Taking a break from dramatically restructuring any failing schools next year, school officials are instead “exploring” a smaller experiment aimed at tackling a performance gap between black and Hispanic students at Wilbur Cross High.
School officials are considering hiring a New York-based not-for-profit to create a program for English-language learners at Wilbur Cross High School, Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries announced at Monday’s school board meeting. The school district is in discussion with the state about making the program part of the Commissioner’s Network, a new group of low-performing schools that receive extra state money to launch improvement plans, Harries said.
The new project represents a break from the more dramatic overhauls the city has been undertaking in the past three years. Since the city launched a school reform effort in the fall of 2010, five failing schools have become locally sanctioned “turnarounds,” where principals, or in some cases outside management, got the power to replace teaching staff and change work rules. The teachers contract allows for turnarounds as long as the district lets teachers know by March 15 if their school will be restructured. That deadline passed quietly this year.
Schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo said Monday the district is not planning any new turnarounds—at least not for next school year. The school system is eyeing one school as a potential turnaround, he said, but the restructuring wouldn’t happen until the summer and fall of 2014.
Mayo said the school district is planning to take a year off from creating new turnaround schools. Instead, it is trying a different approach: spend a whole year planning before launching the next turnaround.
The district plans to apply to the state for planning money for the next turnaround school, Mayo said; the actual restructuring would not take place until 2014.
“We continue to think that turnaround is a key” part of the district’s approach to reform, Harries said. But the district is considering “alternatives that would give teachers ample opportunity to consider what they want to do,” as well as give the district more planning time.
Teachers union President Dave Cicarella said he has been in talks with the district about a turnaround at an elementary school. He said the reason the turnaround wouldn’t take place until 2014 is not because of the union contract. The contract mandates the district notify teachers by March 15 if their school will become a turnaround. Teachers are supposed to get the advance notice because they would have to reapply for their jobs; if they don’t get chosen, they would be guaranteed work elsewhere in the district.
But Cicarella noted the union was willing to waive the March 15 deadline in the past, including for last year’s turnaround at High School in the Community.
“The whole idea of school reform was supposed to be that we freed ourselves of all that rigidity of union contracts and board policies that tied our hands in the past,” he said. “We don’t want to use the rigidity of the deadline to say we’re not going to do what’s best for kids.”
However, in this case, Cicarella said, both sides agreed that it’s more prudent to wait another year to do the turnaround they have in mind.
“You don’t want to do it with a gun to your head, in two or three months,” he said.
Cicarella said the longer timeline would also address concerns he warned of last year, when he called for a timeout on turnarounds. When a school gets “turned around,” at least half of the teachers usually end up replaced. That can be a shock for parents and kids who remain at the school, Cicarella said: “It’s very disruptive on everyone’s life.”
Instead, he said, it’s better to spend a year getting input from staff and parents before overhauling the school. “I feel a little bit better about doing it this way.”
Achievement Gap Tackled At Cross
Harries gave a brief overview of the plans in the making for Wilbur Cross, the city’s largest comprehensive high school.
The district is “exploring” hiring the Internationals Network of Public Schools, a New York-based not-for-profit, to establish a new program at Cross for English-language learners, Harries announced. Cross serves 1,260 students, including many from Fair Haven. Half of students are Hispanic, by far the largest percentage of any high school.
At Cross, English-language learners are lagging far behind their native English-speaking peers, Harries noted. Less than half of them graduated from Cross in four years, according to state data from the Class of 2011. Harries said their performance was a big factor driving a gap between black and Hispanic performance at the school: 50 percent of Hispanics finished Cross in four years, compared to 65 percent of blacks in the Class of 2011.
Not all Hispanics are English-language learners, but the overlap is significant: In 2010-11, the year for which the racial gap in graduation rates was first revealed, the school was 47 percent Hispanic and 39 percent black; 40 percent of students came from homes where a non-English language was spoken; and 17 percent were officially marked as English-language learners.
The Internationals Network of Public Schools runs 17 high schools and small learning academies in New York City, California’s Bay Area, and Virginia, according to the organization’s website. The group designs high schools trains educators to help “recently arrived immigrant English-language learners.”
Harries said the group would be brought in to provide support and training. The group would not directly manage the program in the way that the New Jersey-based charter operator Renaissance Services LLC manages Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, Harries said. School officials have already visited an Internationals Network school in Flushing, New York to check out the program.
Tentative plans are to create two new programs in the fall for incoming freshmen at Cross: One would serve 60 to 100 English-language learners. Another would serve 60 to 100 general education students. The groups would be “relatively self-contained,” Harries said: Students would take most of their classes together, creating an “intimate” setting where teachers get to know the same group of kids. Those two cohorts of students would stay with each other throughout high school.
Cross tried a version of this experiment three years ago, when it received $2.1 million in federal money to become a state-sanctioned “turnaround” school through the School Improvement Grant program, which supports the overhaul of failing schools. Unlike at locally sanctioned turnarounds, the school did not replace staff; it changed principals and carried out several other changes encouraged by the federal government. One of the main changes was to break the school into four “small learning communities.” Harries said the school might consider restructuring the existing small learning communities as the new small learning communities grow.
Mayor John DeStefano asked if the program would be contingent on money from the state Commissioner’s Network. “Likely yes,” Harries replied. He said the district is in talks with the state and would likely submit plans for the new program in late April or early May.
Superintendent Mayo said the program at Cross would be the next in a series of new approaches the district is trying out as part of school reform. The school system has tried turnarounds that were run in-house, as well as run by a not-for-profit social services agency and a for-profit charter operator. Next year, the city may try out the first ever “local charter” school, a public Montessori that operates under its own charter, but under the supervision of the school district.
“We’re always looking forward to new ways of doing things,” he said. “If this isn’t working, let’s not continue to do the same thing.”