A small West Hills school plans to replace half of its staff, re-brand as an “author’s academy,” and get more help for traumatized kids, as part of an upcoming new “turnaround.”
The effort is taking shape at MicroSociety Interdistrict Magnet School, which has about 225 students in grades pre-K to 5 from New Haven and suburban towns at 311 Valley St. under the shadow of the West Rock cliffs.
The school system is applying for a federal School Improvement Grant to overhaul the school next fall, Superintendent Garth Harries announced last week.
The school plans to shed its 5th grade and add students to the lower grades, becoming a larger pre-K to 4 with a new focus on literacy.
The revamped school will be called West Rock Authors’ Academy, according to Principal Rosalyn Bannon, who was tapped in 2012 to restore order to the school and boost flagging literacy rates.
The changes would be funded by President Obama’s $4 billion School Improvement Grant (SIG) program that aims to “turn around” failing schools. (The city technically must apply for the money, but it is considered pretty much guaranteed.) In return for the money, schools have to change the way the school is run, using one of four specified models. MicroSociety is choosing the “turnaround” model, which calls for replacing half of the staff at the school.
Teachers Union President Dave Cicarella and Deputy Superintendent Imma Canelli broke the news to staff last week about the changes ahead. Unlike in official local “turnarounds” as defined in the teachers’ contract, staff won’t have to reapply for their jobs. School officials are hoping that half of them—about 13 of 27 teachers and teachers’ aides—will volunteer to work elsewhere so that no one is involuntarily booted.
Bannon, who’s in her second year as principal, will remain at the helm of the school to lead the transition. Before Bannon took over, MicroSociety fell on a short list of low-performing city schools that were ripe for a potential turnaround. A transition has already begun there: In the summer, amid budget problems, the school district abruptly eliminated grades 6, 7 and 8 from the school, in part because too few kids signed up. The school is eligible for as much as $2 million in SIG money over three years because the state dubbed it a “focus” school due to poor test scores, according to Canelli.
MicroSociety was founded in 1995 on New Haven’s Wall Street as a “museum lab school.” It later adopted the name MicroSociety as part of a broader, trademarked approach in which the school “creates a society within the school that simulates the actual world,” Bannon explained. Each MicroSociety school is supposed to have a working post office, a government system, a judge, a bank, and a school store, all run by students, she said. Over the years, the school lost that theme, Bannon said.
“What ended up happening was—our students weren’t achieving to the level that they needed to achieve. The theme became less of a focus,” as educators concentrated on boosting basic reading and writing skills.
Before Bannon took over, the school was a K-8. Most grades had only one classroom of kids. That was a difficult setup, Canelli said, because middle-school kids usually switch around between different subject teachers, and there weren’t as many teachers as a middle-school would typically have.
Student behavior became a challenge, according to Kim Johnsky, a central office administrator who has been overseeing the school for the past three years.
“There were more kids out of class than in,” she said. “Classes never got started on time.”
Bannon took over in the fall and made expectations clear, Johnsky said.
In an initial review, administrators concluded that “teaching and learning was really suffering because of an inadequate amount of preparation and planning,” Bannon said. The school worked with teachers on lesson planning, on teaching strategies, and on questioning techniques.
Bannon said staffers were receptive to extra training, including from the Revision Learning consulting firm. Teachers are more able to manage classroom behavior and spend more time on task, Bannon said.
“Students are more engaged than they were before, taking a more active role in their learning,” Bannon said.
“It’s a new school,” said Johnsky.
Students are showing early progress. In the fall, 79 percent of students in grades K to 2 fell below “proficient” on the Developmental Reading Assessment, Bannon said. In the winter, that number fell to 54 percent.
That still means a majority of kids are not reading at grade level, Bannon said, but “it’s a start in the right direction.”
Major challenges remain, Bannon said: On Friday, three 1st graders in three separate classes had unrelated “outbursts.”
One kid was just sitting taking a spelling test when he started throwing markers. Then he left the room and started banging on the wall. He went back in the room and started tipping over desks.
The student was “trying to hurt himself,” she said.
The two other kids were trying to hurt themselves, too, she said.
The school security guard was out on sick leave; the school had no choice but to call the cops to help regain order. One classroom had to be evacuated.
Bannon said she has no idea what triggered the outbursts, but she surmises that many kids suffer from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Bannon didn’t have numbers available for her school, but in a recent survey, 90 percent of 176 kindergarteners screened at Strong School had suffered an “Adverse Childhood Experience.” In plain language, that means something horrible happened to them or around them that could potentially mess them up for life.
When kids have an outburst, “they call out for help,” Bannon said.
The school’s social worker comes only two days per week. There is no assistant principal or on-site therapist.
Bannon said she would like to create a “calming room” where kids can go when they get upset.
