explainer

Unraveling three and a half months of "turnaround" twists: Part I

Since Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to “turn around” dozens of struggling schools during his State of the City speech in January, the city has hammered out specifics while holding two rounds of raucous meetings at each of the schools that could be overhauled.

Meanwhile, community members, politicians, and union officials have argued against turnaround at rally after rally — even as the city’s plans evolved. On Thursday, they will air those arguments one more time as the Panel for Educational Policy — which has never rejected a city proposal — sits down to hear public testimony and then vote on 26 turnaround plans.

In two posts, we will summarize how the city got here, what turnaround entails, and what could happen after Thursday. First, some recent history:

What exactly is turnaround, anyway?

Turnaround is one of four federally prescribed school overhaul strategies that cities can adopt to qualify for School Improvement Grants. The SIG program was developed to entice states and school districts to improve the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan committed to funding overhauls. The program has gotten mixed reviews across the country but still has sent school districts into a frenzy trying to win scarce funds, which can amount to millions of dollars per school for three years.

If districts want the funds, they must select one of the four strategies for each school on the list. They can close the schools and disperse their students; partner them with nonprofit groups or turn them into charter schools under “restart”; add new resources and programs under “transformation”; or choose turnaround.

Turnaround is the most aggressive strategy and requires that a school’s principal and programming be changed. In the most controversial requirement, it also mandates that at least half of teachers be replaced. This requirement has made turnaround highly controversial in many districts that have tried to use it.

In the version of turnaround that New York City has developed in an effort to follow rules set out in its contract with the teachers union, the schools would be closed and reopened immediately. A team of administrators and union members would rehire a portion of teachers using a process outlined in the contract’s 18-D clause.

Why does the city want to use turnaround?

The initial impetus for the turnaround plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced during his State of the City speech in January, was pragmatic: The city wanted to be able to receive federal School Improvement Grants for the schools without adopting new teacher evaluations, which was a requirement for the less aggressive overhaul strategies.

The switch was also political: Bloomberg said he was forced into the plan because the union refused to agree on new evaluations. (In fact, the city had backed out of negotiations about evaluations in the 33 schools in late December, then struck an agreement in February on the main issue that had impeded a deal.) Announcing the turnaround plan allowed Bloomberg to appear tough on the union and sound like he had moved closer to his oft-stated goal of being able to low-performing weak teachers.

But city officials have also argued that turnaround is also the fastest way to help the schools improve because it would allow them to shake up their teaching staffs overnight. Here’s what we reported when Bloomberg vowed to go through with the turnaround plans even after the city made progress on teacher evaluation negotiations:

Bloomberg said the aggressive overhaul strategy was necessary because no teachers would be removed from schools because of low scores on the new evaluations for at least a year and a half.

“It would be unconscionable for us to sit around for two years and do nothing, so we’re going to use the 18-D process,” he said, referring to a clause in the city’s contract with the teachers union that the city says allows turnaround’s rehiring process.

Department of Education officials have made educational arguments for the changes at public hearings in the last month. They say an aggressive change could be successful at jolting schools into improvement where other efforts have fallen short.

Why these schools?

Schools have taken a circuitous path onto Thursday’s PEP agenda. All sit on the state’s list of “Persistently Lowest-Achieving” schools, which was first generated in January 2010 and updated in December 2010 in accordance with guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Education. Schools landed on the list if they had the lowest test scores of all schools receiving Title I funding, which goes to schools with many poor students, or if their graduation rate was under 60 percent for three straight years.

At the time that the lists were compiled, the city’s graduation rate was under 60 percent, and many high schools were added to the PLA list. In 2010 and 2011, the city began overhaul strategies at 33 of the schools but halted them after the breakdown in teacher evaluation talks in December. When Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January, 27 of the schools remained on the list, but the city added six new schools to replace others that it opted not to propose for turnaround, including two that were already slated for closure.

The list of low-performing schools had not been updated in more than 16 months, and some schools had shown improvement, often by crossing the 60 percent graduation rate threshold. Last month, the city removed seven schools from the list that had received A’s and B’s on their most recent city progress reports, leaving the 26 whose turnaround proposals are set to go before the Panel for Educational Policy.

Why is the PEP involved?

Since 2009, when the state law about the city’s school governance system was revised, the panel has had to listen to public comment before deciding on city proposals to close or site schools. The panel is only deciding about whether to close the schools, not whether the turnarounds will get federal funding; that decision is up to State Education Commissioner John King, who has said he wouldn’t finish evaluating the city’s applications until next month. The city has said it would go through with the overhaul strategy even if King does not sign off on the federal funds, although officials have signaled that they do not think that outcome is likely.

What does the teachers union think about turnaround?

