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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

New York State Appointed Receiver Superintendent Sharon Contreras Says Firing Teachers At Struggling Schools in Syracuse is Not an Option She Will Use

Contreras: Firing the teachers at failing Syracuse schools won't help

Sharon Contreras, superintendent of the Syracuse City School District, addresses Fowler High School graduates on
June 27, 2015. Fowler is one of 18 struggling Syracuse schools at which Contreras has extraordinary oversight powers. (Scott Schild)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Superintendent Sharon Contreras begins this school year with unprecedented power to fire teachers and administrators at more than half of all schools in Syracuse, thanks to a new state law aimed at jump-starting schools that perform poorly.
But Contreras said she has no plans to slash personnel at the 18 city schools where she has extra authority as a state-appointed "receiver.''
She faces fast-approaching deadlines to demonstrate improvements at the under-performing schools, and simply replacing teachers is not the answer, Contreras said. The time allotted to fix Syracuse's struggling schools is so short that it will require "a really heavy lift'' to keep the schools from being taken out of the superintendent's control and assigned to an outside receiver in the future, Contreras said.
Under a law passed last April, school districts have one year to demonstrate improvement at "persistently struggling schools,'' and two years at "struggling schools.'' If the schools don't show sufficient progress, they will be placed in the hands of an outside receiver.
Syracuse has 17 struggling schools and one – Grant Middle School – labeled persistently struggling.
"I don't know too many schools in this country that have turned themselves around in one year,'' Contreras said.

Syracuse city schools struggling

The Syracuse City School District has 17 schools that are classified as "struggling" by the state Education Department. Grant Middle School is identified as "persistently struggling" and has one year to improve before a turnaround expert is assigned to assist the school. The other 17 schools have two years to improve.
Tuesday is the first day of school for 21,000 Syracuse children. Beginning Tuesday night and running throughout the month, the district will hold public meetings for parents at the 18 struggling schools to explain how receivership will affect that school.
Planning is already under way at each school, but it will be late September before Contreras and her team know which specific metrics approved by state education officials will be used to gauge each school's improvement.
Schools will be judged on a wide range of factors such as student test scores and graduation rates, good ratings for newly hired teachers, or attendance rates. Schools can select some of the metrics against which they want to be measured.
In the meantime, Contreras will work with separate community engagement teams at each school – made up of parents, teachers, administrators and students -- to review improvement plans. Each school's plan must be submitted to the state education department for approval in October.
State education officials say the bar is set reasonably low for struggling schools in the first year, and goals will get tougher to reach in subsequent years. "The first year, the targets are fairly modest, but realistic and achievable,'' said Ira Schwartz, assistant commissioner for accountability.
Among her options as receiver, the superintendent has authority to order any of the 18 schools to be converted to a charter school, a move that would be subject to a vote by parents and other legal requirements. Contreras said she is not considering that option.
Statewide, there are 144 schools that will be overseen this year by superintendent receivers. Of those, 127 – or 88 percent – are in the five largest cities. Syracuse has the third most, after New York City and Buffalo.
Superintendent Sharon Contreras talks with first-graders on the first day of school in 2014 at Syracuse
Latin School, which shares a building with the struggling Hughes Elementary School.
State education officials say the dramatic efforts to improve the worst-performing schools will be augmented with extra funding. The 20 persistently struggling schools, including Grant Middle in Syracuse, will share $75 million in extra money. Grant's share is $3.4 million.
Union officials say the receivership program will heighten teacher anxiety and undercut efforts to collaborate on improving schools. "When the staff start looking at this law a little more closely, it's going to make them extremely uncomfortable, as well it should,'' said Kevin Ahern, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association.
Contreras, who has clashed with the teachers union in the past, agrees that her role as receiver creates additional potential for conflict. In addition to her authority to cut jobs, she can extend the work day or make other changes without consulting the union.
"It sets superintendents up to battle with the union,'' Contreras said. "Kevin and I have talked about that, but he knows I have no intention of removing the teachers from the building. I'll do what I can do to help those schools to improve, but certainly I'm just not going to empty the buildings out and say it's the teachers' fault that the students are failing.''
New York's receivership law was modeled on Massachusetts, where the struggling Lawrence school district has shown progress after being taken over by an independent receiver. In Massachusetts, entire districts are placed in receivership, which allows more flexibility. One of the key changes made by the receiver in Lawrence, for example, was to cut district central staff by 30 percent and reallocate the money to schools.
As receiver of 18 schools, Contreras has authority to eliminate every teaching and administrative job at those schools, from the principal down, and to require employees to re-apply if they want to stay. The superintendent would have full discretion over hiring new principals or administrative staff, but would be obligated to fill at least half of the school's teaching jobs with teachers from the building.
The superintendent said she is more inclined to focus on staff development than replacing teachers.
"Where are you getting all the teachers from? Districts are struggling now'' to find enough qualified teachers, Contreras said.
At schools in receivership, the new law takes away teachers' contractual right to "bump'' less-senior employees and take their jobs. However, teachers who are removed from a struggling school must be given "preferred eligibility status,'' meaning they get first crack at open jobs in the district for which they are qualified, said Linda Mulvey, Syracuse's chief academic officer.
Given the high turnover in Syracuse, where the district hires 200 new employees a year, it's likely that any teacher removed from a struggling school would find another teaching job in the district, Mulvey said.
Another caveat: If the superintendent or independent receiver decides to abolish jobs at a struggling school, the receiver has to give the school board 90 school days' advance notice. That's half a school year.
Outside of receivership, it is difficult and costly for school districts to terminate teachers. Of the roughly 138,000 public school teachers outside of New York City, 316 tenured teachers faced disciplinary charges over two years, 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to the state education department. Twenty-five were terminated.
For the foreseeable future, 18 of Syracuse's 34 schools will operate under the rules of receivership. The remaining 16 schools will operate normally. If state education officials decide any of the struggling schools have not demonstrated progress, they will require the Syracuse school board to hire an independent receiver to oversee them.
"That may be the plan in the first place,'' Contreras said. "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but you have to wonder.''
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