Charleston school leaders attempt to change culture, improve student achievement at four schools
By most measures, Burns Elementary School is far behind where it needs to be.
By the numbers
1Number of board members who were opposed to the proposal4 Number of schools where teachers will be asked to commit to a longer school year20 Number of extra days teachers will have to work in 2013-14$3,500-$5,000 Estimated range of extra money teachers could earn for their work (exact amounts will be based on their annual salary). School leaders could not provide Tuesday the number of teachers employed at those four schools.
It is considered “at risk” by the state, and it earned a “D” letter grade this year. Student achievement is languishing; nearly 70 percent of the school fell short of the state’s standard in English/language arts.
Breaking the law?
Charleston school officials presented the 210-day contract proposal to the school board in executive session. Officials said they did so because it affected individual teachers and contracts at each of the four schools, and that permitted the issue to be discussed behind closed doors.Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said he didn’t see a legitimate reason that would allow the board to have that discussion privately. The state’s Freedom of Information Act permits the discussion of negotiations related to a proposed contract that could negatively affect the district if that were made public, but that wasn’t the situation, Bender said.“They’re not going to negotiate a contract; they’re going to say ‘take it or leave it,’ ” he said. “It’s more of a budget matter than an employee matter because they’re not talking about the merits of individual employees.”The names of the schools should be made public, and the district’s position doesn’t appear to be consistent with the law, he said.“They’re trying to keep it a secret,” he said. “A better way would’ve been to announce this is the project and be honest about it, but that doesn’t seem to be the way school boards operate.”
Similarly troublesome statistics can be found at three other Charleston County elementary schools — North Charleston, Memminger and Sanders-Clyde — and officials have a new plan to do something about it.
Teachers at those schools will be asked to commit to working about a month more than the rest of the district’s teachers in 2013-14. They will use those extra working days to create a new school culture by learning how to beef up their instruction and work as a team.
“We’re talking about an intense change process,” said Superintendent Nancy McGinley. “We’re not just talking about adding one teacher here or there. We’re talking about a school that has to adopt a whole new level of excellence.”
Teachers will be paid for the extra days, and they will have to reapply for their jobs. Continuing contract teachers who aren’t interested in the extended school year or who aren’t rehired are guaranteed jobs elsewhere in the district.
The schools plan to hire teachers with track records of success, and the expectation will be that their students make more than the typical amount of progress during the school year.
“We’re going to carefully select who needs to be part of this change process,” McGinley said
Teachers will be asked to sign a 210-day contract rather than the traditional 190-day contract. Teachers would return to school about two weeks earlier than their peers for intense training and team-building sessions, and they would participate in 10 additional mandatory training sessions throughout the year.
“It’s having a team approach to creating an excellent school,” McGinley said. “You have to be a teacher who wants to be part of this, and then give them the tools and the training.”
The school board, with the exception of member Elizabeth Moffly, signed off on the concept last week, but the district has refused to release the names of the involved schools since then. Two school board members, Chris Collins and Moffly, confirmed which schools would be affected.
Jay Bender, an attorney and expert on the state’s Freedom of Information Act, said those schools’ names should have been made public, and the district’s position didn’t appear to be consistent with the law.
District leaders notified principals of the four affected schools Tuesday, and they were supposed to tell teachers about it too.
This initiative is similar to a school reconstitution, which happened at Burns Elementary three years ago. All the school’s teachers had to reapply for their jobs. But reconstitution is different in that it’s a consequence of failing to meet requirements of a federal law, and it doesn’t involve the extra days for teacher training.
The majority of the school board supported the superintendent’s new proposal, but some took issue with the way it was presented and the limited information available.
Moffly said the board didn’t receive details of the plan until members walked into a closed-door meeting Jan. 28, and there was no total cost estimate.
“I don’t like the way this is shaking out, and I don’t think we’ve discussed it enough,” Moffly said. “They’re withholding information and then asking us to make a snap decision (on a plan) they’ve been devising for a year or six months. They just throw it at us, and I don’t care to be treated like that.”
Others disagreed, saying this was a big step forward in ensuring that the best teachers were in the neediest schools. Board member John Barter said he would have liked to have had this discussion as part of the broader budget talks, but it didn’t lend itself for waiting until then.
“This was compelling enough that we’ll have to find a way to include it,” he said.
Collins, who also supported the district’s proposal, said it’s a good idea to help teachers, but officials needed to know what teachers thought.
“We need to include them in the discussion,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything to offend our teachers.”Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.