Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”

Melissa Bailey PhotoNew Haven’s turning one of its low-performing schools over to the teachers union in an experiment that shatters traditional definitions of American school reform.

Officials announced the news at a Wednesday afternoon press conference at High School in the Community (HSC).

Meanwhile, news swirled around the school as teachers found out their fate. All 31 teachers at the school had to reapply for their jobs. On Wednesday, some 21 teachers won the right to stay; the rest were guaranteed jobs elsewhere within the district.

Moods were mixed around the hallways.

A crew of younger teachers said they’re looking forward to the flexibility to write their own curricula and continue working as a team.

Veteran calculus teacher Rob Orciuch refused to reapply for his job: After 32 years of teaching, he said, “I have to sit and beg for my job? I’m not going to take it.” He’ll be sent to work at another school.

The changes are taking place as HSC becomes New Haven’s sixth “turnaround” school. (One, Hill Central, is technically a federally sanctioned “turnaround,” not part of the city plan.) As part of the city’s school reform drive, New Haven has designated some lower-performing schools as “turnarounds” in order almost to start from scratch and try new ideas. School leaders can change strict work rules that apply at traditional schools.

Labor unions nationally have cast a wary eye on such experiments, including those that turn control to charter organizations (as New Haven did with Roberto Clemente Academy). In fact, the city’s local teachers union president, Dave Cicarella, had previously asked the city to take a “time out” this year from naming new turnarounds.

However, in the case of HSC, the city is turning management of the school over to the union itself, the New Haven Federation of Teachers.

The move reflects New Haven’s effort to include teachers and their union in school reform experiments rather than fight with them. The union’s national parent, the American Federation of Teachers, played a direct role in striking a landmark 2009 labor contract with the city that allowed for changes like a new evaluation system for instructors and administrators and a streamlined method for getting rid of failing teachers. Both city leaders and national AFT President Randi Weingarten have tried to make New Haven an example of how school systems and unions can work together rather than fight each other to change and improve public education.

The HSC announcement also represents a return to roots of sorts for the national union. The late longtime AFT President Albert Shanker and his union were the original proponents of charter schools as a method of allowing experimentation in public education. But then unions largely became critics of charters when they concluded that corporate interests were using the idea to eliminate teachers’ rights and input into how schools are run.

Weingarten wasn’t at Wednesday’s announcement. She contributed this comment to the official press release: “Today’s announcement continues New Haven’s commitment to put educators and school support staff at the center of decisions.”

“This is an exciting opportunity to have the school run by those who know how to do it best, the teachers,” stated AFT Connecticut President Sharon Palmer.

Teachers have had a lot of say in how HSC runs since its founding more than four decades ago as an experimental school. (The word back then was “alternative.”) It has always been teacher-run, at least day to day, in some fashion. At times teachers have rotated as HSC’s “facilitator,” rather than principal. The early versions of the school became the subject of a book by a former HSC teacher-turned academic named Edison J. Trickett.

Going forward the word at HSC will be “turnaround.” And some new ideas will be tested.

Such as: Having students move from stage to stage of their education when they’re ready. Not just graduating from one year—freshman, sophomore, etc.—to the next.

At the end of each stage, students will compile “portfolios” of their work. When those portfolios are deemed indicative of mastering their level of education, the students will then move to the next stage. They may be in high school three years, or six years, instead of the usual four. They’ll graduate when they’re ready.

HSC will adopt a law and social justice theme. It will invite law firms and law schools to participate in the program.

Chris Kafoglis, a math teacher for eight years at Wilbur Cross High, will join HSC in a new position of “chief academic officer.” He’ll work with the current leadership of the school, teachers Erik Good and Paulette Jackson, who have taken on the roles usually performed by a principal.

Union President Cicarella noted that while some charter schools hand-pick their students, HSC will keep its current students. Because the school is a magnet, students are admitted through a lottery.

Cicarella said he knows of eight or nine union-run schools nationwide, including in Denver and New York City. In running its own school, the union is returning to the roots of charter schools, he said: “Charter schools were made to be an incubator of change”—not a separate system that creams kids from the traditional district.

To allow for the turnaround, union leadership and the district will sign a special Memorandum of Understanding outlining the terms of running the school.

Teachers Welcome Flexibility

Teachers at HSC said they voted on the upcoming changes in a staff meeting; all but one teacher voted yes.

“It’s a natural fit for us—we’ve always been a teacher-run school,” said math teacher Riley Gibbs.

