From 1 struggling school to another

Many ousted in Boston teach at troubled sites

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 5, 2011

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More than half of the teachers pushed out of seven underperforming schools in Boston last year now work at other low-achieving schools across the city that are also under pressure to improve, according to a Globe analysis.

The 96 teachers are among 186 who departed from the schools last summer after Superintendent Carol R. Johnson asked them to reapply for their jobs, a move that angered many of those instructors and led to a dizzying movement of teachers through the city.

In many cases, principals at the underperforming schools filled vacancies by luring away talented teachers from other city schools, which then often filled their new openings with teachers who had left underperforming schools.

Johnson initiated the staffing changes in an effort to reenergize the underperforming schools and also to help the city land more than $20 million in federal school turnaround grants. To qualify for the money, at least half of the city’s 12 state-designated underperforming schools had to dismiss at least half their staffs.

The move seared into the public psyche the idea that schools were rife with bad teachers, and raised questions about whether reshuffling teachers would benefit the underperforming schools to the detriment of other schools.

It’s not clear what the impact has been in moving staff out of the underperforming schools and into other low-achieving schools. The first official barometer will be MCAS scores from this spring, which will not be available until the fall.

Johnson emphasized that no one should draw quick conclusions about teachers merely because they came from an underperforming school.

“Just because a teacher didn’t return to a turnaround school doesn’t mean they are ineffective teachers,’’ she said.

Only 21 teachers received an unsatisfactory evaluation from those schools last year, according to the School Department.

“We are going to work very hard to give teachers who are underperforming support, and also make sure we have appropriate and adequate documentation,’’ Johnson said.

Several principals of these schools did not respond to a request for an interview, but a few parents and administrators willing to talk said they were pleased with teachers hired from underperforming schools.

The Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale, whose standardized test scores rank in the bottom 20 percent statewide, hired three teachers from the underperforming Blackstone Elementary School in the South End. All three stay late at school on their own time, said Frances Campbell, the Sumner’s assistant principal.

One teacher, she said, helped to create a program that trains parents to use technology and sends them home with a refurbished computer, while the two others help students learn to speak English after school.

“The teachers had every right to come to us with an attitude, and they didn’t,’’ Campbell said. “That says a lot about them. Working in a school isn’t just a job for us. It’s a calling, and you can see that in these three ladies. They are going to do their best for all children, whether they are at the Blackstone or the Sumner.’’

Richard Stutman, the teachers’ union president, said asking teachers to reapply for their jobs was bad policy.

“It’s like convicting someone without a trial,’’ said Stutman, who blamed the low performance of the schools on ineffective principals or budget cuts that have compromised the quality of academic programs.

Johnson did remove principals at five underperforming schools because they had been on the job for at least two years, another requirement to get the grants. Four of those principals now lead other schools, including two with low achievement, while the other principal retired.

Teachers at the underperforming schools had the option to reapply for their jobs or seek a transfer to another school in the district, and many teachers elected not to ask for their jobs back. Teachers who reapplied but were rejected retained the right to transfer.

Turnover proved to be high: Only about a third of the 279 teachers returned to their schools last fall. Most of the others scattered to about half the schools in the city or took a leave of absence. About 12 percent are no longer work for the district.

The process may have caused some schools to take teachers they did not want. The union contract requires the School Department to set aside some job openings for teachers who will be losing a position because their school is closing, reducing staff, or, in the case of some underperforming schools, changing staff.

Research on the practice of making sweeping changes in staff and leadership is mixed. While several studies have concluded that a change in school leadership can be instrumental in turning around a school, research into widespread replacement of teachers is scant, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the strategy’s effectiveness.

In Boston, teachers questioned the need to restaff their schools, believing they possessed the ability to remedy the academic problems. As proof, teachers at four schools point to MCAS scores, which experienced double-digit increases on some tests in their final year at the schools.

One of those schools is Orchard Gardens K-8 in Roxbury. But its principal, Andrew Bott, said a change in staffing was necessary, nevertheless. Although math scores went up, half the students still failed the exam and less than 20 percent scored proficient or advanced.

Adding urgency, Bott said, was the fact that the school is on its sixth principal in eight years. Many teachers, regardless of their talents, were growing skeptical about embracing change from a new leader, he said.

Bott, who officially started as principal last summer and determined the fate of the school’s staff in spring 2010, kept 12 of 56 teachers. He filled about a quarter of the vacancies with other city teachers, and hired the rest from outside.

“At a low-performing school, it is critical that everyone go in on the same page on day one,’’ Bott said. “The kids don’t have time for us to take a year to figure out our vision and our plan. . . . To be perfectly fair, I asked some pretty good teachers to leave.’’

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the state needs to be “on guard for any unintended consequences’’ of shifting teachers from underperforming schools to other schools.

“We need to make sure all schools are staffed with strong teachers,’’ Chester said.

To aid in that effort, his agency’s board approved new regulations last week that would make student achievement central in judging the effectiveness of teachers.

In Boston, many principals are lax about evaluations. A study last year found that about half the district’s teachers had not been evaluated in the previous two years, and some schools completed no evaluations.

Maritza Agrait, who split her time as an occupational therapist at the Blackstone and another school in 2009-2010, said some of her colleagues landed at schools unwelcoming to them. But Agrait said she has been embraced by the two new schools she worked at this past year. Where she came from, she said, was never an issue.

“I mentioned it freely,’’ Agrait said. “I know that other teachers in other buildings felt like they had to prove themselves, which is unfortunate.’’

Michael Crain said he had mixed feelings about leaving the Blackstone, where he worked in the same classroom for 20 years with preschoolers who had cognitive and other severe disabilities. He said he enjoys his new job, working with students with severe special needs at several city high schools to help prepare them for jobs and possibly to live independently.

“It feels like a continuation of what I was doing,’’ Crain said. “I lucked out.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on twitter @globevaznis.