Faculty jobs on shaky ground

The Baltimore Sun

Teachers and principals at 11 low-performing schools in Baltimore and three in Baltimore County face the likelihood of reapplying for their jobs this spring as part of restructuring mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

All the schools have failed to meet standards under No Child Left Behind for several years.

If they don't meet standards again this year, they are required to restructure in one of four ways: replacing staff deemed responsible for low student achievement, converting to a charter school, contracting with an outside operator to run a school or appointing a principal designated by the state as "distinguished."

State officials say they expect most of the 39 schools affected in Maryland to choose the staff replacement option. In Baltimore and Baltimore County, that means everyone on staff must reapply for a job.

In Prince George's County, home to 21 of the schools, the scale of the staff replacement will vary according to where a school is falling short, but all teachers who are not considered "highly qualified" will be replaced.

Baltimore officials asked local school communities for input on how to restructure. In every case where a school responded, the choice was requiring the entire staff to reapply.

"If you look at the four options, it's the one schools most intuitively understand," said city schools CEO Andres Alonso, who has begun interviewing principal candidates at the affected schools.

The city school board voted 8-0 last night to approve plans for staff replacement at Forest Park and Northwestern high schools and Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary. It approved plans last month for Dunbar Middle, Harford Heights Intermediate and Sinclair Lane Elementary.

The other five schools in Baltimore that must restructure are all alternative schools, and Alonso said far more than staff replacement might be necessary. Before bringing plans to the board, he and his staff are considering whether those schools should be closed or completely reorganized.

The Baltimore County school board has approved plans to require all staff to reapply at Woodlawn High, Lansdowne Middle and Southwest Academy. Last year, staff had to reapply at Woodlawn Middle.

Teacher transfers

The decisions are subject to approval by local school boards and the state school board. Generally, displaced staff members would be transferred to jobs elsewhere in their systems.

Until recently, most Maryland schools that were required to restructure did so in the least drastic way possible: hiring a "turnaround specialist," often a retired administrator, to work with the principal.

State officials found that that option was not working and stopped allowing it.

Now, the most popular restructuring option is staff replacement. But a recent report by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy found that requiring all staff to reapply - sometimes called "zero-basing" - can be an extremely disruptive reform, and it doesn't always work.

"You have to be very sensitive to the fact that zero-based staffing may cause a lot of upset teachers the first year, and it may take a while to settle down the atmosphere in the school," said Jack Jennings, president of the center.

The center's report, which studied Maryland schools, concluded that "this type of dramatic and sometimes traumatic change brings its own set of difficulties." At four schools that tried staff replacement, "school staff and administrators reported that the disruption associated with rebuilding school staff was substantial enough to interfere with instruction."

Another nonprofit, Education Sector, has a new report studying inner-city schools in Chattanooga, Tenn., that made dramatic gains. While those schools replaced some staff members, the report found, the teachers who were most successful were veterans who went through extensive professional development.

Jennings said the schools that are most successful at restructuring are those trying multiple reforms at once. Alonso agreed, saying that staff replacement "doesn't address the question of what else needs to happen."

Baltimore City schools have tried staff replacement several times over the years, with mixed results. Kimberly Ferguson, the system's interim school improvement director, said typically about 50 percent of a school's staff is rehired.

"It's hard on the people who have to go through the process, but in the end, I found it makes a difference," Ferguson said.

Annapolis High is among the schools required to restructure this year, but Anne Arundel County education officials voluntarily decided to make the changes a year early. In addition to requiring all staff to reapply, the school instituted a longer work year for teachers and teacher bonuses. It required staff to sign an agreement to stay at the school for at least three years.

In the Center for Education Policy report, Arundel Superintendent Kevin Maxwell was quoted saying that the reforms would have been too expensive if the system had to restructure several schools at once, as Baltimore and Prince George's do.

Broader reform

In a plan that was well-received by the state school board, Prince George's Superintendent John Deasy and his staff are making selected staff changes based on leadership ability, competency and whether teachers are "highly qualified." There, too, the staff changes are one part of broader reform.

Schools that have missed their targets by a small margin are getting less intervention than schools where failure is across the board. "If it's a broad-scale struggle, you might expect that our option to change staff is increased," Deasy said.

Under the law, the 39 schools are required to restructure only if their students do not make "adequate yearly progress" on standardized tests again this year. But the test results won't be available until late spring or early summer, at which point it's too late to plan for a major reform. So schools will move ahead with the changes regardless.

At Forest Park High this week, some students and parents said they welcome the opportunity for staff to reapply.

"I think they could have better people," said Kim Palmer, whose 16-year-old son is a junior at the school. In his American government class, the boy has had three teachers so far this academic year.

"They said the students are so horrible, they can't keep no teachers," Palmer said. "They're having a lot of problems with the gangs here."

Keeva Brown, a 14-year-old freshman at Forest Park, said teachers and students often don't get along. "They don't take the time to understand the students," she said. "I feel we should have teachers who take the time to understand the students."

Other students gave a more mixed view, saying some teachers put in the extra effort to give students the support they need, but not all of them do. One Forest Park teacher was recognized at last night's school board meeting for winning a national award.

"There are teachers who really want to help you," said Earl Johnson Jr., 17, a senior who has been accepted to five colleges.

His mother, Linda Johnson, said some of Forest Park's best teachers have left for magnet and private schools since her son was a freshman, and she'd like to see more done to retain strong teachers. But she believes that the school's greatest need is more resources, such as a computer lab.

Philisia Henderson, who is 17 and a junior, said she changed her class schedule twice this school year to ensure that she has good teachers.

"Some of us aren't getting the proper education," she said. "We can tell the teachers who are good because they actually explain the work to you. You have ones who just put the stuff on the board."


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