730 U.S. schools trying to reinvent themselves

Not every school has chosen to involve teachers in their transformation plans.

The federal government has enticed 730 schools across the nation to reinvent themselves this school year, and nearly a third have chosen the most difficult paths to get a piece of the more than $500 million set aside for transforming schools where too many children are failing to learn.

“This is tough, tough work, but it’s desperately needed,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday.

Most of the schools fired their principals and changed their entire approach to learning this school year, while others replaced much of the staff. Yet Duncan said “there’s been no drama about it. Folks have moved with an urgency that’s sort of fantastic to watch.”

The lack of drama was in sharp contrast to a couple of early school invention efforts, including one in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where a high school’s entire teaching staff was fired in February and got their jobs back in May after community protests.

To get federal school improvement money, schools in the bottom five percent of those not making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law must choose from among approaches to turn around student test scores. The program is voluntary.

The approaches include: closing the school and moving kids to other buildings; restarting a traditional public school as a charter school; firing most of the staff and starting over with a new team; or firing the principal and taking a new approach to learning.

Duncan’s preliminary report on the success of the program noted that 71 percent of participating schools chose the fourth approach, called transformation.

Another 21 percent replaced the school principal and at least half of the teachers. About three percent closed down the school and five percent are restarting.

Union leaders said Thursday that the program became less controversial as school district officials started collaborating with teachers instead of blaming them for their problems.

“Our members are excited. They want to make a difference in these schools,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union.

Not every school has chosen to involve teachers in their transformation plans, Van Roekel said, but he predicted long-lasting success won’t be possible without teacher engagement and collaboration.

Regardless of which improvement model they choose, Van Roekel said success also requires community and parent engagement, effective school leadership, more time for learning and staff collaboration, social services for children, and conditions that attract educators to the neediest schools.

His message to administrators who haven’t involved teachers in their planning: “It’s never too late.”

The school improvement grants are spread across the country and distributed among urban, rural and suburban schools. Of students in the affected schools, 44 percent are African American, 34 percent are Hispanic, 16.5 percent are white, 2.5 percent are Asian and 2.2 percent are Native American.

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