Can 120 New Teachers Lift Six Failing Louisville Schools? (KY)
May 25, 2010
When the new year begins this fall at Valley Traditional High School, there will be five new English teachers, three new math teachers and two new science teachers, as well as new special education, choral and art instructors.
At Fern Creek Traditional High School, the changes will be equally dramatic — five new social studies teachers, four new foreign-language instructors, three new teachers in science, three in math and new instructors for special education.
They’re among 120 teachers Jefferson County Public Schools will hire or transfer in as part of a comprehensive JCPS plan to overhaul six of its lowest-performing middle and high schools by replacing as much as 60 percent of their faculty, and in some cases, their principals.
It’s a radical option that’s never been tried before in the district, one that speaks to the frustration that some politicians and parents have felt about schools that for years have been labeled chronic underachievers.
But others argue that those reputations are undeserved, ignoring recent improvements already made at Fern Creek, Valley, Western and Shawnee high schools and Frost and Western middle schools.
Beyond that, some experts warn that the massive staffing changes alone won’t guarantee that the students will improve their academic performance.
"Personnel is important, but it’s only part of the puzzle. What are they doing to change the other fundamental aspects of the school?" asked Andy Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing educational excellence in American schools. "No one should assume that this alone is going to solve the problem."
Superintendent Sheldon Berman has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe that restaffing the six schools is the best way to fix them, but he said the district didn’t have many options — unless it was willing to close schools or turn them over to outside management.
"We had to choose the method that will give us the most leverage," he said. "And in many ways, this method was the least disruptive to students, staff and the instructional program at each of the schools."
Combined with the other restructuring efforts the district has put into place at the schools in the past few years such as magnet programs and freshmen academies, he’s confident the restaffing will help turn those schools around.
"Since 2007, the high schools have put into place a number of important changes in literacy, math, science and social studies curriculum," Berman said.
Audits illustrate problems
The district was fo rced to quickly make the drastic changes in staffing because of state leadership audits conducted at the schools in the spring. The audits, required by a state law enacted this year, focused on the state’s 10 lowest-performing schools, including the six in Louisville.
The law, the result of politicians’ impatience with the lack of progress among the state’s poorest-performing schools, outlines four options for improvement: replacing the principal and site-based decision-making council; replacing more than half the faculty; closing the school and transferring its students to higher-performing schools; or restarting the schools under the management of a private or nonprofit operator.
State auditors spent a week at each school, collecting test data, interviewing faculty and staff, observing teachers and speaking with parents and students.
What they found were low expectations among teachers and staff, disengaged students, disruptive classrooms and severe leadership problems. Principals were criticized for failing to provide teachers support and feedback and not ensuring that struggling students received instruction geared to their learning styles.
The auditors also found there was little communication among high schools and middle schools regarding curriculum, something the high school principal is supposed to encourage to help ensure a smooth transition for students.
Berman generally agreed: "There really isn’t significant communication between eighth- and ninth-grade teachers, and we are going to work on improving that."
The audits concluded that all six schools should replace at least half their faculty and that the principals at Western and Frost middle schools and Valley and Fern Creek high schoo ls should be replaced.
They also called for the site-based decision-making councils at Frost Middle and Valley, Fern Creek, Shawnee and Western high schools to lose their authority because they "do not have sufficient capacity to manage the recovery of the school."
Principals defend schools
Principals at the six schools dispute many of the findings in the audits, saying the blame goes beyond them.
"I was dinged on so many things that I don’t have any control over," said Beth Johnson, the principal at Western Middle. "They said there isn’t any student in the school identified for gifted services — but that’s because we don’t have a gifted or talented program here. The same thing goes for advanced placement. We’ve not been approved to have those programs."
Johnson announced she was resigning from the school earlier this year, shortly after she found out her school was among those to be audited.
"I love Western and I would have stayed, but no one likes their professional integrity questioned," said Johnson, who will be an assistant principal at Atherton High School this fall. "I saw what was going to happen and I was not going to let a three-day audit by the state determine my fate."
Valley High principal Gary Hurt said educators need support from the state, not ridicule.
"I don’t believe that punishing, demeaning and devaluing educators is a solution," he said.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday gave Hurt and Fern Creek principal Houston Barber a one-year re prieve at Berman’s request, because they had been in their positions a short time. But he said their status will be reviewed next year.
