At Two Cleveland Schools, Overhauls Mark A Dramatic Response to 'Desperate Times'," in This Week's News.)
  • Chicago school officials announced in June that seven of the city's most poorly performing high schools would be reconstituted over the summer. In addition, leaders of the 424,000-student district scaled back the job protections of teachers who lose their positions. It was this move, more than the shake-ups themselves, that led to the worst breach to date in the largely amicable relationship the district had enjoyed with the teachers' union since Mayor Richard M. Daley installed the current administration in 1995. Nearly two-thirds of the affected teachers were rehired by their old schools.
  • In Denver, the whole staffs of two elementary schools were ousted, with only a handful of teachers being rehired at each school.

Although the teachers' union initially balked when news of the possible overhauls broke last winter, union leaders then took the unusual step of cooperating closely with administrators of the 62,000-student district. Still, all but a handful of teachers at each school were required to find positions elsewhere in the district.

  • Administrators in Prince George's County, a suburban Washington district of 125,000 students, in June ordered the staffs of four elementary schools and two middle schools to reapply for their jobs. In the end, slightly more than a third of the teachers and administrators returned to their original schools. Officials said they were trying to boost achievement at the schools before they became candidates for reconstitution by the state, which has put 50 schools in Baltimore on notice that they may be reconstituted.
  • In San Francisco, the district last spring agreed with the teachers' union on a tentative plan for modifying the district's reconstitution policy. But as talks continued, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas reconstituted one high school and an elementary school over the summer. Still, the shake-ups were less sweeping than those at eight other schools in the district since 1994. ("S.F. Mulls Retreat From 'Reconstituting' Schools," May 28, 1997.)

At the high school, for example, 45 percent of the teachers were allowed to remain, and teachers are being given more say in charting the school's new course.

San Francisco Sets Trend

In all of these districts, school leaders are betting that reconstitution will foster a new, student-focused culture in schools where failure had come to be accepted. "It's a drastic and dramatic tool," Mr. Rojas said. "But if you've got cancer, you've got to get it all."

San Francisco officials have revamped 10 schools since 1994 under their district's court-ordered desegregation plan, despite fierce objections from the teachers' union. The court ordered the overhauls based on studies showing major improvements in some schools that the district reconstituted in the 1980s. ("S.F. Reforms Put on the Line in Legal Battle," Dec. 11, 1996.)

Waldemar Rojas

Over the past five years, San Francisco has seen standardized-test scores districtwide edge upward every year, gains that officials attribute in part to reconstitution. Although experts say the jury is still out on the technique's effectiveness, Mr. Rojas believes this track record is emboldening other educators to take the plunge.

"When somebody finds something that has a glimmer of hope and success," he said, "they're going to try it."

But now that the idea has caught on, Mr. Rojas and other supporters of San Francisco's brand of reconstitution are worried.

"I'm concerned that it will be picked up as a panacea and done incorrectly," Mr. Rojas said.

Robert L. Green, a Michigan State University professor who has been involved in San Francisco's desegregation case, said educators with experience in the practice should get together soon to trade notes on what enhances and detracts from its effectiveness. He believes they should discuss the importance of using defensible criteria for identifying targeted schools and of giving schools a reasonable chance to correct their problems before being hit with reconstitution. Both issues have given rise to controversy nearly everywhere reconstitution has been tried.

"My fear is that school districts will jump on the reconstitution bandwagon without seriously considering the issues," Mr. Green said.

Union on the Warpath

Teachers' unions share his concerns. San Francisco teachers have long battled the practice, and Sandra Feldman, the New York City union chief who also became president of the American Federation of Teachers last spring, recently weighed in on the issue.

While seeking to position the 940,000-member AFT as a proponent of fixing failing schools, Ms. Feldman argues that reconstitution, at least the way it is playing out in most cities, is not the way to go about it.

"In most cases, they do it crudely--getting rid of people instead of bad practices," she wrote this month in the AFT's paid newspaper commentary, "Where We Stand." "This strategy, which goes by the ugly name of reconstitution, offers a simplistic response to a complicated problem."