“Unfortunately, kids will have outbursts. Where can they go? We don’t have a place like that right now.”
Bannon said it breaks her heart to see young kids suffering such emotional distress: “I go home and cry.”
Johnsky said MicroSociety has been selected as a BOOST! school—one that will receive extra support, such as trauma therapists, thanks to donations from United Way. BOOST! gives schools startup money to set up new partnerships with not-for-profits; the school and the not-for-profit then has to find the money to keep those programs going. BOOST! has sent therapists to city schools that badly needed the help, though the therapy hours have disappeared when the initial money dried up.
An “Author’s Academy”
The academic focus of the revamped school will be the reader’s and writer’s workshop, Bannon said.
The “reader’s workshop” approach, which is now part of the city curriculum, calls for teachers to direct kids to focus on a certain strategy—such as reading for the author’s message—during independent reading time. During that time, the teacher holds one-on-one conferences with kids about their individual reading goals. The method was on display Friday in Karen Ruszkowski’s kindergarten classroom. Students (pictured throughout this story) read silently while the teacher held conferences with two kids at a time.
A similar approach follows for writer’s workshop. Bannon said these workshops will be a major focus of the school as it changes its magnet theme from the “microsociety” concept to a focus on early literacy. The school recently won state approval to make that change. In the fall, the school plans to rename itself the West Rock Authors’ Academy, fitting with that theme, she said.
Bannon has first-hand experience as an author: She served a stint around 1990 as a sports reporter for the Register, covering high school swimming.
The vision for the West Rock Authors’ Academy, she said, is for the school to “look like a library,” and “for every student to work like an author.” Students will learn how to blog, create power-point presentations, and work with other technology, which would be paid for through SIG money.
The goal is “to make students become effective readers, writers and public speakers,” Bannon said.
With the help of SIG money, the school plans to send all of its teachers to Columbia University Teachers College for week-long summer trainings in reader’s and writer’s workshop, Bannon said.
Other plans call for adding an hour to the teacher day for collaborative time.
A Turnaround Twist
Staff at the school learned of these changes in a meeting last week.
“Their option is to stay or not stay,” Bannon said. “Some people may not want to stay here. They may not care for the new focus of the school,” for longer workday, for the mandatory summer training in New York.
“No one is losing a job,” she emphasized. “Everyone will have a job.”
Union President Cicarella said he is on board with the plans.
Cicarella has publicly called for a timeout on new “turnaround” schools, in the way they’re defined in the teachers’ contract. Under that model, all teachers—and only the teachers—have to reapply for their jobs. The school district has overhauled five schools in that manner. Cicarella has said that model is too disruptive, and it’s too soon to tell whether it has worked.
Cicarella said what’s planned for MicroSociety is different. It is more like what happened at Hill Central in 2010. That year, Principal Glen Worthy was in the same situation: His school had applied for SIG through the turnaround model, which meant he had to replace half of his staff. Worthy quietly replaced all of the teachers in grades 3 to 8 except one. He had 21 openings. He didn’t have to push anyone out; it happened to be a year of high turnover, according to school officials.
Teachers were happy with how the process went at Hill Central, Cicarella said.
Canelli said the district does not anticipate booting any teachers from the MicroSociety. Cicarella said teachers are sometimes waiting for permission to be transferred elsewhere; this turnaround process gives them the chance to go elsewhere.
He noted that MicroSociety is already in the midst of a transition from a K-8 to a pre-K-4 school. It needs the extra resources that the SIG program holds.
Five city schools—Wilbur Cross, Hillhouse High, Hill Central, Brennan/Rogers and Clemente Leadership Academy—have used a total of $10 million in SIG money in the past four years to launch redesigns. Cross and Hillhouse replaced their principals and split up the schools into smaller learning communities, which are now being revamped in renewed reform efforts. At Clemente, a charter school operator took over the school, replacing three-quarters of the teachers there.
SIG has paid for extra professional training, teacher stipends for extra time, as well as technology.
Bannon said her staff is working against an April 11 deadline to submit its SIG application.
On Friday, she began soliciting input from parents on what they’d like to see change in the school. She met Friday morning with two active parents, Alyson Turbert and Nicole Gibbs (pictured), in a trailer beside the school that is used for meeting space.
Gibbs said she’d like to see foreign language instruction. The school used to have a Spanish teacher for middle-school grades; that job was eliminated when the school dropped its 6th, 7th and 8th grades, Bannon said.
Gibbs said she her family first joined the school three years ago due to happenstance. She had struck out in the magnet pre-K lottery for her 3-year-old. She tried again for pre-K for 4-year-olds and snagged a seat at MicroSociety. Now she has two students there. Now she plans to stick with the school for its next chapter.