'SWAT' Teams Will Aid School 'Takeover' Plan

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The superintendent of Dade County, Fla., schools has put his principals and teachers on notice that those who are not performing up to standard this year may be removed by academic "swat teams" armed with the authority to take over deficient schools and develop improvement plans.

Dade County officials said the new plan unveiled by Superintendent of Schools Joseph Fernandez is patterned after the academic-bankruptcy laws in New Jersey and five other states that allow the state education agency to assume control over failing school districts.

While most districts have policies of some kind to deal with inadequate employee performance, few have gone as far as Dade County's.

In New York City last fall, former Schools Chancellor Nathan Quinones attempted to close and redesign a troubled junior high school, but his move was effectively blocked by a state judge. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1987.)

Mr. Quinones identified 16 additional schools where similar actions would be taken if improvement targets were not met, but he was forced from office before the policy could be fully implemented.

Dade officials said Mr. Fernandez had become intrigued by New Jersey's law, which has prompted the first take-over attempt by a state, and decided to develop a local model for his Miami-based district.

"We're serious about making this the best school system in the country," Mr. Fernandez told principals and the media in August. "If my team of experts goes into a school and finds that the problem is management, you can bet the management won't be there the next day."

The superintendent said "swat teams" of experts would be sent into schools that he considered "educationally bankrupt."

The teams will include principals of other schools, curriculum experts, auditors, food-service officials, business managers, and any other experts the superintendent feels a particular school needs, said James Fleming, associate superintendent for community and management services.

The team assigned to a particular school will develop an improvement plan for the school, said Mr. Fleming, and area directors will oversee its implementation.

"The prescription can run the gamut," he said. "In the most extreme case, it will mean the removal of principals and the transfer of teachers. And it is not inconceivable that the superintendent would transfer the entire faculty out of a school."

Mr. Fleming noted that in devising the new procedure Mr. Fernandez had been influenced not only by the New Jersey law but by his own decision last year to remove five principals he considered performing below standards.

Although the mechanics of the plan are still being developed, according to Mr. Fleming, Mr. Fernandez has "two or three schools in mind" and may use the team very soon.

Sandra Rubinstein, executive director of the Dade County School Administrators' Association, said principals are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the plan.

"I think he is trying to do away with any complacency," said Ms. Rubinstein. "I think he was putting people on alert."

She said that it was Mr. Fernandez's style to act quickly and that "a swat team is an exuberant term for wanting to do things quickly."

In Dade County, all but the most senior principals are on one-year8contracts, according to Mr. Fleming, and the superintendent has the authority to move them into different positions.

Officials from the Council of the Great City Schools and the American Association of School Administrators said they were unaware of any other school districts with local take-over plans.

"When it comes to the implementation of [school-improvement] strategies, what Dade County is attempting to do is preferable to what the states are trying to do," said Michael Casserly, director of legislation and research for the Council of the Great City Schools.

"In general, we have encouraged that kind of intervention rather than state intervention, on the assumption local school authorities have a better handle on their problems than states could have," he said.

"Many of the elements of what's happening in Dade County do exist in other school systems," said Gary Marx, the aasa's associate executive director, "but this seems like a dramatic example."

The Dade County approach, he added, "could be a Godsend if it were done in the spirit of helping and not overly threatening."

Vol. 08, Issue 03

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