After a State Supreme Court judge ruled Tuesday in favor of an arbitrator who found that the city had improperly removed staff members in 24 struggling schools, the principals of some of these schools find themselves scrambling to get their teaching staff assembled and ready for the new school year.
They also have diplomatic challenges to tackle, essentially rescinding job offers to new teachers and welcoming back those teachers they had recommended for removal or who chose not to reapply to the school.
SchoolBook spoke with Linda Rosenbury, principal of J.H.S. 22 Jordan L. Mott in the Bronx, about the implications of the judge’s decision. J. H. S 22 was one of the schools slated for turnaround. It serves approximately 650 students, 97 percent of whom qualify for reduced lunch prices. Its overall progress report grades were C’s in years 2011 and 2010, after receiving an A in 2009.
In 2012, only 15.1 percent of its pupils were proficient on the state’s English Language Arts exams, while 23.5 percent scored Level 1. In math, 21.2 percent were proficient, compared with 28.3 percent at Level 1.
Ms. Rosenbury has been the principal since 2008 and is one of the few principals of the 24 schools in question not replaced by the Department of Education earlier this summer. This interview was edited and condensed.
Q. What’s been your immediate course of action following the latest ruling?
A. One of the most important things for me as a school leader to keep morale up is to make sure I’m in constant communication with people. All staff members, whether it be teachers who met the criteria and were invited back to the new school, staff who didn’t meet the criteria and were placed in excess but now have a right to return, or teachers who I interviewed and had offered a position which now may or may not be available based on budgeting.
Q. When you talk to the teachers who weren’t invited back or chose not to apply, can you give us a sense of what that conversation looks like?
A. For some teachers it’s: “Why did you choose not to apply to the new school? Do you agree with the vision, do you have concerns about it?” Or if it’s teachers that did not meet the hiring criteria for the new school, it’s, “What support do you need so you can be successful?”
It was a very difficult last week of school when some teachers were given letters saying they wouldn’t be back in the fall. For some it’s felt like they haven’t been honored for all the years they put in the community. It’s been important for me as a school leader to acknowledge the emotional side of this work and to try to keep morale high. I want them to know that I will welcome them into the community.
Q. How are you evaluating performance? Is it based primarily on test scores?
A. When I’m talking about the outcomes for the students I am talking ultimately about the state test scores. A lot of our students traditionally had performed at Levels 1 and 2, which means they couldn’t send an e-mail to an employer, couldn’t understand a phone bill, couldn’t read the free newspaper that’s passed out in front of the subway every morning. And so while I don’t think of test scores as the only indicator of a teacher’s success, it is very important that our schools change those scores.
Some other criteria are classroom observation by administration, by co-teachers, by consultant. We ask, first and foremost, do students feel safe in the classroom? Is learning going on? We also have internal common assessments. Students are asked to write essays or write about their mathematical processes. And we are looking not necessarily at performance but at progress. If a student came in performing at a 1.5, what has your teaching done to move them up to a 2.5 or 3? Because the state tests are only one indicator and they can often be misleading.
Q. What are some of the reasons you’ve heard from low-performing teachers?
A. The expectations on teachers have risen a lot in the last five years. When No Child Left Behind came about and shone the spotlight on low-performing students, it changed the dialogue. Now with the Common Core learning standards, we’re expecting teachers to engage students in more authentic inquiry and to coach students on developing an argument. For many teachers it’s been about how we help them adjust to the new expectations of the classroom.
Q. Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced during this transition.
A. Unique to my school, unlike other turnaround schools, I’ve been the principal for the last four years. So it’s been very clear what direction we’re heading in as a school. Right now I’m operating under the assumption that my authorization to remove teachers will be the same as other principals in New York City.
I work with the teacher performance unit to support teachers who are struggling. This isn’t about student test scores. This is the basics of having a lesson plan, having a seating chart, having the purpose of a period written on the board, not moving methodically through a textbook but instead making sure where students are at. These are very basic things that some of our teachers aren’t doing.
We are telling them what needs to happen, providing support, and documenting it, and only after two years or more can we even begin the conversation about them not being in the classroom.
Q. How have parents reacted?
A. The parent association president sat on the hiring committee and met all the teachers. It became very clear that some of these teachers who had been at the school for many years weren’t meeting criteria such as being able to model spoken and written English for our students.
The parents understand that a change is needed, and we have parents who’ve complained about some teachers. As a principal it breaks my heart. I’m thinking, “I can’t really do much because I’ve tried to improve this teacher all year along, they’re not improving and they’re tenured.”
Q. Has there been any response from students?
A. I met with the student government, and used the analogy that there’s a corner restaurant that serves Spanish food and it closes for a few weeks and it opens up serving Chinese food. It might be under the same management and have some of the same wait staff but it’s a new and improved menu, and the food tastes a lot better.
Some students were sad because they thought some teachers would be leaving them. A lot of our students have had abandonment issues due to their home situations. We’re trying our best to provide stability and that’s why the majority of our teachers were invited back. However, I’m not going to sacrifice teacher effectiveness for consistency, because if our students are not set up for college and career, we’re not doing them a service.
Q. What sort of communication have you had with the union recently?
A. The union and my school work together with the hiring committee. The union wants what’s best for their teachers because they believe that when teachers are responsible, students do better. I completely agree with that.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of what’s happening in the courts is between very high levels of the U.F.T. and the Department of Education. I can imagine that both sides recognize that this has had a negative impact on the 24 affected schools, but they feel they need to keep on fighting to set the tone for the future of educational reform. And it’s unfair because it’s hard enough working in a struggling school with our neediest students, but to have all these changes happen makes it even harder.
I think the whole reason why turnaround was proposed is because there is not right now a functional process to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. The mayor doesn’t want to close the school. He just wants to get around labor relations which are untenable at this point.
Q. What do the next two weeks look like for you?
A. After the shock of turnover being overturned, or 18D not being honored, we decided we’re moving forward with the changes. We’re still envisioning what the new changes will look like. I’m in constant communication with the teachers we offered jobs and making sure we secure them. The biggest concern is that if they get a secure job somewhere else they’ll go. I’m also having conversations with those teachers who didn’t want to return to the school or weren’t asked back, to make sure that they’re going to be welcomed and supported in September.
And we have 180 kids in summer school!
Principal Rosenbury also participated in a NY1 round table with three other educators earlier this week.