Twenty-nine teachers are leaving Lincoln-Bassett and MicroSociety schools—some voluntarily, some not—to make way for slated overhauls of low-performing schools. Where will they go next?
That question emerged at the end of the school year, when principals received a list of displaced teachers who by union contract are guaranteed jobs somewhere in the district. The list includes 29 teachers from Lincoln-Bassett and MicroSociety, the latest low-performing schools to be tapped for “turnarounds,” where principals replace at least half of their staffs.
By union contract, none of these teachers will be out of a job. The district has agreed to place them somewhere. The question is where—and how to make those teachers successful.
The process has troubled some principals at non-turnaround schools, who collectively must accept and support teachers who were not successful in other environments.
Versions of this displaced teacher dance have taken place since 2010, when the district tapped Brennan/Rogers and the Urban Youth Center to be the city’s first “turnaround schools” as defined by a new union contract. The landmark contract allowed New Haven to select a few schools each year as turnarounds, where the principal or outside management could choose which teachers got to stay or go. A key concession in the contract, which was heralded nationally for the way management and teachers collaborated on a reform plan: Teachers who were not hired back would be guaranteed jobs elsewhere in the district. The city has created five turnaround schools in that manner. (The contract established a separate process for identifying struggling teachers, first offering them help to improve, then terminating their contracts if they continue to under-perform.)
Lincoln-Bassett and MicroSociety schools are not official “turnarounds” in the sense of the union contract. The rehiring process was slightly different. But the result has been the same: The schools have replaced over half of their teachers, sending those teachers in search of other posts within the city. Lincoln-Bassett is replacing 20 of 27 teachers; MicroSociety is replacing 14 of 28 staff members.
Alex Oji, one of 20 teachers leaving Lincoln-Bassett, said being on the displaced teacher list holds a certain “stigma.”
“We have an X on our back,” he said.
Oji has spent his entire nine-year teaching career at Lincoln-Bassett, a pre-K to 6 school in Newhallville, where he lives.
After a blistering state audit that revealed low-rigor instruction, disorderly student behavior, high teacher absenteeism and a bitter division among school staff, Lincoln-Bassett won admission to the state Commissioner’s Network of low-performing schools, which get extra money in return for restructuring the school and accepting greater scrutiny. New Haven replaced the school’s principal, who had been there only one year, and launched a state-funded turnaround.
Unlike at previous city turnaround schools, teachers at Lincoln-Bassett didn’t technically have to reapply for their jobs. But New Haven dangled a $5,000 bonus for those who chose to reapply.
If they stayed, teachers would agree to new work rules, including a longer school day and school year and tougher consequences for scoring poorly on job evaluations. They would get a 10-percent increase in pay for the extra time. And they would commit to the school for three years.
In all, 11 teachers reapplied for their jobs, according to schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith. Another 11 asked to be transferred elsewhere. And five asked to stay but avoid re-interviewing for their jobs, which mean they opted out of the bonus and the three-year commitment.
The school’s new principal, Janet Brown-Clayton, interviewed teachers along with a panel of four other New Haven administrators. She asked them about how they’d help Lincoln-Bassett become successful, and about their “ability to embrace change.”
Because of the interpersonal problems in the building, teachers there didn’t get a final score this year. Instead, teachers self-assessed their strengths and weaknesses, with their instructional managers chiming in, too.
In the end, Brown-Clayton retained only seven Lincoln-Basset teachers from the school year that just ended. That includes two of the five who had wanted to stay without re-interviewing.
Julie Bergeron (pictured) was one of three teachers who had sought to stay at the school without re-interviewing but who were transferred to other schools anyway. Administrators have the right to involuntarily transfer any teacher to another placement, according to teachers union President Dave Cicarella. He said the district rarely does that.
Bergeron said the district handled the notifications poorly. Teachers waited a month to find out if they would keep their jobs at Lincoln-Bassett, then faced an abrupt announcement: They found out just two days before the end of the academic year that they wouldn’t be returning in the fall.
“It was sad, because some teachers were there 15 years or more. They had a few days to pack, and they had tons of stuff in their rooms. I thought it was very unprofessional,” she said.
Bergeron, who taught 2nd grade, said only one of six teachers in the 1st- and 2nd-grade hallway was retained. Some of those teachers’ students found out through their parents; others will find out when they return to school for the fall.
Bergeron just started at the school last year. She wanted to stay to take part in the turnaround and looked forward to extra support and resources. The incoming principal popped in to observe her teach right at the end of the year. It was the end of the day, at the end of a long year, and kids were “very rambunctious,” Bergeron said. The next thing she knew, Brown-Clayton told her to transfer to a different school.
Bergeron, who lives in Wallingford, said she’s now applying to jobs in several school districts. While she’s guaranteed work in New Haven, she’s not sure where she’ll end up.
She said she was surprised to see so many of her colleagues let go. “But at the same time,” she sees how the new leaders “want to start fresh, start from the ground up.”
MicroSociety, which is changing its name to the West Rock Authors’ Academy, serves 225 students in grades pre-K to 5 in West Rock. Exactly half of the 28 staffers are staying and half are leaving, according to Smith. Of the 14 who are leaving, nine are teachers, according to Cicarella.
MicroSociety’s turnaround is part of the federal School Improvement Grant program to pay for low-performing schools to replace staff, extend learning time and restructure the school. Principal Rosalyn Bannon interviewed each staff person. She had hoped to conduct the staff turnover without having to push anyone out. She ended up involuntarily transferring four teachers who had wanted to stay, according to Cicarella. He said she ran the process fairly.
