As a notification deadline passed, New Haven’s teachers union president professed relief that the city would apparently create no new “turnaround” schools next year.
Not so fast, the mayor said: The deadline won’t stop him from continuing a key component of school reform.
The discussion concerns whether the district will continue a pattern of picking a couple of low-performing schools each year to become “turnarounds”—where leadership is turned over to a new principal or an outside operator, who gets the power to choose which staff to keep and may call for dramatic changes including a longer school day.
The district already has five turnarounds, two of which debuted last fall.
New Haven Federation of Teachers President Dave Cicarella said Wednesday he’s confident that the district has heeded his advice in taking a time-out from the disruptive experiment.
“There won’t be turnarounds next year,” he said.
That’s because a contractual deadline has passed, Cicarella said. The landmark 2009 teachers contract allowed the district to make a unilateral decision to turn around a school with new work rules—as long as teachers are notified by March 15. The deadline aims to give teachers enough time to decide if they want to reapply for their jobs or transfer to another school.
In a conversation Thursday, Mayor John DeStefano said he expects the city to proceed with a new turnaround anyway.
“I understand March 15 has passed, but it’s not my understanding that the school district has not decided to do a turnaround,” he said.
“I feel turnarounds are an important feature of New Haven’s school change” effort, DeStefano said. The mayor, who appoints the Board of Ed and serves as a member, was the main driver behind the reform drive that launched two years ago.
“Yes, we are actively still considering school turnarounds through a variety of mechanisms,” confirmed school reform czar Garth Harries. Because the March 15 deadline has passed, the district can’t do so unilaterally; Harries pledged any turnaround would take place with the union’s consent.
Harries said “we’re always talking to potential partners” about doing turnarounds in New Haven, but he declined to divulge specifics and said nothing has been finalized.
He said the city is tracking the progress of the governor’s school reform bill to see if it will provide any turnaround opportunities for New Haven, including the “commissioner’s network” of low-performing schools and the option to create a local charter school.
The district “will leave no option off the table” as it the reform effort looks toward next year, wrote schools COO Will Clark in an email.
“Contract terms represent rules that must be respected,” Clark wrote, “but that does not mean conversations cannot continue and that agreements cannot be reached.” Last year, the teachers union agreed to extend the March 15 deadline to make way for a turnaround at the Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy and Wexler/Grant, he pointed out.
Cicarella said unlike in other cities and states, teacher unions didn’t fight these reforms. They welcomed them in the teacher contract. But he said it’s time to hit pause.
In January he issued a public call for the school district to “take a breather” and hold off on creating new turnarounds next year.
The district has five full-fledged turnarounds so far: Brennan/Rogers debuted as the city’s first in-house turnaround in September 2010, ending its first year with mixed results. Charter operator Domus took over a small school for troubled middle-schoolers that year, too. And Hill Central Music Academy was tapped as a federal turnaround through President Obama’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) initiative, which targets the lowest-achieving 5 percent of the nation’s schools.
In each case, at least half of the teaching staff was replaced.
“It’s stressful on the adults, but more importantly—think of how it feels for the kids,” Cicarella said. Students returned in the fall to see as many as 30 teachers gone. “It’s stressful on the kids, too.”
Cicarella added that on top of the turnarounds, three other schools have undergone major changes—teachers at Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School faced an extended school day after it was tapped a Tier III “improvement school,” and James Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross High became “transformation” schools under the SIG program. That’s eight schools out of 49 “being significantly changed,” Cicarella said—“that’s a fair amount going on.”
Cicarella said while anecdotal evidence has been positive, there’s not enough data to determine whether the experiments are working.
“We need to look at things and see” how the progress is going based on a few years of test data before creating another dramatic disturbance in kids’ and teachers’ lives, he argued.
DeStefano declined to address that specific point.
Turnarounds are “an important part of our strategy” of the school reform effort, he said.
While “we recognize that not all of them have been successful” nationwide, he said he’s confident in the turnaround approach. DeStefano said a similar effort in New Orleans was “the principal factor” in New Haven choosing both the turnaround model and the portfolio schools approach, where schools are managed differently according to how well they perform.
Officials say they plan to measure the success of New Haven’s K-8 turnarounds, like the rest of the city schools, mainly by growth on Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMTs) and school climate surveys.
So far, the district has only one year of CMT scores for only two turnarounds, Domus and Brennan.
The data from those schools were “inconclusive,” DeStefano said. Turnaround experts typically say it takes two to three years to see significant improvement. On school climate surveys taken by students, parents and staff, “we saw broad improvement that didn’t distinguish the turnarounds from the other schools,” DeStefano noted.
That leaves the school with anecdotal evidence at best that the turnarounds are working, DeStefano said. For the newest turnarounds, like Clemente, officials won’t have any CMT scores to look at until the summer.
“I think it’s just too early to come to a conclusion,” DeStefano said.
Meanwhile, schools COO Clark said the district aims to continue a conversation with the union about a possible turnaround next year.
“The collaboration between [schools superintendent Reggie] Mayo and Dave Cicarella and our leadership and [New Haven Federation of Teachers] leadership remains strong. Do we always agree, no. But do we respect one another and listen, yes. There is no reason to believe that either side would stand against something that helps a school or the district move forward with Reform,” he wrote.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with Dave and the union,” Clark wrote, “and will leave no option off the table as we continue to move New Haven forward with our Reform goals of closing the achievement gap, cutting the drop-out rate in half and making sure all of our students have the academic and financial ability to attend and succeed in college.”
Reform czar Harries noted that the union agreed to a quiet turnaround at Hill Central, which involved replacing half of the staff at the school and changing work rules, after the March 15 deadline two years ago.
In addition to pursuing turnarounds for a small number of schools ranked in the bottom-level Tier III category, the district this year is making an effort to address the needs of all 18 Tier III schools, Harries added. That means examining the equity of school resources, funding, the flow of new students, and wraparound services compared to other schools. In the past, the district has focused its efforts only on select few turnarounds, not on the greater group of struggling schools.
Meanwhile, the district’s Reform Committee of administrators, teachers and parents continues to monitor the district’s turnaround schools, Harries said. The committee has been visiting the turnarounds not to evaluate them, but to “provide lessons learned to the district.”
“Those have been powerful and really positive visits,” Harries said. “The sense of team and improvement that we’re hearing from staff, from parents and from students—has been really palpable.”