At Two Cleveland Schools, Overhauls Mark a Dramatic Response to 'Desperate Times'

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As visitors arrived for parents' day at Paul Revere Elementary School in Cleveland last week, they were greeted by volunteers handing out child-rearing leaflets and textbook covers. A few weeks ago, many of those same parents had brandished signs of protest in marches outside the school.

Among them was Latanya Brown, the mother of a 1st grader. She remains unconvinced that the reason for her earlier protest--the removal of much of the school's staff under a hotly debated strategy known as reconstitution--was a sensible move. But she does know that the school desperately needed a change.

"There was so much hostility," Ms. Brown said. "The bad relationship between the principal and the teachers carried over into the classroom."

That climate, coupled with dismal test scores, was among the chief reasons Paul Revere wound up as one of two schools picked by district officials last month for their maiden experiment with reconstitution.

The surprise announcement, coming just three weeks before the start of school, stunned parents and teachers at the 635-student school, an imposing brick structure in a struggling neighborhood on the city's east side. In part because the district's state-appointed administrators had not telegraphed their plan to reconstitute schools, many in the 72,000-student system, especially at the two schools, were caught unawares.

"It was horrible," said Todd Johnson, who has taught physical education at the school for seven years. "We had teachers who were truly pillars in this community. When leadership like that is uprooted, it will show."

District Defends Moves

Superintendent Richard A. Boyd and other district officials defend the shake-ups as painful but necessary steps to lift Paul Revere and Waverly Elementary School from a rut of unacceptable performance.

They also say that they had hoped to avoid springing the changes on the schools at the last minute, but that a glitch in scoring state tests had delayed the announcement for about six weeks.

Administrators acknowledge that test scores at the two schools, while low, were not rock-bottom in the troubled district--a point that has fueled perceptions at Paul Revere that the school was unfairly singled out. Last year, just 3 percent of the school's 4th graders passed the state's proficiency test, while at some schools, none did.

But unlike many other low-performing schools, district officials say, the climate at Paul Revere inspired no confidence that the existing staff could turn things around.

"In these two cases, if you really wanted to give these kids a fair chance, you needed to shake the staff up," said district spokesman Rick Ellis.

That's just what the district did. Besides firing the principal, it required all other staff members to reapply for their jobs. Just 10 of the 25 teachers at Paul Revere who asked to stay were allowed to do so. The rest of the 39 teaching slots are being filled by newly hired teachers or voluntary transfers from other schools in the system.

The Cleveland Teachers Union has filed a charge of unfair labor practice with the state, as well as a grievance with the district. Although teachers who lost their spots at the reconstituted schools received other jobs in the system, the 5,000-member union says the overhauls violated its contract.

"Reconstitution is another way for management to blame teachers and principals when children are not succeeding," said Meryl T. Johnson, a union spokeswoman. "People are doing the best they can with the tools they have."

'No One Was Listening'

At last week's parents' day, not everyone agreed. Communication, parents and teachers said, was a big problem at Paul Revere Elementary School.

Delores Sloot, a parent volunteer, recalled the atmosphere at meetings last year of the principal, parents, and teachers: "Everyone was shouting, and no one was listening."

Several parents said that though the school had its share of problem teachers, the principal was chiefly to blame for the poor climate, and they questioned why the district didn't simply fire her and leave it at that. Attempts to reach the school's former principal last week were unsuccessful.

The current principal, Robert Walters, said he is convinced that the wholesale overhaul was needed.

"The staff felt an allegiance to the building more than a mission to teach," he said. "Desperate times require desperate measures."

This year, he said, he will focus on curbing truancy, lifting test scores, and increasing parent involvement.

Ms. Sloot, for one, hopes he succeeds.

"A new atmosphere, a new principal," she said, "is bound to bring some change."

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