A Clean Slate

By Lynn Olson — December 07, 1994 29 min read


To reach Thomas J. Rusk Elementary School from downtown Houston, you cross the railroad tracks and pass a string of run-down wooden bungalows and industrial warehouses. To the west, the city skyline floats above the rooftops like a distant vision of Oz.

In front of the modest brick building, a row of saplings supported by wires struggles to take root: a mute testimony to the rebirth taking place within.

Two years ago, Rusk Elementary was a school in crisis. Children roamed the halls and fought in the cafeteria. Test scores ranked among the lowest in the district. Teachers and the principal were at war. Various school factions had twice marched down to the schoolboard demanding that something be done.

“It was terrible,’' recalls Jane Cardenas, the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization. “The kids were running around the halls, and the teachers were not doing what they were supposed to do. Sometimes, I’d come to school, and my son would be the one to open the door.’'

In June 1993, then-Superintendent Frank R. Petruzielo announced that he would wipe the slate clean. Rusk would start over. He reassigned the school’s principal, declared the teaching positions vacant, and told teachers they’d have to reapply for their jobs or transfer elsewhere in the district.

Today, only three of Rusk’s 29 teachers remain from that spring. A new principal has recruited an almost entirely new staff. The floors and walls sparkle. Classroom doors are painted bright red. Students pass through the halls, accompanied by their teachers, in quiet, orderly lines. Plans are in the works for a school health clinic, with funding from the district and area hospitals. And all its progress has not gone unnoticed. Last year, Rusk was taken off the list of the state’s low-achieving schools.

Rusk Elementary’s story is one that could play out across the country in the coming years. Chronically low-achieving schools--and what to do about them--have been a problem that has plagued educators for decades. Few school systems have taken the drastic step of completely restaffing a school, a practice now known as “reconstitution.’' But as the demand for accountability grows, more and more policymakers are interested in starting fresh with schools that persistently fail to perform.

In San Francisco and Cleveland, the school boards have adopted policies as part of court-ordered desegregation plans that call for the systematic reconstitution of poorly performing schools after three years. In Kentucky, beginning in 1996, low-achieving schools could be designated “schools in crisis’’ and their principals and teachers replaced. In New York, a project is under way to phase out two large troubled high schools and replace them with up to six smaller schools run

by directors who could select their own staffs. In 1993, Texas passed a law that allows the state to reconstitute any poorly performing school that fails to bring up its test scores and other academic indicators for several years in a row.

“We just did a 50-state survey on accountability,’' says Susan H. Fuhrman, a professor of educational policy at Rutgers University and the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, “and 43 states say they’re changing their accountability systems, and one of the main features is some type of sanction.’'

“It’s a popular notion,’' she adds, “but a lot of this is still rhetoric. What we found is that these things are more in planning than on the books. And even when they’re on the books, the ultimate interventions have yet to be applied.’'

Except in a few cases. Like Rusk.

No one denies that Rusk Elementary needed help. The tiny building is tucked away in the southeast corner of the 312-square-mile Houston Independent School District. It’s in a poor neighborhood populated mostly by Hispanics, many of them recent immigrants. The majority of the school’s 442 students come from homes where Spanish is the primary language spoken. Of the school’s 20 pre-K-6 classrooms, half are designated for bilingual or English-as-a-second-language instruction. Many of the school’s students read below grade level in either tongue.

About one-fifth of the school’s population comes from two homeless shelters--the Star of Hope Women’s and Family Shelter and the Salvation Army--contributing to a student mobility rate that climbed to 175 percent in 1991-92.

When Johana Briseno Thomas, a first-year principal, took over at Rusk that year, it was already a school in academic trouble. Its standardized test scores were among the lowest in the district. Fewer than 20 percent of students met the minimum expectations on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Still, there was little to distinguish Rusk from the other struggling inner-city schools in the 201,000-student school system.

Soon, however, reports of problems began to reach the area superintendent and the central administration. Representatives from the area shelters complained that teachers were mistreating homeless children, many of whom were black. They alleged that the children were being unfairly scapegoated for the school’s disciplinary problems. Parents charged that the principal refused to meet with them. Teachers reported that they were left out of the decisionmaking process. Thomas requested the transfer of several veteran teachers based, in part, on her contention that they were physically and emotionally abusing children from the shelters.