Wayne Austin, who also teaches math, said he is looking forward to greater flexibility: Teachers will be write their own curriculum, within the bounds of state law, instead of answering to the district’s central office. “We’ll be more in charge of what kids are learning.”

Austin pulled out a timeline of HSC’s history. The school was founded by teachers at Hillhouse frustrated with their administration. It opened as a “school without walls” in a firehouse with 100 students.

“Now we’re writing the next chapter,” he said.

Some turnarounds are “thinly veiled effort to get funds,” noted science teacher Paul Jones. He said teachers understood that if they wanted extra resources, “we’d have to make a change.”

After Wednesday, their final paid day of the school year, some teachers who are staying at HSC gathered at O’Toole’s bar downtown.

Stephen Zepecki, who’s in his first year at HSC and sixth year teaching, said he decided to stay at the school “because of how cohesive the staff is.” Teachers communicate well and work as a team, he said.

Veteran math teacher Rob Orciuch (pictured at the top of this story) declined the invitation stay under the new HSC regime. He returned to his classroom, where he was playing classic rock and packing up his classroom. He straightened out a picture of Yankees great Mickey Mantle on his board. Mickey would remain; the rest of his stuff would follow him wherever he ends up next.

Orciuch has taught for 14 years at HSC, at times serving as the school’s business manager and disciplinarian. He said he knows why HSC was the only school to sink in its ranking this year, falling from Tier II to Tier III (out of three tiers in which New Haven ranks schools). Orciuch said over the years the student population at HSC has changed; kids are less prepared now when they enter the door. More kids in his calculus class enter with poor literacy skills, he said: “They can’t read the problem.”

“I’m not saying some of the teachers aren’t culpable,” he said, but he feels teachers are unfairly blamed.

“That’s why we had to reapply,” he said. “I’m not going to take it.”

Orciuch said he’d rather try serve out the rest of his career at another high school than be blamed for low test scores. He said he feels bad for the teachers who reapplied for their jobs. Of the 10 who are leaving, three or four reapplied and were not asked back; two decided not to interview; and the rest are retiring, according to school officials.

On his way out the building from the press conference, President Cicarella came across one of those teachers not asked back.

“Good luck with your school,” she said.

Paging Pryor

Officials also announced at Wednesday’s press conference that HSC will formally apply to become part of the state education commissioner’s new “network” of struggling schools to get special attention and help. The commissioner in question is Stefan Pryor, a former New Haven City Hall aide who helped found the Amistad charter school in town.

If accepted into the network, HSC stands to receive up to an extra $2 million over three years.

Commissioner Pryor plans to pick up “a small number” of schools to debut as turnarounds in the fall, and up to 25 over three years. So far New Haven is one of nine school districts that have expressed interest in becoming part of the network.

State Sen. Toni Harp revealed Wednesday that legislators added a special note into a 468-page catch-all “implementer” bill approved in special session last week to make sure New Haven was in the running.

The state’s sweeping education reform bill, which paved the way for state-sanctioned turnarounds, enabled outside not-for-profits to run the schools—but left it unclear as to whether a teachers union would be allowed to do so. Harp said the legislature cleared up that ambiguity in the implementer bill.

With that “ambiguity” cleared up, HSC has a good chance of winning approval, according to Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney. 

“We expect that a school in New Haven will be one of the early identified schools in the network,” said Looney, who represents New Haven.

New Haven school reform czar Garth Harris said while the teachers contract stipulates that the city announce turnarounds by March 15, “the state legislation was an opportunity we couldn’t pass.”



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posted by: PH on June 20, 2012  2:58pm

Glad to see HSC return to a version of its roots.  I attended when it was an “alternative” school and there were many benefits to the way the place was run. Giving flexibility to teachers could make all the difference in helping the school regain its old glory (used to have the highest graduation and college attendance rates in the city, by far).  Good luck HSC, I hope you have positive outcomes in this leg of your odyssey!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 20, 2012  4:04pm

The HSC announcement also represents a return to roots of sorts for the national union. The late longtime AFT President Albert Shanker and his union were the original proponents of charter schools as a method of allowing experimentation in public education

Check out what the widow of famed UFT Albert Shanker said.

Charter schools are not the solution


Monday, December 26, 2011


posted by: Brutus2011 on June 20, 2012  4:44pm

Did I read this correctly?

A teacher-led school in New Haven?

I want to teach there!

posted by: Paul Wessel on June 20, 2012  5:02pm

In follow-up to PH’s comment:  see http://nyti.ms/MMd8yP for how much this makeover is a return to HSC’s original roots!

posted by: urban ed on June 20, 2012  6:17pm

Wow. Just….Wow. So many thoughts….

