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State has faith staff changes will help struggling schools

LACOOCHEE

Kurt Browning didn't want to do it.

The idea of removing Lacoochee Elementary School's teachers and administrators for poor academic performance, and then hiring replacements, didn't sit well with the Pasco County superintendent. It seemed too invasive, he said, for a school that already strained to serve one of the county's poorest communities.

But state rules mandated the move for schools in "turnaround" mode. So he told teachers their fate in late April, and scheduled interviews a week later.

About half the teachers won their jobs back. The rest moved to other district schools. Browning then picked a new principal — a move he would make first if forced to restaff again.

Since then, Lacoochee has been on a mission to improve, and Browning said he couldn't be happier with the new faculty.

Still, he doesn't like what he had to do.

"It will be a cold day before I pull that option again," he said. "That is so disruptive."

• • •

In the 15 years that Florida and the nation have pursued education accountability, a core tenet has been to set high standards, test and use the outcomes to guide change. Schools that consistently failed to meet the mark would have to restructure, often by overhauling the staff.

In Florida's case, the "district-managed turnaround" that Browning selected for Lacoochee calls for replacing principals, except in unusual circumstances, and hiring teachers with a three-year record of student gains.

He offered bonuses of up to $15,000 over three years to attract top educators to the school, which has struggled to fill positions in the past.

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart stands by the concept, which most Florida turnaround schools picked this year.

"For at least the last 10 years I have been saying the most important factor in improving student achievement is the teacher, and the most important factor affecting teacher performance is the principal," Stewart said. "If the school is not performing as it can be, it makes sense to look at student growth by teacher and make appropriate (hiring) decisions."

Restaffing cannot take place in a vacuum, though, Stewart added. Districts must consider such factors as the availability of proven educators and children's academic growth, she said.

The most successful restaffing efforts have focused on rebuilding a school's culture and bringing in educators who match the school's needs, observed Carlas McCauley, director of WestEd's Center on School Turnaround.

He pointed to schools in Chicago and Houston as examples.

Yet McCauley also stressed that restaffing is only a piece of what must be a targeted approach, in which results might not be immediate. Studies have shown that progress comes, but it can take several years before a transformation is complete.

A 2013 University of Chicago report indicated, for example, that Chicago's turnaround schools initially had mixed reading and math results, but in the next three years had greater growth than similar schools.

Other changes also factored in, McCauley noted: "I don't think any one intervention in isolation is the way to go."

• • •

In seeking to refresh Lacoochee, Pasco assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said, the administration wanted to find people with the "right disposition and set of skills." It set up a committee of district and school leaders to interview candidates. Lacoochee didn't have a new principal yet, so the outgoing one sat in.

Each applicant faced a dozen questions on topics such as collaboration, data use and classroom management.

"They asked everything they should have asked," said Chasity Vento, a reading specialist who moved from West Zephyrhills Elementary. "It definitely wasn't an easy interview."

Jaime Darley, also a reading teacher, said she worried she wouldn't get hired after her interview. She heard people laughing with one candidate, but not with her.

"It was a very grueling interview," said Darley, formerly of Gulfside Elementary in Holiday. "You had to have knowledge of a lot of different things to do well."

First-grade teacher Rosanna Santos, who transferred from Cox Elementary in Dade City, called the interview scary but critical for both the school and herself to determine best fit.

It's a standard Santos said the school should keep when replacing faculty in the future — even if it means waiting to fill vacancies.

Santos sits in on interviews for candidates to take over her classroom, so she can become Lacoochee's specialist for English language learners. So far, none have met the mark.

"I didn't think that it was fair to be more lenient to someone who comes in the middle of the year," she said.

• • •

District officials said they have not tracked the performance of teachers who left Lacoochee.

It is monitoring the returning teachers, several of whom had less than the required three years of experience. But hiring panel member Kara Smucker, a district principal coach, defended the decision, saying they demonstrated knowledge and skills beyond many veterans.

"We were in a place where they were getting intense professional development and coaching support," Smucker said. "When you were interviewing maybe a fourth-year teacher from a different school, compared to a teacher who had been at Lacoochee for one or two, the teacher from Lacoochee was better able to answer the questions, because we were investing in them."

Stewart, the education commissioner, said schools should have the flexibility to weigh such factors.

Latoya Jordan, previously an assistant principal at Cox Elementary, said she's thrilled with the faculty she inherited as the new principal.

"Even teachers who had never been to Lacoochee before came in and embraced the kids and the school like they had been there every day," said Jordan, who grew up next to the school.

Many spend more in gas than the $2,500 bonus offered to attract them. They say they sought a professional challenge more than added pay.

Jordan pointed to Darley and Vento as just two of many examples. Each day, they make lengthy commutes to school, arriving an hour before their paid time begins to tutor 10 students who have been held back twice.

Teaching at Lacoochee isn't easy, Jordan added, noting that the students are poor and face challenges that affect performance. Still, she said, the school's data points to improving results.

But the question remained whether keeping the previous faculty would have yielded similar results. Hudson Elementary went through a turnaround this year, but got only a new principal who increased staff training and changed the school culture. District officials said they're happy with Hudson's progress, too.

Smucker, who led a school from F to C without restaffing, said Lacoochee's previous staff was dedicated as well, but "a good leader can create a sense of urgency about data with any teacher."

• • •

Looking ahead, assistant superintendent Larson said she would do a few things differently if restaffing again.

She'd appoint a new principal first, so that person could select the team, and have the applicants give a teaching demonstration.

Also, the district recruited teachers for Lacoochee with gentle requests, not pointed pleas. Stewart suggested a more direct approach.

And once the new-look teaching staff is in place, Jordan said, a school should have more than two years to show results. The threat of facing another turnaround intervention so soon creates undue stress, she said.

Her teachers are offering "some of the best instruction I've ever seen," Jordan said. "But constantly we are trying to close two and three (years of) gaps."

Larson agreed, saying the district wants time to bring the students to where they need to be by fifth grade.

"I can teach to the test and get a good result in a year," she said. "That is not what we're after. We're after good results for kids."

Turnaround school

A series of occasional stories

When public schools founder year after year with D and F grades, Florida law requires the system to attempt a rescue. The state calls them "turnaround" schools and prescribes a range of drastic fixes — including closure. The Tampa Bay Times continues its series examining how Florida's turnaround strategy is playing out in area schools. The question: Can it work?

State has faith staff changes will help struggling schools 05/11/14 [Last modified: Sunday, May 11, 2014 11:10pm]

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