Area Assistant Superintendent Jos‚ Hernandez says that by November 1992, he was receiving complaints almost daily. Several people described Thomas as a novice administrator who was put into an almost impossible situation. By her second year, almost half the teachers were new to the building, and many of its more experienced teachers had left.

Noemi SIC-lo Martinez, a stout Hispanic wo-man who works as the cashier in the school’s cafeteria, crosses her arms and lets out a snort of disgust when asked about conditions at the school back then. “Huh,’' she says. “Very bad. Faculty and staff, you were either on the principal’s side or against her. And the parents were fighting each other. And the kids were running wild, up to the point where we even had a teacher locked up in a closet. For two years, it was like chaos here.’'

In 1992, parents and teachers addressed h.i.s.d. trustees twice concerning the school’s weak curriculum and disciplinary problems. Hernandez says he sent in Chapter 1 and bilingual supervisors to work with the school, but nothing seemed to make a difference. Thomas alleges that she asked for more staff and help allocating $200,000 that the h.i.s.d. had earmarked for Rusk, but that her pleas went unanswered.

In April 1993, the Texas Education Agency sent in an accreditation team to conduct a peer review of the school. It was a few months before Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 7, the new accountability measure that would enable the t.e.a. to restaff low-performing schools.

“The campus was generally in turmoil,’' says Larry Garcia, who works in the accreditation division of the state education department. “There was just a lot of strife and divisiveness.’' Taas scores--which already fell significantly below the state standard--had been steadily declining for three years. Although Rusk’s primary goal was to improve student attendance, it had set no specific, measurable objectives. The school’s shared-decisionmaking committee stood divided. Its other committees had been abandoned, leaving many teachers without needed workbooks and other materials all year.

“Basically, the peer-review team concluded, ‘This campus just needs to start all over,’'' recalls Garcia, “and that was placed in the report.’'

Petruzielo had already proposed a new accountability system for the school district called “Blueprint: Houston Schools of Excellence.’' It called for the total redesign of a school’s staff or educational program as one option for low-achieving schools that did not improve over a reasonable period of time. But the district had never resorted to using the intervention. In fact, it didn’t even have a detailed policy on the books that spelled out the specific steps leading up to intervention or the criteria that would make such a drastic measure appropriate.

In a closed board session in the spring of 1993, Petruzielo informed the h.i.s.d. trustees that he planned to use his existing authority to transfer administrators and teachers out of Rusk Elementary School.

“There was considerable discussion,’' recalls Rod Paige, then-school board member and today the superintendent of the Houston school district. “It was not a unanimous issue.’'

“I was for reconstitution,’' he adds, “but I wanted some definite guidelines and rules set down for when we ran into this situation again.’'

In the end, Paige says, the accreditation report forced the school district to act. Reconstitution, he adds, “was almost a spontaneous response. We couldn’t think of anything short of this that was going to fix it.’'

On June 4, a Friday, Petruzielo made a surprise visit to the school to announce his plans, with the Houston press corps in tow. Everyone but the custodial and cafeteria employees would have to reapply for their jobs or move on. Thomas, the principal, was placed on “special assignment’’ with the school district. Area newspapers described reconstitution as the “death penalty’’ for schools.

“It was volatile,’' Paige says. “We were frightened by the way it was played.’'

Today, staff members at Rusk Elementary don’t like to talk about the past. Many of them came to the school because they liked the idea of starting fresh. A few didn’t know much about the school’s history when they applied for their jobs. A sizable group--eight of the school’s 29 teachers and one teacher’s aide--followed Principal Felipa Young from her former post at Andrew Briscoe Elementary School across town.

Robin Henry, a 1st-grade teacher with a thick Southern accent, came to Rusk from elsewhere in the district. “My principal had left the school I was at. I was there for four years, and I just wanted a change,’' recalls Henry, who stands barely higher than her students. “I didn’t even know what all had gone on here. I still don’t know everything, and I don’t even want to know.’'

