Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

Nashville schools hope teacher shuffle will pay off

Ohanian Comment:"Fresh start," indeed. It's Orwellian language at its best. First, insult teachers by shoving them out the door. Second, insult the people who spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars for supplies in their classroom each year, by telling them, "Don't steal anything." When I moved out of my middle school classroom where I'd been for six years, I needed weeks to haul all the good stuff I'd accumulated. Even then, the district had to bring in a dumpster for the bad stuff I left behind.

Strip a school of its staff and you strip it of people who are intimately familiar with the family stories those school walls tell. A school loses important history when it loses veteran teachers.

NOTE: Veteran teachers were largely replaced with new, inexperienced ones.

Is this the Annenberg plan as well as the Broad plan? Jesse Register has served as a Senior Advisor for District Leadership for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, consulting with school leaders and districts across the country on issues of district redesign, high school reform, improving urban education, and leading change in school districts.

By Jaime Sarrio

Mary Buckner was getting ready to wrap up another year at Napier Elementary when she and the school's 60 other staff members were called into the library and told to start looking for new jobs.

Napier was one of http://www.tennessean.com/assets/pdf/DN146230118.PDF">five Nashville schools being "fresh-started," meaning everyone from teachers to janitors would have to reapply for their positions. Teachers had only a few days to pack before classrooms were locked, and according to Buckner and others at the meeting, Metro human resource officials told the displaced educators "not to steal anything."

"It was very disrespectful," said Buckner, a 40-year teaching veteran. "It was like, 'What have we done to deserve this? We have busted our butts for these children.' "

Buckner was one of hundreds of teachers shuffled out of fresh-started schools last spring and forced to find jobs in other places. The process is dramatic, difficult and emotional, but school officials and experts say it can be a successful technique to transform troubled schools.

But not all of the fresh-started schools were struggling to meet state standards.

Of the five schools, Shwab Elementary was considered in "good standing" under Tennessee's school accountability guidelines, and Napier Elementary was "improving."

Cameron Middle had a history of failing to meet state testing guidelines partly because of trouble boosting reading scores among English language learners. But test scores reveal the school consistently had some of Metro's biggest academic gains.

Both of the remaining schools, John Early Middle and Whites Creek High, have been identified by the state as needing improvement and have mixed results with student achievement.

Chief explains strategy

Schools Director Jesse Register said he relied on input from top-level administrators when selecting which schools would be fresh-started. The director, who was hired in January, said he fresh-started 18 schools while in charge of the Hamilton County school district in Tennessee, some more than once.

Displacing staff is not a decision that should be made lightly, Register said, and in the future he plans to focus on working out kinks in the teacher transfer process, as well creating stability in the district.

"If schools don't have a good climate, one way to change that is to change faculty and change leadership," he said. "I think it needs to be deliberate, not a whim."

In Hamilton County, Register was criticized for moving ineffective teachers out of inner-city schools and into the suburbs. The director said that in some cases, the displaced teachers retired or were "encouraged to leave the profession." In other cases, their performance improved at the new school.

"You have to look at it teacher by teacher," he said. "What I am taking a hard look at now is how we transfer teachers in the district ΓΆ€” not just moving people because they have performance issues. We need to deal with our problems, too."

On average, the five fresh-started schools forced out about 75 percent of the existing staff. Veteran teachers were largely replaced with new, inexperienced ones. Most of those displaced found positions at other schools across the county.

Beverly Bell, who has been principal at Cameron Middle since the 2004-05 school year, said fresh-starting the school was difficult because of the tightknit faculty.

Bell was allowed to keep her job, and she had a role in hiring the current staff, many of whom are new to teaching.

"With anything new, there's a heightened energy and excitement, and that's what I feel is a little different," she said. "We have the opportunity to shape (the climate), to learn from what we could have done or should have done, and to do it better now."

This isn't the first time

At least three other Metro schools have been fresh-started in recent history, with mostly positive results. Maplewood High and Alex Green Elementary both moved off the state's needs-improvement list and into good standing. Jere Baxter Middle is still struggling to meet state benchmarks.

It takes about two years before the changes affect test scores, said Justin Cohen, president of the school turnaround strategy group at Mass InsightEducation and Research Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit.

Hiring new teachers isn't enough to transform a struggling school, Cohen said. Schools also need effective leaders and must learn to respond to the challenges students face outside the classroom.

"Transformational leadership is something extremely difficult to do," Cohen said. "Even principals who are outstanding can be completely eaten alive by a failing school, because it is a different job."

New principals were assigned to three of the fresh-started schools, while the former principals were transferred to head up other schools.

Parent doesn't like shift

Parent Renada Rayford, who has two children attending Napier Elementary, said she doesn't like the changes. She said the school is less open to parents, and she feels less welcome to visit or volunteer.

"I feel that teachers, all of the staff, should still be there," she said. "I don't feel the teachers know how to handle the kids as well as they did last year."

Metro's controversial school rezoning plan was partly responsible for the staff changes at three schools ΓΆ€” Napier, Shwab and John Early. Under the plan, teachers at these schools receive a 5 percent pay increase, and the Metro teachers union felt every educator should have the chance to apply.

There's also a stigma that follows teachers forced out of their schools, which can create more mobility in the district, said Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association.

"My sense is that teachers find it necessary to move again after they transfer because they feel branded as bad teachers," he said. "If they transfer to a third school, it helps them cast off the dark shadow."

Paula Poag, who was forced out at Shwab Elementary, said the change is helping her grow as an educator.

Poag is now working as a fourth-grade teacher at Mt. View Elementary after spending years as a staff literacy coach at Shwab. She worried the drastic change would be harder for the students than the staff, but overall, she's happy in her new assignment.

"For those of us who are asked to leave, it gives us an opportunity to be in a different environment, with a different group of kids," she said. "Maybe it helps us make a change we wouldn't have made on our own, because you get comfortable where you are."

— Jaime Sarrio
The Tennessean


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.