It's the cliché promise of second chances: “This time, it'll be different.”
That's how some say they feel about Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley's newest effort to improve four low-achieving schools — and they're not buying it.
“This isn't a new concept,” said Kent Riddle, who leads the Charleston Teacher Alliance, a teacher advocacy group. “They're saying it's different, but it's not.”
The Renaissance Schools Project aims to transform four schools, Burns Elementary, North Charleston Elementary, Memminger Elementary and Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts.
District leaders want to develop cultures of excellence by hiring staffs of proven, committed educators. Teachers will be paid for 20 extra days of classroom-related training and team-building sessions.
Interested teachers had to say whether they wanted to stay at the project schools, and about 90 percent have said they do.
This isn't the first time the district has tried to turn around a school by changing its some staff, but officials said they have learned from past experiences.
“We've never put the package together the way it is now,” McGinley said. “It's not the same old, same old. This is taking what we know are the essentials of effective schools ... and we're putting the package together.”
The school board signed off on the plan in January, and officials are moving forward with making it a reality.
McGinley said she was pleased with the percentage of teachers who indicated they wanted to return and take on the new challenge.
Fourteen of the 181 affected teachers said they were unable to commit to the new requirements, while five others said they might resign. Thirty-four teachers from other schools in the district also have applied for the jobs, but no one has been offered a contract.
One of the ways the Renaissance Schools Project is different, officials said, is the well-defined rubric and selection process that will be used to evaluate and hire teacher applicants.
Three big factors — classroom observations, teachers' professionalism and students' growth scores — will be used to rate each applicant. Anyone scoring 90 percent or above will receive a contract, while those who fall in the 75th to 89th percentile will go through an interview process with high-level district staff.
“We know there are excellent teachers in the schools, and we want them to come back,” McGinley said.
Those who score below the 75th percentile will go through a more rigorous interview process that is used with any new applicant to the district. They will have to submit model lessons and writing samples.
“These are four schools that have significant challenges ... and changing out one or two teachers is not going to change the culture, so we need teachers with the will and skill,” McGinley said. “They need the will to be there and the skill set to address students' needs.”
Riddle questioned how this strategy would improve the schools. District leaders hired the best principals they could, and those leaders chose the best teachers they could.
“The administration has to take responsibility for who's in the building,” he said. “They hired these people.”
The four schools' teachers already are committed to their students, so the district should try to improve their skills if that's a problem, he said.
“Help these teachers who want to be there,” he said.
Officials said teachers who are not rehired will be invited to apply to any of the district's other schools. If they are not hired, they will be given jobs as itinerant substitute teachers, which means they can be moved to any schools in the district.
Those teachers also will receive professional growth plans that will include monthly classes to boost their instructional skills.
McGinley said it's her expectation that there wouldn't be any first-year teachers hired.
Third-grade teacher Cassandra Williams has loved the challenge of teaching at James Simons Elementary, a high-poverty school where more than one-fourth of its students aren't meeting state standards in English or math.
She has been looking at other options, though, because the school plans to convert to offer only Montessori instruction. She is not interested in teaching in that type of classroom, she said.
She heard McGinley's pitch for the Renaissance Schools Project at a meeting for teacher leaders in the district, and it made her want to apply for one of the jobs.
“I know there are going to be challenges,” she said. “I'm not looking at it with blinders. I'm willing to help out in any way possible.”
She's been a part of James Simons as it has transitioned from “at risk” to “average,” and it wasn't easy, she said. Teachers received extra training, and they talked about how they could get better, she said.
“You have to be motivated to want to be there, and be willing to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to work at it for the betterment of the children,” she said.
She said she felt hopeful about this new plan, and she thinks it's going to be successful.
“I'm hoping other teachers would look at this as an opportunity to help these children,” she said.
Others see it differently. Jon Butzon, executive director of the now disbanded advocacy group Charleston Education Network, took issue with the school board's approval of the plan without asking many questions or getting many details.
“It's almost like whatever the superintendent proposes, a certain majority is going to vote for her without really digging into it,” he said.
Although he was glad to hear about the specific criteria for teacher selection, he wondered whether the district would have enough qualified applicants.
McGinley said she was confident the schools would have more than 181 applicants, and she would do whatever it took to find the best teachers, even if it meant her personally reaching out to them.
“We're putting this model into place in a thoughtful and comprehensive way,” she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.
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