Friday, August 22, 2003

Staff shakeup intended to boost school results

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Heather Lipp, a first-year teacher at Vine Elementary, gets acquainted with her fourth-grade class Thursday.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
Students walking through Vine Elementary on the first day of school Thursday recognized just one of the 23 teachers who taught there last year.

The rest weren't rehired.

Cincinnati Public Schools administrators last year told every staff member at the 332-student Mount Auburn school - right down to the janitors - they were being removed because student achievement was too low.

Those who wanted their jobs had to reapply or take a job elsewhere in the district. The school then had to create a new instructional plan.

CPS, ranked as one of the lowest-achieving school districts in the state this week, has been overhauling low-performing schools like Vine for four years as a way to improve achievement.

But now, hundreds of low-performing schools nationwide, including 36 Ohio schools and six in Cincinnati, must begin writing plans for similar overhauls under a landmark federal education bill signed last year.

While Cincinnati Public has shown some big gains with the nine schools redesigned since 1999, an Enquirer analysis showed that progress in some redesigned schools has been inconsistent.

"On the positive side, we've looked at the data and see they have shown academic progress," said Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers union.

"But the progress has been very incremental."

The purpose of redesign is to bring in a new staff that will ideally stir radical change in a school that hasn't been meeting district goals of improvement. They would bring new ideas, innovative reading programs, more after-school activities and increased parental involvement.

Most of the nine schools have yet to meet minimum state standards on any state tests, which call for 75 percent passing rates.

In Vine, just 9.4 percent of fourth-graders and 11.5 percent of the sixth-graders passed the state's reading test in those grades last year.

"I don't think anyone felt like they failed," said Kathie Klodell, a language arts teacher and the only teacher returning to the K-8 school. "They knew they did everything they could but for some reason, it didn't work."

Local, national plans

President Bush's 18-month-old No Child Left Behind legislation requires that schools write overhaul plans like Vine's after four years of not showing improvement on state tests and in graduation and attendance rates.

Next year, if they have not improved, those plans can include reopening as a public charter school, replacing all or most of the staff, turning the school over to the state, employing a consultant to advise school management or other reorganizational steps.

While some teachers and parents say redesign is a step in the right direction, others say schools need far more than a staff shuffle.

Most of the Vine Elementary students walk to school along one of the roughest streets in Cincinnati. Many come from the same impoverished neighborhood where drug dealers hang out on corners next to boarded-up buildings and crime statistics are among the highest in the city.

A quarter of the students have learning disabilities. Most live at or below poverty level and live with just one parent or a grandparent. Fewer than half of parents or guardians attended parent conferences last year.

The school also had a room filled with spare clothes for kids whose parents couldn't afford them.

"But we don't want these to become excuses as to why kids can't meet with academic success," said Rosa Blackwell, deputy superintendent.

"We are doing more than just shuffling the staff. We're focusing intensely on the academic areas through targeted training. We're changing the culture, changing the academic program and maximizing school resources."

But teachers said they were working hard to improve the school a year ago.

Those teachers rave about a national reform program at Vine called Expeditionary Learning. Students connect academics with community service projects and learn by participating in expeditions inside and outside the classroom.

"It was like the bottom fell out of my stomach," former Vine teacher Jake Amlin said of hearing that his school was next for redesign.

He said the school had a team of district officials auditing the school's progress since mid-year. He said the staff thought it was doing everything it could to improve based upon recommendations from the audit team.

One administrator who helped conduct the audit wrote: "There is a good, core group of professionals working at Vine."

Another said: "The Vine staff is working very hard. They certainly can't work any harder."

Amlin taught only two years at the school, which had a history of low performance before he came. Still, he was not rehired.

"It's going to take some getting used to - for the staff and parents and children," said Renee Hayes, whose granddaughter is an eighth-grader at Vine. "A lot of kids have voiced the displeasure with loss of some of their favorite teachers. They had gotten used to teachers there and the teachers had gotten used to the children."

Hayes acknowledged that some teachers seemed as if they had given up, but they were the minority.

Redesign is right path

Teachers at other redesigned schools say the schools had to be overhauled. Rockdale Academy in Bond Hill, for example, is showing gradual improvement.

James Chapman, a 30-year teacher in Cincinnati Public, was one of a handful of teachers rehired at Rockdale when that school was overhauled with a new educational model.

"Prior to our redesign efforts, I did not feel everyone was on board with helping the children," he said. "Once the staff was sold on the direction we were going in, everybody was committed to helping the children move forward academically. That in turn transferred to the child's philosophy."

At Vine, meanwhile, new teachers are brimming with new educational plans and have a positive outlook.

After a summer of staff training, the school:

• Has a new reading and math program.

• Has extended the school day by 45 minutes for tutoring and enrichment.

• Offers more after-school activities. A note on a white marker board from Principal Beverly Baughman Mallory reads:

Dear staff: Thank you for coming to Vine! It's exciting to have a staff that wants to be here and provide a service to our children. Your positive attitude will provide positive results.

Westwood resident Michael Moon, whose son attends Vine, said he welcomes the redesign.

"The kids just were not getting it," he said. "I think this can be the start of something good."


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