Dramatic shake-up planned at 12 Boston public schools

Staff at 6 must reapply; 5 principals to be removed

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / March 5, 2010

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Boston school officials announced yesterday that staff at six schools will have to reapply for their jobs and five principals will be replaced after the schools were listed among nearly three dozen statewide that will probably be declared “underperforming’’ and subject to drastic change.

Overall, 12 Boston schools face being listed as underperforming, slightly more than a third of the 35 schools statewide. The list includes the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, long considered a barometer of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s effectiveness in improving the city’s schools over the past 16 years.

The state’s action was the first under a two-month-old law requiring dramatic changes to overhaul the state’s lowest-performing schools. Superintendents will have three years to turn around these schools or face a state takeover.

In announcing the shake-up, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said the schools must have top-notch staffs to successfully turn them around. She emphasized that staff members are not being fired and that employees not rehired could find work at other district schools.

“We feel it’s important for teachers to recommit themselves to the tough work ahead,’’ she said at a press conference at the Holland Elementary School in Dorchester, which was on the state’s list.

Johnson’s swift move drew the immediate ire of the teachers union, which accused her of trying to “evict’’ hard-working teachers and said it is exploring legal action.

But with the fate of 17,000 students at risk in the 35 targeted schools, state education officials said yesterday that radical change is imperative and needs to come swiftly. The students are overwhelmingly poor and of disadvantaged ethnic and racial groups.

“I’m worried about the kids,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said. “I’m worried about the kids being left behind. I’m worried about the kids getting the resources they need.’’

Massachusetts could receive an infusion of $250 million from the federal government to help these schools and others. The US Department of Education announced yesterday that the state is among more than a dozen that will advance to the final round of President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which will reward states that aggressively fix failing schools and expand independently run charter schools.

The list of underperforming schools is preliminary because the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has not yet approved regulations to execute provisions of the new state law. The board is expected to vote on those regulations later this month. The state released the list early because superintendents expressed eagerness to get started.

The schools are considered to be the worst of the worst, culled from a pool of roughly 370 schools, the bottom 20 percent of the state’s 1,846 schools, based on persistently low test scores. In developing the preliminary list, state education officials also weighed other factors, such as a school’s failure to meet federal education standards under the No Child Left Behind law.

“These are schools where results are unacceptably low,’’ Mitchell Chester, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said of the newly identified schools. “Kids are not being well served in these schools.’’

Much of the effort to improve will probably conform to one of four intervention models developed by the Obama administration, and each includes striking actions, ranging from replacing principals and at least half of the entire school staff to having a charter school operator run the school. The most severe action calls for shutting down a school and transferring students to high-performing schools.

Superintendents will appoint committees of stakeholders, such as parents and teachers, for each school to develop the most appropriate overhaul strategy, which will then require state approval.

But Boston is hoping to take advantage of a provision of the new law that allows for an expedited process for school districts that are already pursuing sweeping changes. In November, Johnson unveiled a list of 14 schools she wants to overhaul. Ten of those schools appear on the list released yesterday.

In addition to those, the state also identified an elementary school in Jamaica Plain and Burke, where Menino famously urged residents in 1996 to “judge me harshly’’ if the city’s schools did not improve.

Yesterday, Menino defended his record.

“For the most part, I think we’ve done a good job,’’ Menino said at the press conference, but added, “But we are not satisfied. There’s a lot more to be done.’’

Staff at Burke, Trotter Elementary, Blackstone Elementary, Dever Elementary, Harbor Middle, and Orchard Gardens K-8 schools will have to reapply. Getting new principals will be Harbor, Orchard Gardens, Blackstone, Dever, and John F. Kennedy Elementary schools.

Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, questioned how Johnson and her principals would decide which teachers should be rehired at the affected schools when few teachers receive job reviews. A report last week found that almost half the city’s teachers have not been evaluated in at least two years, prompting Johnson to announce her intent to remedy the lapse.

“We are going to look at that precise issue legally,’’ Stutman said. “You will have people forced out of a building without evaluations. You also have discredited principals in some cases making decisions without showing one iota of paperwork.’’

Johnson said her department’s human resources office has already stepped up efforts to evaluate teachers in the schools slated for overhauls.

Under the new state law, administrators must prove “good cause’’ to fire staff members in underperforming schools. That makes it likely that, in schools where teachers must reapply for their jobs, those not rehired will shift to other schools.

Many superintendents in the affected districts welcomed the designations, even though it could bring negative attention to the schools. That is because it comes with a trade-off: a possible $500,000 federal grant, independent of the Race to the Top money, to fund each school’s improvement plan.

Springfield has the second largest share, 10 schools, on the state’s preliminary list of 35 underperforming schools. Nine have already been the subject of intense improvement efforts that began last year.

“It’s an unprecedented opportunity,’’ said Alan Ingram, Springfield’s superintendent. “It will give us additional resources and support to accelerate improvement and to build on some of the work we’ve already done.’’

Michael Levenson and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.