Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Teachers oppose takeover plans for Level 5 schools in two cities ... By Laura Barrett
Photo by Laura Barrett Holyoke educators are asking Commissioner Mitchell Chester to make significant changes to his Level 5 turnaround plan for the Morgan Full Service Community School. Peter McAndrew, left, president of the Holyoke Teachers Association, attended a recent stakeholders’ meeting with Superintendent Sergio Páez, center, and Assistant Superintendent Paul Hyry-Dermith.
Teachers represented by the MTA in two schools that have been designated Level 5, or “chronically underperforming,” say that “with heavy hearts” they are seeking to transfer to other district schools because they don’t believe that the commissioner of education’s planned changes are good for students or fair to educators.
The local associations are fighting for changes in the Level 5 plans for both the Morgan Full Service Community School in Holyoke and the Parker Elementary School in New Bedford. They say the plans will not lead to the “rapid academic achievement” of students, as required by law.
Commissioner Mitchell Chester has named Project GRAD, a Texas-based company, to serve as the receiver for Morgan and New Bedford Superintendent Pia Durkin as the receiver for Parker.
As MTA Today went to press, Chester had released a preliminary plan for Morgan and a final plan for Parker. The final Morgan plan was expected shortly. The local associations may appeal to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for changes within 30 days of final plans being released.
The New Bedford Educators Association and the Holyoke Teachers Association say the plans as drafted will hurt the quality of education for the high-needs students they serve by driving away good teachers. Both plans would:
• Require teachers to work hundreds of hours more through a longer day and longer school year with no guarantee of additional pay. Morgan teachers would have to work up to 453 more hours, equivalent to 53 more days, or 10½ weeks. At Parker, the plan calls for 331 more hours, equal to 41 more days, or about eight more weeks a year.
• Abolish the negotiated salary schedule based on steps and lanes and replace it with a performance-based system based on teacher effectiveness. The new system would take effect at Parker in the fall and at Morgan the following year. The local associations both argue that performance pay is divisive, fostering competition rather than collaboration. They cite research findings showing that performance pay does not improve student achievement.
• Replace the negotiated grievance procedure and impartial arbitration process with an expedited system in which the final decision would rest with the commissioner, who would give “substantial deference” to his appointed receivers.
Funding levels are unclear, with no assurance there will be enough district, state or federal money to implement the proposed changes. Neither plan guarantees adequate preschool services despite the acknowledged need for them.
The preliminary Morgan plan has an added provision opposed by the HTA that says Project GRAD “may outsource positions in whole or in part, may transfer bargaining unit work in the best interests of the school operations and the students it serves, and may hire part-time employees at its discretion.”
Under the Achievement Gap Act of 2010, Level 5 schools are designated by the commissioner from among the Level 4 “underperforming” schools that have failed to meet state improvement targets. After the Parker, Morgan and two Boston schools were designated Level 5, Local Stakeholder Groups composed of parent, teacher, union, district and community representatives for each school were formed to make recommendations to Chester about the turnaround plans.
After Chester released his preliminary plans in March, the LSGs met to discuss recommended modifications. The commissioner did not have to accept any of the suggestions and has broad authority to appoint receivers, override local contracts and make other significant changes.
In Holyoke, the members of the LSG reached consensus on many issues, including calling on Chester to commit to returning the Morgan to the district if other district schools improve more quickly than Morgan does under Project GRAD.
HTA President Peter McAndrew said of the Morgan preliminary plan as a whole, “I think this is an attempt to break the union.” Holyoke School Superintendent Sergio Páez said he shared many of McAndrew’s concerns.
In New Bedford, there was consensus on some small issues but no agreement on major ones. At a contentious LSG meeting on March 24, Parker teacher and LSG member Michael Irving said, “I don’t think there’s a single teacher here who doesn’t think there should be more time on learning, but there has to be adequate compensation.”
Marcia Guy, a Parker teacher and LSG member, tearfully echoed that sentiment. “The way this is structured, I don’t see how anyone who has put time into teaching will want to come here and help these kids out,” she said.
Kerri DiPina, the parent representative on the Parker LSG, expressed anger that parents had yet to be informed about the planned changes. “It’s going to be very traumatic for families when they find out how many teachers are leaving,” she said after the meeting. “We’ve come to know and trust these faces. They know my family. They know my children.”
In both Holyoke and New Bedford, the transfer process is underway. Uncertainty is rippling through both districts, since teachers with Professional Teacher Status who leave the two schools may bump teachers without PTS in other buildings.
The local associations have made the case that poverty and the high needs of their students are at the root of the low test scores — not poor performance by teachers.
At Morgan, for example, 98 percent of the students are from low-income families and 46 percent are English language learners. The school is surrounded by boarded-up warehouses. In March, an MTA Today photo session at the school was canceled because of a shooting outside. Only three of 54 students entered kindergarten knowing their letters. The school has lost seven teaching positions over the past three years.
Margo Ross, a fourth-grade math teacher, has a class of 28 students, all but six of whom are either English language learners, special needs students or both. Ten of her ELL students speak little English.
“If kids don’t speak English, sometimes I pair them up with a student who is bilingual to translate,” she said. She has no classroom aides. Aides and tutors, she said, “would be very helpful.” She has a full complement of computers, but only five of them work.
Teachers at the Parker School in New Bedford say that Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s Level 5 turnaround plan will drive most experienced teachers out of the school if it is implemented as proposed. Conferring after a Local Stakeholders’ Group meeting in March, from left to right, are Lou St. John, president of the New Bedford Educators Association, and Parker educators Jessica Amaral, Kerry Leary Agashe and Michael Irving. Irving and Parker teacher Marcia Guy are members of the LSG. Photo by Laura Barrett
Transiency is a constant problem. “I just got four new kids in the last month,” Ross said. “I had lost one, who was gone for a while, and then she came back.”
Ross said that despite all of the problems, the school has a dedicated staff, a welcoming atmosphere and many wonderful students and families.
“I really struggled with the decision to leave,” she said. “My own kids went here. Our mayor, Alex Morse, is a Morgan alumnus who graduated from Brown University and was elected mayor at age 22. I love the Morgan School. I think we were making enormous strides.”
Although Morgan’s MCAS scores are low, in many grades the students’ growth scores exceed the state median. “Teachers here are working really hard, and so are our students,” said Ross, a 20-year teacher. “The kids need a pat on the back instead of this.”
The teachers at Parker make a similar case. Many were shocked that Parker was named a Level 5 school because scores there have been improving steadily and are higher than in many other schools across the state. In fact, Parker was not eligible for federal improvement funds this year because student achievement levels were too high.
“We lost 50 percent of our teachers last year,” Irving said at the LSG meeting. “If this plan goes in as written, many teachers aren’t coming back. You may disagree, but I think this will have an enormous negative impact on the students.”
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