The carrot for the six struggling schools is eligibility for $1.5million each in federal funding over three years to help them improve — part of the Obama administration’s school improvement grant program.
Dena Dossett, a director of planning with the district, said the district has until mid-June to submit its funding application to the Kentucky Department of Education. If it is approved, schools would get about $500,000 each a year for the next three years.
Berman said the district likely would use the money to hire instructional coaches and more teachers, as well as provide embedded professional development for teachers and staff.
Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said his organization supports the district’s plan to restaff the schools because it’s the "least problematic plan being imposed on us."
But he also criticized the audit findings, saying he feels teachers are being made into scapegoats.
"There are all sorts of reasons why these kids are not performing well," McKim said.
Diane Adams, an English teacher at Fern Creek, agreed.
"I think sometimes it’s easier to blame teachers than it is to ask students to step up and take responsibility for their own learning," she said. "It’s easier to place blame than it is to look at the whole system."
Transfer decisions under fire
The decision on which teachers shou ld stay and which should go at the six schools has also been controversial.
Although many of the 120 teachers had volunteered to transfer, the rest of the faculty had to reinterview for their jobs before committees made up of two administrators and two teacher’s union representatives.
"Each teacher that interviewed was scored," said Bill Eckels, the district’s director of human resources. "The committees used the scores, talked to the candidates and then made a recommendation from there as to who would stay and who would go."
Eckels said the ultimate decision was made by the school’s principal, or in the cases of Western and Frost middle schools, a district administrator.
Those teachers not selected to stay, or who requested a transfer, submitted a list of schools where they would like to move, and if vacancies are available and they have seniority, they may interview, he said.
"We will be working with them to find new assignments that they are comfortable with," Eckels said.
But if some schools don’t have enough teachers, the district will place them where they are needed, he said.
Eckels acknowledged it is possible that some of the transferred teachers may end up at one of the other struggling schools. But he said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
"A number of these teachers are good, experienced teachers, and the schools that lost them did not want to lose them," he said.
David Mike, the principal at Western High School, said he didn’t want to lose any of his teachers.
"Stability is so important in a school (like Western)," Mike said. "I had my team in place and we were all working so well together. We were starting to make a difference."
Last year, Western saw a 22-percent decrease in its novice readers — a feat that was celebrated by district officials and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson in January.
"It’s discouraging, because as soon as we get some stability, they come in and change it up on us," Mike said.
Smarick, who previously has served as a deputy assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education, said the district needs to do more than "rearrange the deck chairs."
"Simply shifting teachers within the system is not going to make a difference," he said. "It’s a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Justin Cohen, president of The School Turnaround Group at the nonprofit Mass Insight Education, said all six schools must have a readiness to learn, teach and act if they want to beat the odds.
"Our research indicates that in order to be successful, you must assure effective classroom instruction, mitigate some of the socioeconomic challenges that students bring with them to school and provide flexibility for educators in the face of turbulence." he said.
Still, Cohen said, some elements of restaffing the schools may prove beneficial.
"It should not be about having to replace a certain number of teachers, it should be about making sure every teacher in the building is committed to the overall plan of turning the scho ol around," he said.
Finding new teachers
To fill those holes from those transfers, the district will look for existing teachers interested in joining those schools or hire new instructors.
But to receive the federal school improvement funds, the district must select teachers that "have the skill and expertise to be effective."
Since the restaffing option is new, with no examples in the state to draw from, Eckels said the district must determine "what the chances are that they will be successful in this environment."
He admits that finding teachers who are willing to transfer is going to be a challenge.
"Why would a teacher want to go to a school that has already been labeled a poor-performing school?" he asked, especially when most of the district’s teachers live in eastern Jefferson County, far from those schools.
"Teachers aren’t standing in line to go to these schools," he said. "This whole process has stigmatized teachers; it’s a disincentive for other teachers to want to go to these schools."
Despite the challenges, the district will push forward and do the best it can, Berman said
"We’re going to do the best we can to get these schools the very best teachers and principals," he said.
Tori Clements, a freshman at Fern Creek, said she disagrees with what auditors said about her school. But she said students at Fern Creek are ready to turn the negative attention into some thing positive.
"It makes us want to work extra hard to show (the auditors) that they are wrong about us and they are wrong about our school," she said.