Fresh faces

At two high-profile Renewal schools, rehiring process ends in dramatic staff shakeups

Mayor Bill de Blasio with students and faculty at Automotive High School in Brooklyn. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

A majority of teachers are leaving two of the city’s lowest-performing schools, where they were forced this year to reapply for their jobs, according to data released Wednesday.

At long-struggling Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 40 of 54 teachers — or 74 percent — are not returning next year, according to the city. At Automotive High School in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 24 of 38 teachers are leaving, or 63 percent. At Boys and Girls, half of the departing teachers re-interviewed for their jobs but were not rehired, while at Automotive all but three of the teachers who are leaving chose not to reapply for their positions.

The schools’ rehiring process has attracted great interest partly because they are the most high-profile members of the city’s “Renewal” improvement program, in which the de Blasio administration is investing more than $538 million over the next three years to try to overhaul 94 under-performing schools. But the process itself was also highly unusual, a restaffing scheme ordered by the state and agreed to by both the teachers and principals unions, which some doubted would lead to the steep turnover that resulted.

It is not entirely surprising that so many teachers chose to leave.

Both schools are under intense state pressure to improve, and could be closed if they fall short. Also, staffers at both schools said some teachers had clashed with their principals, who have a mandate to make major changes. And if the teachers were already considering a move, they were likely emboldened by a guarantee that the the city will place them in other Brooklyn high schools if they fail to find new jobs — a stipulation of the city-union deal that led to the rehiring process.

The schools’ slumping enrollment numbers may have also created a need for fewer teachers. And the principals may have used the rehiring process as an opportunity to pressure some teachers not to return.

The high turnover comes as Chancellor Carmen Fariña has called on principals to try to retain teachers who are committed to their jobs even if they need more training, but encouraged them to urge teachers deemed incapable of the work to leave. Education department officials said that a portion of the teachers who did not reapply were “counseled out,” but a few people familiar with the rehiring process said teachers had made their decisions freely.

In a statement, Fariña said the hiring process had been collaborative, but added that turning around troubled schools requires tough decisions.

“Schools need to have the right leadership, the right teachers, and the right school staff to raise student achievement,” she said.

The Bloomberg administration attempted similar shakeups at two dozen bottom-ranked schools in 2012 (including Automotive), but was ultimately blocked after a legal battle with the teachers union. In this instance, the union agreed to have its members reapply for their jobs, but with the important difference that it would help make the rehiring decisions and that rejected teachers would be guaranteed new placements.

“The process allowed teachers to have a voice,” United Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Alison Gendar said in a statement, “and created a way for staff members to decide if their skills were a good fit for these new plans, or if they were better suited to serve the district’s students in a different program.”

When the re-staffing plans were announced, critics suspected that the joint city-union hiring committees at each school would not spur the dramatic staff overhaul they said was needed. In November, State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch commended both sides for agreeing to the plan, but said she did not want to see “two teachers who were going to retire anyhow retiring.”

The numbers announced Wednesday seemed to appease some of the critics. The pro-charter school group StudentsFirstNY, which has attacked the de Blasio administration for doing too little to revamp the city’s struggling schools, called the turnover “a good first step.”

The state has not ordered the other Renewal schools to enact a similar rehiring process, and the city-union deal does not extend to them. However, city officials have said the process could serve as a model for those schools.

Now that it is clear a large number of teachers is leaving each school, officials said they will help each principal find qualified replacements. At the same time, the principals will have to manage any fallout from the turnover, which has the potential to destabilize schools already in the midst of major changes.

A teacher who chose not to reapply to Automotive said he doubted that many experienced educators would opt to work at a school facing such scrutiny, where teachers must come in for extra training this summer and will be expected to quickly boost their students’ performance. He added that several of his students had already told him they were dreading the turnover.

“One said, ‘We’re going to give these new teachers hell,’” he said, adding that the turnover is “going to have an adverse effect, without a doubt.”

However, Tisch and state education department officials have said such a shakeup is just what these schools needed.

The officials last year labeled both schools “out of time” to make major improvements, including raising their strikingly low graduation rates. They demanded that the city take drastic steps to revamp the schools, and required that any “unwilling or ineffective” personnel be replaced.

In response, the city and unions formed a plan that established hiring panels made up of city and union representatives, along with parents. The panels opted to rehire the principals, who then joined in the staff hiring decisions.

At Boys and Girls, 14 of the 34 teachers who reapplied for their jobs, or 41 percent, were brought back. At Automotive, 14 of 17 reapplying teachers, or 82 percent, were brought back. The deal allowed the panels to rehire as many or as few staffers as they chose.

Two Boys and Girls teachers said they chose not to reapply because they objected to the leadership style of the new principal, Michael Wiltshire, who was recruited from a high-performing Brooklyn school. They said teachers who were not retained were called to Wiltshire’s office over a loudspeaker on the last afternoon of school and handed letters with news.

Wiltshire did not immediately respond to an email. But in a statement that officials sent reporters, he said, “I’m proud of the progress we’ve made so far, and the staff we’ll have this fall will be the right team to best support students.”

The teacher who did not reapply to Automotive said the assurance of a placement in another high school offered “a little bit of insurance” as he looks for a new school. He called Principal Caterina Lafergola a demanding and skilled leader, but said she had butted heads with a faction of Automotive teachers.

Lafergola declined to comment. In a statement sent to reporters, she said, “This is going to make a real difference, and will help ensure we have the right staff in place to best support students.”

Both principals are now trying to replace some of the teachers who left. An education department spokeswoman said the city will help organize two recruitment events at each school this summer. And like all of the Renewal schools, they will each get $27,500 to offer large bonuses to veteran teachers who agree to coach other teachers.

It is likely that both schools will not replace some of the departing teachers. Each has hemorrhaged hundreds of students in recent years. Boys and Girls, for instance, has seen its enrollment plunge from 2,300 in 2010 to under 500 students today. While officials say that applications there are up, a teacher said last month that only 65 freshmen had enrolled.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.