Cleaning House

As a last resort, some districts are replacing the entire staffs of chronically unsuccessful schools

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By most accounts, Rusk Elementary, located just southeast of downtown Houston, was a school in trouble. Students were misbehaving and not getting anywhere academically, and the faculty was too divided by internal strife to change. Finally, district officials decided that something had to be done.

They opted for a radical remedy: Under provisions of a broad accountability policy adopted last year, the local school board authorized Superintendent Frank Petruzielo to replace the principal and all the teachers at Rusk. “We are not saying that these are incompetent individuals; what we are saying is that they, as a group, cannot work together,” says Susan Sclafani, Houston Independent School District's associate superintendent for administration. The displaced employees won't be fired, she says; they'll be allowed to reapply for jobs at Rusk or be offered positions elsewhere in the district.

The Houston action exemplifies a growing interest in the use of wholesale personnel changes as a way of giving a fresh start to schools that prove chronically unsuccessful in educating their students. The San Francisco and Cleveland school boards recently adopted reform plans with similar provisions. The guidelines, which remain subject to court approval under ongoing desegregation cases, call for district officials to systematically warn poorly performing schools and then to step in and “reconstitute” those that have failed to improve after three years. The displaced educators could reapply for their old jobs, but they and other candidates would have to buy into the “new” school's basic mission or philosophy.

“Essentially, you go and do this to a school when you really believe the situation cannot be saved,” says Anthony Alvarado, superintendent of Community School District 2 in New York City. Alvarado reconstituted schools on an ad hoc basis when he was chancellor of the entire city school system a decade ago, and he continues to use that remedy in the Manhattan community district. “The benefits,” he says, “are that you essentially, immediately, stop bad education from happening to kids.”

In addition to the policies adopted in Houston, San Francisco, and Cleveland, other recent reform efforts have called for the complete restaffing of low-achieving schools. For example:

• The New York City school system and the Brown University-based Coalition of Essential Schools plan to displace the principals and teachers at two large high schools. Each school would be divided into as many as six smaller schools run by directors who would select their staffs based on the job candidates' compatibility with the new schools' educational philosophies.

• Under the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the principal and teaching staff of any school designated to be “in crisis” will be placed on probation and made subject to dismissal. The provision takes effect in 1994.

• As part of a pilot project launched in 1989, seven poorly performing inner-city schools in Memphis were restaffed. The National Education Association and its local affiliate signed on to the project, which required a waiver of teachers' normal seniority rights. Given a limited life span when conceived, the project has since been discontinued by a new superintendent.

If the San Francisco plan goes through, the district will reconstitute at least three schools a year until it has dealt with all those that chronically perform below the standards it has set. Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has already warned nine of the city's lowest-performing schools that they may be reconstituted if they fail to improve after receiving substantial district assistance. The tactic is part of an overall school integration and improvement plan that has been accepted by the school board but is awaiting approval by the plaintiffs in the San Francisco school-desegregation lawsuit and by the U.S. District Court.

The court-appointed panel of desegregation experts that developed the plan recommended reconstitution after studying the results of a pilot project undertaken by the district a decade ago. Under that program, the staffs at three elementary schools and two middle schools in the Bayview-Hunter's Point section of the city were replaced. That strategy, the panel found, was one of the few so far adopted by the district that boosted student achievement in schools with large numbers of poor or minority students.

According to a report by the panel, low-achieving inner-city schools that were simply given significantly more money and staff members failed to bring about overall gains in the performance of African-American and Hispanic students. “Some schools,” it notes, “spent a million dollars or more in supplemental funds without showing improvements.” In the reconstituted schools, however, African-American students showed “significant gains,” outperforming their other black peers in reading and mathematics at the elementary and middle school levels and even scoring above the district average on middle school reading tests.

In the targeted schools, the report says, the top administrators were replaced with committed new principals who were given substantial resources to implement educational philosophies emphasizing high expectations and positive race relations. The teachers' union contract, which had tended to concentrate low seniority and substitute teachers in the low-performing schools, was simply suspended in those schools. The new principals were empowered to conduct nationwide searches for new teachers and to force incumbent teachers either to compete for their old positions or to take jobs elsewhere in the district. As a result, the report states, many burned-out teachers who wanted to leave the schools were replaced with teachers chosen for their commitment to the new plan.

“Schools that have distinctive approaches toward instruction, where everyone in the school has a sense of its uniqueness, are much more influential, especially in dealing with disadvantaged kids,” says Paul Hill, a senior social scientist with the RAND Corp., who supports the idea of replacing the staff of a failing school.

“The truth is, it is not always punitive,” he notes. “In some of these bad schools, there are teachers who are quite effective and may be more effective somewhere else. It is not like the teachers all get cast into the outer darkness and can't work again.”

Guarantees that teachers can work elsewhere in a district, and will not simply be fired, are seen as crucial in getting teachers' unions to back reconstitution policies. But such guarantees can create problems.

This was the case in Memphis. Because the teachers who had been at the reconstituted schools were allowed to reapply for their jobs, the new schools ended up with a volatile mixture of veteran teachers who felt ownership in the school and new teachers committed to change. “It really was `we' and `they' for a while,” says Carol Plata Etheridge, an assistant professor of education at Memphis State University. The Memphis district also was faced with the thorny question of what to do with the people nobody wants, says Etheridge, who studied the project.

In Houston, the leadership of the local teachers' union endorsed the adoption of the restaffing policy last year but was angered by how it was implemented at Rusk Elementary. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, contends that district officials had not done enough to intervene and help the school before deciding to replace its staff. She also questions the district's motives.

Fallon notes that the restaffing of Rusk came after its teachers filed complaints with the Texas Education Agency about inadequacies in the school's bilingual education, special education, and Chapter 1 programs. She has asked union lawyers to determine if the move by the district violated federal laws protecting whistle-blowers. In the case of Rusk Elementary, she says, the re- staffing policy appears to have provided “a marvelous opportunity for political reprisals.”

Superintendent Petruzielo sharply denies Fallon's assertions, calling them “totally inaccurate.” The restaffing of Rusk was a response to “a continued pattern” of problems, he says, adding that none of the teachers involved received the demotions or reprimands that would indicate reprisal was his motive.

Vol. 04, Issue 09, Pages 17-18

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