City and Teachers Still Negotiating School Turnarounds

The city said it's running out of time to strike a deal with the teachers union on a plan to improve failing schools.

A deal is required to receive more federal money.

Eleven city high schools are already receiving about $20 million in federal School Improvement Grants to help with their low graduation rates. The schools are going through what the Obama Administration calls a "transformation" strategy.

Although some lost their principals, they were allowed to keep all their teachers. The grants were spent on extending the school day and bringing in more training.

But if the city wants more federal money to help other failing schools, it will have to embark on more drastic measures. These include the "turnaround strategy" in which half the teachers at a school are replaced. The trouble is, the city and the teachers union don't have any agreement on how to do that. And the next round of grant applications is due on April 30.

The state has identified dozens of Persistently Low Achieving schools for the city to choose from. The grants can be worth up to $2 million a year per school. 

Both the teachers union and the city say negotiations continue.

If the two sides can't reach an agreement, the city could use other federally approved strategies such as "restarting" a school by turning it over to a charter management company or outside education group.

The 11 city schools already receiving School Improvement Grants include Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School — the subject of our Big Fix series with the independent reporting site GothamSchools. The transformation schools got their first reviews by state evaluators in January.

Chelsea's progress was described as "adequate" but evaluators said they saw "inconsistent differentiation of instruction" and some lessons that seemed "below the level of what might be expected in difficulty for the grade and course." Other schools got similar evaluations.

The state singled out Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School in Upper Manhattan for not having a functional library, a bilingual parent coordinator (as promised), and for not hiring a permanent principal (though one has since been appointed). And a team of evaluators found "limited evidence of effective teaching" at Automotive High in Brooklyn.

The city noted that these visits were all conducted in January, when the schools had barely begun implementing their grants. Funds didn't begin flowing from the state until then, a few months after the start of the school year. Chelsea High also found numerous mistakes in the initial draft or its evaluation. The state has been sending teams back to the schools this month, to follow up.

"We think now that the money's flowing readily, our school communities have a bit more experience with implementing the model," says Department of Education spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenthal. "This new round of reports will be much more positive in terms of seeing progress on the ground."

For its part, the city says it's now hired five central staffers to oversee the School Improvement Grants. State evaluators had noted in January that the city still hadn't hired an Implementation Manager to run the program. But Zarin-Rosenthal said the city changed its original concept for the office to include folks in the existing networks that supervise the schools.

The city and the teachers union are also working out the details for a teacher evaluation system that will be piloted at the 11 transformation schools. The system is similar to one that will eventually be rolled-out citywide.