Diane Smith, a kindergarten teacher, was ready to leave the district for work in the suburbs. “I was very frustrated and just thought I needed to have a change of pace,’' she says. But she knew Young, who had evaluated her teaching for the district. So when she heard the news on television, she decided to apply.

“When I got here it was filthy,’' Smith recalls. “I got a room that really looked like something had exploded. There were pencil shavings mixed in with blocks and toys Á and torn pieces of paper just everywhere. Somehow, we threw everything in containers and just put it away. And the children were very needy--a lot of tears, a lot of trouble adjusting. They needed love and happy surroundings.’'

Today, Smith’s room is decorated with a brightly colored carpet, and artwork hangs from the ceilings. A few weeks before Halloween, she’s wearing an orange apron decorated with bats, and witches dangle from her ears. Gathered on the rug at the front of the room, the kindergartners carve letters out of the air with their hands, then with their whole bodies. Last year, Smith says, she had two classes of 22 students and 80 different children over the course of the year. “You have to want to be here,’' she admits. “You have to want to be in this kind of atmosphere.’'

Principal Young positions herself in the hallway as the children pass by, a cross between a mother hen and a sentry guard. Warm brown eyes shine out from a square face surrounded by graying curls. A large chunky wooden necklace, with a schoolhouse swaying from the end of it, is her only concession to fashion.

When Petruzielo decided to restaff Rusk Elementary School, he recruited Young because of her work at Briscoe Elementary, an inner-city school where she had successfully increased parent and community involvement. “He gave me no choice,’' Young claims. “I really wanted to stay at Briscoe a couple of more years and then, maybe, go to a middle school. I gave him some other names.’' But a few days later, Petruzielo came back and asked her again. She relented.

“When I came to Rusk,’' she recalls, “the park next door was dirty, run-down. The school was not kept. It was just--the way the building looked, the way the grounds looked--it was nothing like what I had left. It just didn’t have a cheerful warm feel about it.’'

One of her first decisions was to install windows in the doors to every classroom so she could see what was going on inside. She painted the walls. The school’s business partners, Arthur Andersen & Company and NationsBank, the latter of which followed her over from Briscoe, contributed to a beautification program at the school and at the park next door.

Thanks to the combined efforts of some 100 volunteers and neighborhood residents, more than 75 trees were planted around the school grounds. The fences, bleachers, and basketball courts at the park were painted and repaired. Glass and litter were removed and flowers planted.

Young sought--and received--a waiver from the school district to release students at 1:30 P.M. on Wednesdays so teachers could make time for grade-level and cross-grade-level meetings and professional development. She revived the school-based decisionmaking committee. And she began to reach out to the community.

A grassroots advocacy group, the Hispanic Family Education Support Center, agreed to help. So far, it’s held about a dozen meetings at the school, during which it encourages parents to vent their feelings and become involved in school issues. Eventually, the group hopes to recruit local college students to work with youngsters after school.

“The Hispanic community, they’re reluctant to come in, unless they really feel that they’re a part of the school,’' Young explains. “I want my parents to feel that the school belongs to them.’'

On a Friday afternoon in October, more than 30 parents pour into Rusk for a meeting about the school’s Chapter 1 remedial-education program. Before Young came, the parents say, there was no discipline. Speaking through a translator, they say the children were out of control, and the principal never communicated with them. Now, says Hada Flores, the mother of three children at the school, she can see that the children are working and the teachers are working.

The teachers are interested in the children, agrees Francisca Villalobos, who has a 2nd grader at Rusk. Sylvia Trevino, the parent of a 1st and a 5th grader, says before reconstitution, the situation got so bad that only one or two parents would come to meetings at the school. Now, she says, she tries to come to everything to show her support, to make up for the years when she didn’t feel comfortable at Rusk.

“Everything has changed,’' says p.t.o. President Cardenas. “The principal is always here. Her door is always opened to us. She’ll put anything on hold to attend to the person who wants her right here and now.’'