For many reasons, the United Federation of Teachers is livid about the city’s turnaround plans. The union has long opposed school closures and has even sued to stop them in each of the last two years. Second, the turnaround closures are especially galling to the UFT because Bloomberg blamed the schools’ struggles on teachers at the schools, rather than on dysfunction in the school organizations, which the city has cited in other school closures. Department of Education officials have dialed down that rhetoric in the months since Bloomberg’s announcement, but the original branding still smarts.

In addition, the turnaround process that the city devised strikes, at least in ideology, at two concepts that the union holds sacrosanct: that layoffs should happen according to reverse seniority, and teachers should not be blamed for low academic performance at schools with many high-needs students. Many of the turnaround schools have large numbers of English language learners and students who entered already far below grade level.

And, perhaps most important, the city is blaming turnaround on the union’s recalcitrance in teacher evaluation talks. But the union called for mediation to smooth talks back in December, and the city demurred, even after an agreement on the sticky issue of appeals for low-rating teachers. An evaluation deal would have allowed the schools to be switched back into less aggressive overhaul processes that do not require any teachers to be displaced, an outcome that seems less likely with every day that preparations for turnaround are underway.

The union’s resistance hasn’t come in the form of organized protests. UFT President Michael Mulgrew has petitioned King not to approve the federal funding for the city, and individual schools’ union chapter leaders spoke out at closure hearings. But the larger effort is likely to be happening behind the scenes, where union lawyers are sure to be going over the department’s adherence to procedural rules with a fine-toothed comb. Any missteps would be fodder for a legal challenge.

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

Building Better Schools

Hundreds of teachers will be displaced by Indianapolis high school closing plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Tina Ahlgren spoke to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board in June about the importance of making the high school closing process easier for teachers.

If the Indianapolis Public Schools Board approves a plan to close three high schools, students won’t be the only ones facing transition: Hundreds of teachers will need to find new positions.

Just what will happen to those educators remains uncertain. District leaders say most teaching positions will be moved, not cut. But educators have raised concerns that the process for reassigning teachers is murky and that the prospect of school closings will push teachers to flee.

A proposal from Superintendent Lewis Ferebee released last month calls for closing Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School, and converting Arlington and Northwest High Schools to middle schools. Those four schools combined had 329 certified teachers in 2015-2016, the latest year available in the state performance report.

The district would also roll out a new career academy model, where students choose their high schools based on focus areas in fields such as business, construction and medical science.

All that transition means a lot of changes are in store for the hundreds of educators who work at the schools slated to close — and those at the high schools that will launch career academies and take the influx of new students.

For now, the district is not providing much information on what is in store for teachers. The details are expected to come after the IPS board votes on which schools to close in September. Eleven days after the board votes, central office staff are scheduled visit the high schools to discuss the timeline, next steps and personnel decisions.

But Ferebee said it will be even longer before the district has a full picture of how many teachers are needed at the career academies in each school because it depends on where students choose to enroll.

“Much of what we do with certified staff will be driven by enrollment interest of students,” he said.

By closing schools, the district expects to save $4.35 million in “classroom resources,” or expenses from the general fund, according to the report recommending closing high schools. The general fund is typically used to pay for costs including salaries for teachers and other school workers, equipment like computers and supplies needed to run the schools.

The administration does not expect it would save much from shrinking the teaching force, because they anticipate that the number of teachers will stay relatively stable, said deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand. “Our student enrollment will stay about the same.”

IPS union president Rhondalyn Cornett, who leads the Indianapolis Education Association, said that she also expects the number of teachers to remain steady — as long as students don’t start leaving the district for charter and township schools.

The career academies may also lead to more jobs for teachers with new skills and credentials, but it’s not entirely clear how that will play out. Some teachers may already be qualified to teach in the new programs and others may be able to get the extra credentials relatively easily.

Even if the district maintains the same number of students and teachers in its high schools, however, the transition is hard for teachers at the schools that are expected to close, Cornett said.

“They are afraid. They don’t understand how this process works,” she said. “They don’t know what the future holds.”

Cornett said that the district should make the closing process easier for educators by being clear about how they can get jobs at other schools and giving teachers who lost their jobs because of  school closings priority for open positions.

Tina Ahlgren, the 2014 IPS Teacher of the Year, spoke to the board in June about the urgent need to make the process transparent for teachers. Ahlgren has been through this before. She lost jobs at two prior schools after one school was taken over by the state and a magnet program at another school was abruptly moved.

“During each of these transitions, I watched dozens of loyal, effective, IPS educators leave the district due to the chaos that ensued and the broken promises from this district,” she said. “I speak here today to remind you of those challenges in the hopes that we will learn from our past and not repeat those mistakes this time around.”