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Does reforming high schools require starting with a new staff?

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As I have said in nearly all of my posts, I am of the opinion that our neighborhood high schools need a major transformation, not just some small reforms. 

The culture and climate in these schools is just not conducive to learning.  Many people argue that creating this new culture requires replacing either all or some of the teachers in the building with a fresh staff that is on board with the school’s mission. 

This is a highly controversial idea and one with a troubled history here in Philadelphia (remember the backlash when David Hornbeck tried to “Keystone” Olney High School). Understandably, many teachers feel that this approach is blaming them for problems they did not create (at least not on their own), but I am not sure there is any other way.

When I have visited successful urban high schools, I always ask “what are your non-negotiables, what could you not do this without?” The first thing most principals tell me is the ability to hire their own staff. They say that it is critical when redesigning failing schools to start with a staff that understands and is committed to the school’s vision.

For most business owners (and school principals outside of Philadelphia) the idea of not being able to hire your own staff would be considered ridiculous, but this is Philadelphia. 

For a long time, Philadelphia had a hiring system largely based on seniority, the result of which was that principals had no say in who teaches in their schools. Now we have one of the most complicated and convoluted hiring systems, where some hires are based on seniority and others are site selected (meaning the principal, sometimes along with a committee of teachers, does the hiring).     

In districts like New York, Oakland, and Boston, teachers unions and school districts have made agreements that support transforming high schools. In New York, when a school is designated for change, the current teachers in that school must reapply if they want to stay. The redesigned school must take at least half of the old teachers. Teachers who are not picked to stay, or who choose to leave, get preference in selecting new schools and keep their building seniority.

I recently heard someone from the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher Union Leadership explain another model. In Montgomery County, MD, a school was designated for reform. Teachers participated in a committee that created a reform plan that included some waivers to the contract. All the teachers in the school then had the choice of whether to leave or stay and agree to the new plan. This model has the advantage of more teacher buy-in, but on the other hand relies on the current staff to create a strong reform plan, which some of the more dysfunctional staffs may not be up to.      

NCLB gives the District the power to force some schools to change their staff, but the District has been hesitant to do this given the backlash it has faced in the past. This process seems to work better when it is done collaboratively between the teachers union and the school district, but our union and district do not have a strong history of this kind of collaboration.

I do not believe that all the problems in neighborhood high schools are the fault of teachers, but I do think these schools need a fresh start and the ability to create teams that have a shared vision. I would be curious about other people’s thoughts about how we can achieve this.

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