“Everybody is nice,’' she adds. “Everybody treats you good. We can’t believe it.’' In a small--but significant--gesture, Young required every teacher to wear a name tag on a daily basis so parents could identify them. The name tags have turned into tiny pieces of artwork decorated with apples, rulers, and other symbols of the teaching profession.

Young’s goal--still unrealized--is to have every parent volunteer at least eight hours at the school, including those who live in the shelters.

Teachers at Rusk like to talk about the camaraderie that comes from having a strong leader and a sense of mission. “We’re all really good friends, as well as colleagues, and we share ideas and philosophy,’' Henry, the 1st-grade teacher, says.

“Teachers feel that there is a value to what they’re doing,’' adds Juannie Kyriakides, the technology teacher who followed Young from Briscoe. “They feel that their opinion, their input, is valued. And they don’t have a fear of expressing their disagreements.’'

Mary McMurtry, a 3rd-grade English-as-a-second-language teacher who first taught at the school in 1962 and has now returned, admits that Young is strict. “She believes in discipline. But she gives us the freedom to want to do better,’' McMurtry says. “She gives you an opening where you feel like you can do more because of her high standards.’'

Dolores Alanis, a 5th-grade teacher, grew up in the neighborhood and still attends church here. Her mother runs a local flower store. “Ms. Young believes in keeping everyone together like a family,’' she says. “She’s willing to work with you--with professional help, with home, with anything.’'

The school still has problems, admits Alanis, but “they’re normal ones.’' There’s no gymnasium, for example. And teachers say they have too much work.

For children, the most obvious change comes with the sense of order and discipline at the school. There’s no talking or running in the halls, no talking in the cafeteria. At the end of the day, their teachers accompany them to the front of the building. Some students even wear uniforms, an optional alternative to street clothes. Others compete for attendance awards. All of the classrooms have visibly posted classroom rules. And many sport signs like “Hard Work + Sacrifice = Success.’'

But the increase in discipline has been accompanied by plenty of added support, too. This year, the school has started an “adoption’’ program that makes every employee responsible for the well-being of a small group of students. A school drill team has also been created to keep campus spirits high. Students in the 5th and 6th grades can now look to single-sex support groups for guidance. And with money from a state program for homeless students, the school plans to launch an after-school arts program.

On a Friday morning, art teacher Perry O’Brien is holding down the front desk because the school is currently without a full-time secretary. As children come in late, he scolds them: “You need to get up earlier. It’s your responsibility, not your parents’.’'

Over the public-address system, children listen to the Rusk Elementary learner’s creed: “I believe in myself and my ability to do my best at all times.’'

A group of 5th graders discuss the changes at the school. “When you’re in the halls, you’re supposed to be quiet,’' says Gerardo. “We can do a lot more fun things, and we can learn at the same time,’' chimes in Edilma. There’s no more trouble in the bathrooms, adds Fernando. “People used to just walk in the halls--go back and forth--and now they don’t do that.’' It’s not messy anymore, says another student, and they’re encouraged to wear uniforms instead of baggy clothes. Do they mind? No, the children say. It’s better.

Many of the teachers say when they first came to Rusk, students didn’t expect to work hard, and they didn’t do their homework. It took several months to make their expectations clear.

Now, there is 20 minutes of silent reading each day, and Young encourages frequent oral reading to perfect students’ English. Last year, all teachers participated in a series of workshops on whole-language instruction and using literature across the curriculum. As a group, the teachers have begun to set academic goals for each grade so continuity exists from one grade to the next.

But inside the classroom, every teacher does what he or she thinks best. As a result, some teachers arrange desks in rows and have students filling out worksheets. Others expect their students to write in journals and read literature. Some classrooms look fairly traditional; in others, children work in groups and tutor their peers. In one 6th-grade classroom, most students work with partners to solve math problems, while a few help classmates who are having difficulties.

In general, however, teacher talk appears to be the norm, with adults standing at the front of the room dispensing information or asking questions. And all Rusk teachers put a heavy emphasis on the basic skills students will need to pass the statewide test--the ultimate barometer of whether a school needs to be reconstituted.

