Welcome to the guest blogger section of the Notebook blog.
This week's post comes from Jonathan Cetel, who is a regional organizer with Good Schools Pennsylvania and serves as a consultant to the Teacher Action Group. He previously taught middle years reading and social studies in the Olney section of Philadelphia.
In the midst of our collective efforts to digest all of the reforms proposed in the new teacher contract, let’s take a moment to celebrate two clear and decisive victories: the expansion of site selection in the lowest-performing schools and the modification of the site selection process.
Effective immediately in the District’s roughly 90 high-needs schools, all teachers will be hired through site selection committees comprised of the principal, at least three teachers selected by the Building Committee, one parent chosen by the Home and School Association, and one Vice-Principal and/or student in high schools. The principal must reach consensus with the committee on a hiring decision; if no consensus is reached, the principal must choose from the top three candidates, as ranked by the committee.
Philadelphia has long served as an outlier among large urban districts in its inability to abandon the practice of assigning teachers to schools through a central office according to seniority. In this system, teachers with the most seniority get to select the school they will work, and new teachers often enter classrooms having never met the principal. When I received my placement, I walked into the main office, asked the secretary if the principal was available, handed him a note from HR and said, “Hi, My name is Jonathan Cetel. I’m your new reading teacher.”
While expanding site selection appears to be a no-brainer for people outside of education (imagine a business leader unable to hire his/her own staff), it remains a sensitive and complex issue for teachers.
Consider the fact that the previous contract allows schools to use site selection if 2/3 of the teachers voted in favor of it. Only 58 of the District’s schools approved it. Such overwhelming opposition to site selection is often interpreted to mean that teachers have broad support for the seniority system, but something else is clearly at play.
Members of the Teacher Action Group provided the answer by explaining that a vote against site selection is really a vote of no confidence in the principal. Horror stories abound of principals assembling the site selection process to rubber-stamp all hires, resulting in decisions motivated by nepotism, cronyism, and even racial discrimination. The old contract language did not spell out a consensus model for making site selection hires. Teachers simply didn’t trust principals and wanted real power to influence the hiring decisions.
These teachers concluded that site selection, if designed correctly, can unify a staff around a common vision and even attract effective teachers to hard-to-staff schools. That’s exactly what happened at TAG member Patrick Kennison’s school, an empowerment middle school on the persistently dangerous list. Few, if any, teachers voluntarily transfer to his school.
Last year, however, its staff approved site selection and hired a talented veteran teacher. Patrick believes the teacher chose his school because she got an opportunity to see past the stigma associated with its status as an empowerment school. Further, she, and other new hires felt inspired by the ambitious vision for the school expressed by enthusiastic teachers and administrators on the site selection committee.
With an estimated 70-90% of all vacant slots to now be filled through site selection and new language that empowers teachers in the process, I anticipate hearing more inspiring stories like Patrick’s and fewer horror stories about principals’ abuse of the system.
Site selection is no panacea: however, it is a major step in the right direction towards distributing leadership and creating a shared vision among staff. Still, let’s be clear: if site selection isn’t combined with additional reforms that improve working conditions, the lowest-performing schools will continue to struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers. In order to make these critical improvement, it’s essential that Pennsylvania maintain a commitment to an effective system of education finance that supports struggling schools in accessing much needed resources.
To learn more about the Teacher Action Group or to find out how you can help advocate for the maintenance of the new school funding formula, please contact Jonathan Cetel at Jonathan@goodschoolspa.org.
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