I’ll cite some history as I understand it. Please, anyone with more knowledge than me feel free to correct….

So…HSC is, I think, the longest-running magnet high school in the country. As cited in Melissa’s article, it was founded as a teacher-run school and an alternative to the three big comprehensive high schools that existed in New Haven at that time. It also served as an incubator for school change and, from its ranks of faculty, the Sound School, Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, Wilbur Cross Annex, and the Common Ground Charter High School were born.

That’s one hell of a legacy.

I’ve always thought that HSC died when they moved to their present facility. A nice building, sure, but far-removed from the ‘C’ in HSC: Community. The lottery, district micromanaging, NCLB, all contributed to the decline. In the end, it became impossible to maintain the school according to the ideals on which it was founded.

That is why I am SO excited about this announcement. Mind you….I’m a district administrator. One might expect me to be miffed that jobs in my bargaining unit will not be forthcoming there, or that I might play out some supposed animus toward teachers (they don’t know what it’s like, they can’t do it on their own, etc)

But once a teacher always a teacher. And although I have never worked at HSC, I have watched them with extreme interest for many years now. This is the shot-in-the-arm that they have been needing.

Watch as they thrive.

posted by: JohnTulin on June 20, 2012  7:10pm

Education reform led by the true ed reformers:  teachers themselves.  Nice job NHFT and City of New Haven.

posted by: streever on June 21, 2012  9:39am

The story makes this sound like a great move, and seeing long-term New Haveners like Wessel applaud it makes me think this is definitely the right decision.

I’m excited to see how this works, and looking forward to more reporting. It seems like giving the teachers greater flexibility in subject matter and direction will be beneficial to everyone.

posted by: eb on June 23, 2012  9:40am

This was an interesting article to me as a parent of kids in nhps schools. 
However, since I also have a child in a new haven charter school, I must correct a mis-statement.  Connecticut laws governing charter schools DO NOT allow for students to be hand-picked.  All charter schools must admit students through a lottery.  Currently, Amistad, Elm City, and Common Ground are allowed to meet the lottery requirement through the NHPS lottery.  Sound School (which is grandfathered in as a vocational-agricultural school) is the only high school in new haven that can and does hand-pick its students.
Also, just to clarify another common misconception…students from Amistad, Elm City, Common Ground and Sound all qualify for the New Haven Promise if they live in New Haven and meet the other Promise requirements.

posted by: streever on June 23, 2012  12:53pm

The “hand-picking” usually refers not to the initial selection (which does favor children with attentive parents—the parent must fill out an application and submit it which is an extra step beyond attending public school), but to the reality of the population they serve.

Independent media did an analysis and found that—indeed—through a variety of practices (including admittance), charters do seem to “cherry pick”:

posted by: Lanman on June 24, 2012  9:12am

Really? Kids will graduate when they’re ready, even if it takes 6 years or more? Who’s going to pay for these extra years of education? Taxpayers are already tapped out. Worse, we may have 20 and 21 year old adults mixed in with 15 and 16 year old kids? There’s a recipe for disaster. I would expect if this grand experiment is to be considered successful, then students should be graduating in 3 or 3 1/2 years, not 6. More importantly, they should be able to go on to college and not need remedial math and English classes as 75% of entering freshman now do in our community colleges.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 24, 2012  10:42pm

posted by: eb on June 23, 2012 9:40am

This was an interesting article to me as a parent of kids in nhps schools. 
However, since I also have a child in a new haven charter school, I must correct a mis-statement.  Connecticut laws governing charter schools DO NOT allow for students to be hand-picked.  All charter schools must admit students through a lottery

But they do allow this.Check out this Report.

Pushed Out: Charter Schools Contribute to the City’s Growing Suspension Rates

by Sarah Tan
Posted on 11 May 2012. Tags: Achievement First East New York, charter school suspensions, Community Partnership Charter School, no excuses models, PS 308


posted by: Chris Kafoglis on June 25, 2012  5:14pm


As a New Haven resident and taxpayer I share your concern about who will pay. Our expectation at HSC is that the vast majority of students will graduate in four years or less. Federal law already allows special education and other students to be in high school until they are 21, and in all cases we try to do what is in the best interest of the child. The cost we end up paying when students graduate unprepared for college or the workplace is far greater than the cost of an extra year of school. When students default on federally guaranteed student loans because their lack of preparation leads them to drop out, we all share that cost as well. Further, our students will know that they have earned a diploma because of what they have accomplished and what they are able to do - not for just sitting through four years of high school.