“I want all the students to feel successful,’' Young says. “If you come to school every day, you’re prompt, you’re ready to work, you are going to get better.’'

Last year, student mobility at Rusk dropped to 134 percent, a decrease of nearly 24 percent from 1991-92. Surveys show that the level of parent and community involvement is up. But academic progress, as measured by test scores, is more uneven.

“It’s very frustrating,’' says Susan K. Sclafani, Houston’s associate superintendent for administration. “Some scores have gone up, and some have gone down.’' In the past four years, the state has changed its testing program so often--in terms of when students are tested and the grades in which they are tested--that there are no comparable year-to-year data.

Still, she says, signs do suggest that Rusk Elementary is headed in the right direction. The percentage of students meeting minimal expectations on the statewide test is highest in the upper grades, among students who have been at Rusk the longest. In 1993-94, for example, only 33 percent of 4th graders met the state’s minimum expectations in reading, but 67 percent of 6th graders did. In mathematics, those figures were 30 percent and 79 percent, respectively.

Despite the encouraging signs in both academic performance and atmosphere, there are critics of reconstitution and particularly of the way it was handled at Rusk Elementary.

The teachers’ unions complain that the practice casts all teachers in a bad light, including those who are doing their jobs. “It puts a permanent, negative mark on a teacher,’' charges Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “They’ve done this in two schools, and I’ve watched the teachers go out and attempt to find jobs. And none of the other principals want them.’'

The federation offered to file a grievance on behalf of Rusk’s teachers, but none was interested. Last spring, Houston partially reconstituted Mamie Sue Bastian Elementary School, moving out the principal and nine teachers. The union filed a grievance on behalf of four of those teachers. It was withdrawn after the district agreed to work with the teachers to help them find jobs.

The unions blame the problems at Rusk and Bastian on bad management. “Both lacked leadership,’' charges Lee Barnes, the president of the Houston Education Association. “The school district lacks competent principals. That’s just the bottom line.’'

Irene Kerr, the executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, disagrees. But she says the experience at Rusk “reinforced, for my members, that every administrator is subject to reassignment.’'

“What was done at the time wasn’t illegal,’' she adds, “but it was surely badly handled. Á And because it was badly handled, those teachers were basically lepers.’'

Johana Briseno Thomas, Rusk’s principal who was reassigned, has filed a lawsuit against the school district, Petruzielo, two assistant superintendents, and five current and former school board members.

In her lawsuit, Thomas alleges that Petruzielo reassigned her “in direct retaliation’’ for speaking out about possible child abuse at the school and for trying to transfer “problem’’ teachers. She charges that the school system demoted her without any inquiry into the facts and punished her without establishing personal guilt.

The negative publicity, the lawsuit alleges, has damaged Thomas professionally and made it impossible for her to secure future employment as an administrator. The case is set for trial this spring in federal court because Thomas claims that her constitutional right to freedom of speech was violated.

To further confuse the issue, three months before Petruzielo removed Thomas from her post and placed her on special assignment, her annual evaluation was upgraded. However, it is not clear why that upgrade occurred.

In her complaint, Thomas asserts that Area Assistant Superintendent Hernandez correctly upgraded her evaluation after discovering that it was based on an earlier one that had been discredited. Hernandez, who is reluctant to talk about Thomas’s lawsuit, says he gave the former principal higher marks “just to give her a chance to succeed.’' Thomas is currently earning $56,392 a year while serving in one of the district’s area offices.

Olga Gallegos, a school board member who is a friend of Thomas’s, says she supports accountability but did not support the actions taken at Rusk. “Accountability did not apply there,’' she argues, “because the principal there had been having problems with part of the staff. She was a new principal and usually the area superintendent has to support and help a new principal. And she was not getting that support.’'

Whether the school district could have avoided reconstitution at Rusk if officials had intervened earlier remains an open question. But many businesspeople, parents, and teachers connected with the school allege that their cries for help went unanswered for at least a year.

“Rusk isn’t terribly unusual,’' argues Jos‚ Salazar, the president of the Hispanic Family Education Support Center, the advocacy group now working with the school. “It just rose to the forefront somehow. There is a very strong sentiment in the Hispanic community that most of the schools that are in areas like Rusk are probably having very similar problems and are probably being very ineffective.’'