Ms. Feldman holds up New York City as a model for how unions and districts can work together on troubled schools. There, administrators and union officials negotiated a process for redesigning schools that have been identified by the state as unacceptable. Under the agreement, such schools can replace roughly half of their teachers with newcomers. Teachers who choose to leave such schools are given priority in seeking other posts.

New Yorkers studiously avoid the term reconstitution, as do educators in Denver, preferring to call their shake-ups redesigns.

Mr. Rojas bristles at the unions' criticisms, saying he has always aimed to change school practices--not just personnel. Still, he sees the ability to clean house and rebuild school cultures from the ground up as a crucial factor in his district's recent gains.

"Without that variable, I haven't seen it occur," he said.

Strains in Chicago

School officials in Chicago--where two years of labor peace has been shaken by the fallout from reconstitution--also consider the union's charges off base. Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, said this summer's seven reconstitutions were part of a broader strategy to revitalize education citywide.

The schools were among more than 100 put on probation last fall. Many others are in remediation, a step short of probation in which they are required to draw up improvement plans.

"If we had done reconstitution without remediation and probation, then it would be crude," Mr. Vallas said. "But sometimes you just simply have to start over."

In none of the schools reconstituted in various districts this summer were teachers summarily thrown out of a job. For the most part, the displaced teachers ended up elsewhere in the systems.

Still, with the exception of Denver, the overhauls are being fiercely resisted by teachers' unions, even in places where labor-management relations have been calm.

That is certainly the case in Chicago, where reconstitution comes closest to threatening displaced teachers with unemployment. Teachers who are not rehired will have 10 months to find another job in the system before being taken off the payroll. Moreover, they will be expected to work as substitutes during that time, with one day off a week for job hunting.

Until the school board changed its policy this summer, teachers who lost their posts went into a reserve teacher pool for two school years and were not required to substitute.

Pamelyn Massarsky, the recording secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union, said the 33,000-member union has filed grievances on behalf of the affected teachers. She characterized the events this summer as a betrayal by the district leadership.

"We had believed there was a cooperative working relationship, and we have fostered and supported that," she said. "But they spit in our face, and we know it's not raining."

Mr. Vallas, for his part, downplays the rift with the union. "There are certainly many union activists who are going to grandstand on this," he said, "but the bottom line is, we have 27,000 teachers and we respect their collective bargaining rights."

Ousters Blocked

In Philadelphia, district officials were tripped up by teachers' bargaining rights this summer in their bid to reconstitute two troubled high schools.

After Superintendent David W. Hornbeck announced in February that he would transfer up to 75 percent of the staff at the schools, the union went to court. In July, an arbitrator ruled that the district had not followed the process spelled out in the teachers' contract and voided the plan. ("Arbitrator Rejects Overhaul Plan for 2 Philadelphia Schools," Aug. 6, 1997.)

Despite the ruling, the principals at the two schools began wide-ranging reforms anyway--including some that have drawn the ire of the union--and many staff members took voluntary transfers. So Mr. Hornbeck said he does not consider his plan to have been entirely thwarted.

Since the arbitrator's ruling, there has been a partial thaw in the chilly relationship between Mr. Hornbeck and the union. But both sides report that they have made little progress in talks on the process to be used in the future to reconstitute schools.

Though he would rather not resort to reconstitution again, Mr. Hornbeck said, he is still "perfectly prepared to use it again if necessary."

Other Districts Interested

Despite union resistance, there are few signs that reconstitution is going away.

In Detroit, a clause in the new contract the district reached with teachers this month allows reconstitution of schools that have lost state accreditation and failed to improve despite extra help.

Christine Johnson, the director of the urban initiative of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said she has received several requests recently from states and districts interested in reconstitution.

"There is a public outcry for accountability with teeth," she said.

While Ms. Johnson considers reconstitution a reform strategy whose effectiveness has not been fully proven, she said it can put useful pressure on educators to re-evaluate their efforts.

"What has started as a fairly top-down intervention will have a positive effect as the professionals at the local level go about their business," she said, "which is keeping student learning as their bottom line."

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