The 33 teachers from Lincoln-Bassett and MicroSociety joined an overall list of 47 displaced teachers. Others landed on that list because they are returning from maternity leave, family medical leave, are ending a temporary stint filling in for another teacher, or wanted to switch schools for other reasons.
Bergeron said because so many teachers landed on the list, she doesn’t feel singled out.
Oji, meanwhile, said he feels that those on the list from Lincoln-Bassett are branded. Principals “don’t want to touch [us] with a 10-foot pole.”
Cicarella said that’s not true.
It’s a misconception to say that “the displaced teacher has to be a bad teacher,” Cicarella said.
Some principals, including Cheryl Brown at Ross/Woodward, have already looked at the list and scooped up candidates for their schools. The overall list included a high-ranking teacher who just didn’t want to be in a turnaround environment because of the longer hours, Cicarella said.
“The only time where you [could have said] I’m getting a bad teacher could have been in Year One” of New Haven’s new teacher evaluation system, Cicarella said.
New Haven in 2010 launched a new way of grading teachers based on classroom observations and teacher-set goals for how their students should perform.
Before then, Cicarella said, “we had a ridiculous evaluation system” that involved nothing more than “a couple of drive-by” observations of teachers. As in most of the country at that time, teachers were rated on a binary system, either effective or ineffective. New Haven introduced a five-point scale, from “needs improvement” to “exemplary.” New Haven was one of the first districts nationwide to start grading teachers on student performance—a trend that has now spread nationwide, prompted by federal pressure from the Obama Administration’s competitive grant programs and No Child Left Behind Act waivers. The initiative is based on the premise that the most important factor in a kid’s education is the quality of the teacher—and that that quality can be measured.
The movie Waiting for Superman, promoted by members of the school accountability movement, popularized the term the “Lemon Dance,” referring to the process by which low-performing teachers are shuffled around between schools.
Cicarella was asked about the concern, discussed privately among principals, that a version of that dance takes place in New Haven due to school turnarounds.
His response to principals: “Why don’t you tell your colleagues to do their job?”
If principals are using the teacher evaluation system properly, he argued, they should be working hard to help low-performing teachers improve—and firing them if they don’t. The teachers contract allows a principal to fire a tenured teacher after one year if he or she scores on the bottom of the five-point evaluation scale, and after three years if he or she fails to improve to “effective,” a three out of five. The system requires schools to give teachers plenty of notice: They have to warn teachers in November if they are on track to score on the bottom, or top, of the evaluation scale.
Principals with vacancies say they feel pressured to take teachers that failed in other environments instead of choosing another candidate they preferred. Sometimes that creates more turnover in an otherwise stable staff.
“Are they pressured to take them? Yes,” Cicarella responded. “People have to be placed.” But the teachers could be an asset to their new schools, he argued.
Six people on this year’s displaced teacher list quickly landed jobs in new schools, Cicarella said—a sign that principals wanted to work with them.
Superintendent Garth Harries agreed with Cicarella that displaced teachers can thrive in other environments.
“Fundamental to the turnaround idea is that we’re reinventing these school teams,” he said. There are a lot of perfectly fine teachers who just haven’t worked effectively” in their current assignments.
Harries and Cicarella conceded that Lincoln-Bassett is a special case. An internal audit last winter found that administrators there did such a poor job at implementing job evaluations that teachers’ scores couldn’t be trusted.
The failure to properly implement teacher evaluations meant struggling teachers didn’t get fired—and also didn’t get the help they required to succeed. Teachers at that school did not get the “opportunity for professional growth” that they needed, Harries said.
“There’s every reason to think that on a different team”—one without the adult division that took hold at Lincoln-Bassett—“those teachers will be on track to grow,” said Harries.
He was asked about principals’ concerns about being pressured to take teachers who had failed in other environments.
“There’s no question that displacing teachers is a difficult process,” Harries said.
The process raises the question of collective versus individual responsibility, he said. The teachers contract adds significant responsibility on individual teachers for how much their students learn. It also calls for a collective responsibility—shared between schools and school leaders around the district—to help teachers displaced from turnaround schools grow, he argued.
Meanwhile, Oji said he’s concerned about finding a new school that would be a good fit.
He said the district gave him only two leads on jobs. He interviewed at one and is awaiting response.
“Summer’s pretty much halfway over,” he said. “My concern is, where are you going to place me?”
He has spent eight years teaching kindergarten; he’s concerned he might be placed into a grade he has not taught before—and a totally new environment in another part of town, far from the community he has come to know.
He said he feels “set up for failure.”
Joining a new school is like “being the new kid on the block all over again.” Kids will respond with an attitude of, “Who are you. I don’t have to listen to you,” he predicted. “There’s no relationship. You’re rebuilding the relationship from the ground up.” He said the turnaround process is “chaotic for us as a staff, and also chaotic for children.”
“If we’re not going to be successful at a school where we’ve invested our time and energy for several years,” Oji said, “how are we going to go to a brand new school, a brand new neighborhood, brand new children, and a brand new staff—how are we going to be successful here?”
Lola Nathan, the soon-to-retire principal of Davis Street School, said turnaround teachers are not set up to fail.
“I’ve been the recipient of staff from turnaround schools,” she said. “It has worked.” When she received displaced teachers, she said, she made sure to support them “so that they get enough development.”
“I assess their performance to see if they’re a good fit, but I would certainly not pre-judge them,” she said.
Teachers naturally change schools and districts over the course of their careers, she noted.
“There may be a transition phase in terms of getting used to a new culture, a new professional learning community, new goals, and a new vision,” she said. “But as a principal, I think that it’s our responsibility to support teachers, whether they’re coming from a turnaround school or another school district.”