According to Thomas’s lawsuit, the year Rusk was reconstituted, 56 schools in Houston had fewer than 20 percent of students passing the taas exam.

“It wasn’t any one factor that made this school the candidate for change,’' asserts Associate Superintendent Sclafani, “It was the combination of factors. It was that the administrators and teachers and parents were not united in working for student improvement.’'

“These are very difficult situations, and they’re never clear-cut,’' she adds. “What can be said is the resulting changes of both teachers and administrators have been positive for the school. And that was our goal: to improve the learning environment for kids.’'

In May 1994, the Houston school board adopted a new accountability system that formalizes the procedures used to reconstitute Rusk Elementary. The system places schools in five categories--from exemplary to low-performing--based primarily on state test scores. Principals at low-performing schools that are making no progress, with help from their shared-decisionmaking committee, must devise a plan to raise student achievement over two years. They can also request additional resources and authority. Each plan is negotiated with the school board.

If a school is placed in the targeted category for a second year, the principal can request adjustments in the agreement. At the end of that year, if the school still fails to improve, the principal will be removed unless he or she can win an extension from the school board.

The district can then select a new principal, identify a management team to run the school, or issue a request for public or private-sector groups to operate the school.

Last June, six elementary schools, nine middle schools, and one high school were placed in the bottom category, meaning that fewer than 20 percent of their students had passed all sections of the taas exam. This fall, only three schools received the lowest rating, based on revisions in the accountability plan to reflect changes in the state’s testing system.

Don McAdams was school board president when Rusk was reconstituted. “I was upset then--and remain upset--that the area superintendent was not on top of the situation,’' says McAdams, who still serves on the board. “Here was a school that was not only low performing, but where morale was shot, where the community was unhappy, where the children were ill-served, and neither the area superintendent nor the people at the central office had been doing anything about it.’'

“I don’t think we’re ever going to have a Rusk situation again,’' he adds, “because we’re going to know how schools are performing and their intervention points.’'

Superintendent Rod Paige, who replaced Petruzielo when he became chief of the Broward County, Fla., schools, has also made it clear that he would like to avoid similar situations by handling them with more precision. “I support reconstitution,’' he explains, “but you really are stigmatizing--to some extent--everybody, including those in the building who might have been doing a good job.’'

“What we’re saying is that the overall climate didn’t work, and we didn’t have any way to decide those who were part of the problem and those who were not,’' he adds. “We’ll try to do it as painlessly as possible because we’re not in the business of trying to hurt people.’'

The solution, he believes, is the kind of partial reconstitution that took place at Bastian Elementary. There, the school system tried to pinpoint a small group of individuals and ask them to “voluntarily’’ relocate themselves. McAdams compares such partial reconstitution to a “lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy.’'

“I think that’s the way to go,’' he says, “and reconstitution is a last resort.’'

Paige also suggests that students--as well as teachers and administrators--should be subject to transfer if they consistently disrupt learning. At the same time that Bastian was partially reconstituted, he moved approximately 20 “of the most severe discipline problems’’ out of the Dick Dowling Middle School and placed them in an alternative school. “We’re not going to allow a small portion of the student enrollment to disrupt the whole thing,’' he argues. “It doesn’t just stop with the teachers.’'

But some are less optimistic about partial reconstitution. In fact, the teachers’ unions say such a half-measure can be even more stigmatizing for those who are singled out.

Others say it just doesn’t work. Robert L. Green, a professor of education at Cleveland State University and an expert on reconstitution, says: “There seems to be something systemic about failure. It’s like having a fever or a virus. A virus affects your entire system. And to get at it, you should entirely clear the decks. In San Francisco, where we partially reconstituted some schools, we didn’t get the results.’'

These days, many people look to San Francisco--not Houston--as the model for school reconstitution. Under a pilot effort, undertaken a decade ago as part of a court-ordered consent decree, the district created two new schools and replaced the staffs at four others in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point section of the city.

