Phila. Overhaul Plan Sparks Walkouts, Lawsuit

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Superintendent David W. Hornbeck's plans to clean house at two low-performing Philadelphia high schools prompted a lawsuit last week from the city's teachers' union and led hundreds of students to walk out of classes in protest.

Mr. Hornbeck announced Feb. 13 that he would replace three out of every four professional staff members at the two schools under a provision first added to the teachers' contract in 1994. Olney and Audenried high schools, which together serve nearly 3,500 students, would be the first targets of that clause, the superintendent said.

"The schools identified were judged to be ones where other support strategies have been attempted, but have failed because of the inability of the school staff to work as a team to bring about significant improvement," Mr. Hornbeck said in a statement.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers immediately denounced the plan as unfair and last week challenged it in court and with the state labor-relations board.

Teachers weren't the only ones upset. At Olney High, which is by far the larger of the schools, with an enrollment of 2,776, hundreds of students walked out of classes for two days last week to protest the plan.

Under the teachers' contract, 75 percent of teachers and other staff members can be removed from schools deemed to be failing.

Mr. Hornbeck stressed that the move was not meant to brand all of the 205 professional staff members at Olney and Audenried as poor performers. Employees removed from the schools will be transferred to other slots in the district.

Strong Union Opposition

The union lawsuit seeks to block the staff shakeups temporarily on the grounds that district officials violated a portion of the contract that requires them to consult with the union on the criteria used to designate the targeted schools, which are known as "Keystone Schools."

"He unilaterally selected schools, and they're not necessarily the lowest-performing," Ted Kirsch, the president of the PFT, said of Mr. Hornbeck last week.

William Epstein, a spokesman for the 216,000-student system, declined last week to discuss details of the administration's position on the question, but he denied the union's charge. "The district is confident that we have adhered to the terms of the contract," he said.

The union has asked the American Arbitration Association to mediate the dispute over interpreting the contract requirements.

The resistance from the PFT is reminiscent of the bitter criticism that the San Francisco teachers' union has leveled at that city's plan to reconstitute schools. ("S.F. Reforms Put on the Line in Legal Battle," Dec. 11, 1996.)

Denver teachers are also up in arms about a reconstitution policy announced this month in that city. ("Denver Board Backs 'Reconstituting' Schools," This Week's News.)

In Philadelphia, district officials said they relied on two main factors in determining which schools would be targeted.

The first was the school's "performance index," a district rating system that considers student scores on the Stanford 9 achievement test, student and faculty attendance, and graduation rates. That ranking was then adjusted to account for the number of students living in poverty at the school.

The other key factor was whether officials concluded that a school would improve significantly if its staff was reconstituted.

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