Each of the six schools adopted a coherent education plan based on six components:

  • 11 “philosophical tenets’’ that emphasized high expectations for students;
  • Specific student outcomes for each subject at each grade level;
  • A technology-rich environment;
  • Flexible adult-student ratios so small-group instruction could take place at various times during the day;
  • Heavy staff development focused on the above components; and
  • New staff members who were committed to the vision.

(In the late 1980’s, under special circumstances, San Francisco reconstituted two other schools without replicating the Bayview-Hunter’s Point plan.)

In July 1992, a report to the court by a committee of experts found significant improvements in the academic performance of African-American and Hispanic students at the original six schools. Black middle-school students, for example, surpassed the districtwide average in reading. In contrast, other low-achieving schools that received more money and staff members as part of the consent decree did not produce overall gains in student learning.

“Some schools,’' the report notes, “spent a million dollars or more in supplemental funds without showing improvements.’'

The committee recommended that the district reconstitute at least three low-achieving schools a year, until the academic achievement of Hispanic and African-American students substantially improves. Reconstitution would include everything done for the Bayview-Hunter’s Point schools.

Since April 1993, the school district has developed and implemented a Comprehensive School Improvement Program to do just that. The plan targets schools based on a carefully developed set of quantitative and qualitative criteria. These include: changes in test scores; attendance, suspension, and dropout rates; student grades; a review of the school’s portfolio; a visit to the school by a review panel; and an oral presentation to the panel and the superintendent about the school’s efforts to improve minority-student achievement.

In 1993, nine schools were given extra resources to help bring up student learning. A central administrator was assigned to each school to help write and implement an education plan. The schools received discretionary funds. They were allowed to use their categorical monies flexibly and were guaranteed that those monies would not decline. And they could ask for help from a management expert.

This fall, three of the nine schools--Woodrow Wilson High School, Visitation Valley Middle School, and Bret Harte Elementary School--were reconstituted. They are currently putting in place a revised version of the Bayview-Hunter’s Point plan, which was updated by a committee of administrators from the original six schools. Nine other schools have been put on notice that they may be reconstituted in the fall of 1995.

Roger Brindle, a program evaluator for the school district, contends that simply moving staff isn’t enough. “The one thing that is absolutely critical,’' he argues, “is you have to have a coherent education plan. You have to create a coherent culture in the school. And then you hire people who agree with that culture. It isn’t just: Fire all the staff and hire somebody new and you get change. It’s not that simple.’'

“People get really enchanted with reconstitution,’' he adds, “and they miss that there is this other point.’'

Brindle also worries that reconstitution may have a theoretical upper limit, even in a large district such as San Francisco. Most teachers are tenured, he notes, and disillusioned and burned-out teachers who are moved out of one school may simply end up clustered somewhere else.

“One hopes,’' Brindle speculates, “that it’s not only the schools that are reconstituted that this has an effect on. It’s a very negative thing, but one hopes in the long run the fact that the program exists is going to do something to bring together schools that are marginal and might fall under the net. Whether or not that will happen is an ongoing question.’'

If there is any point of agreement, it is that reconstitution is painful. Nobody likes the process. But many like the results.

“People say that we closed the school,’' Superintendent Paige of Houston says of Rusk Elementary. “We really didn’t close the school. We started the school over. And I think there are situations where that remedy is appropriate.’'

“The bottom line,’' he adds, “is schools have got to work. Children have got to learn. And these other types of issues will have to take a back seat to that.’'

For Rusk Elementary, the pressure is on to move forward and not look back. There is so much to do. So much to prove.

“When I came to school here, it was very strict, very disciplined,’' says Noemi Martinez, the cafeteria cashier. “I like it now. I’m beginning to see the old Rusk--the Rusk I knew--with new teachers, new faces, but dedicated teachers.’'

Amanda Robertson, a young 1st-grade teacher, began her career at Rusk before it was reconstituted. “Before, it was just negative, nothing but negative. It got to the point where you just did the bare minimum,’' she explains. “It’s a positive environment now. You’re excited to come to school. You’re willing to put out the effort.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 1994 edition of Education Week as A Clean Slate