Worry, anger at school's plight

Critics say that a drastic move to reinvigorate struggling Annapolis High might do more harm than good

January 28, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

They tried to tell everyone that Van Bokkelen Elementary was the place to be. Teachers would have more planning time. Smaller classes. Supportive principals and assistant principals with fresh ideas.

But months after Anne Arundel County school officials conducted a large layoff at the academically struggling school in Severn in 1996, only seven of the more than 35 teachers who had worked there had reapplied for their positions.

When the district held a conference to fill openings at the school, which struggled with persistently low scores on reading and math tests, only one person came. In the end, the district staffed most of the school with teachers who had left Prince George's County because of a pay freeze.

Officials in the local teachers union who saw the turmoil unfold at Van Bokkelen say it's a cautionary tale for Annapolis High School, where all 193 staff positions were declared vacant Wednesday.

"I think if the superintendent had talked with some of the staff at Van Bokkelen about their experience, he might have chosen to go a different route with Annapolis High," said Bill Jones, executive director of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell wants everybody, from the school's cafeteria workers to the principal, to reapply for their jobs in a move to improve reading scores among low-income students and bolster sagging graduation rates. Maxwell took the step to thwart a state takeover that appeared likely next year.

Along with the staff overhaul, the schools chief is considering a number of other measures, including a longer school day for teachers and administrators and a longer school year for students, with mandatory summer work for those at risk of failing.

The changes could cost the district $1.2 million to $1.8 million on top of the $131 million more the school district is seeking from the County Council.

County officials have said that an austere budget season doesn't bode well for the school system's request, but Maxwell said he believes the county government will support the reform he's trying to carry out at Annapolis High.

The superintendent and his staff have talked about providing about $4,500 in incentive pay over four years to entice teachers to come to Annapolis High.

"We want to attract people who want to work there and be part of some of the exciting things we're planning to do there. We have to be competitive with our pay to draw the kind of people we want. An 11-month or 12-month salary will bump teacher pay up by 10 to 20 percent," said Maxwell, who added that he's willing to scour the state and region for talented educators.

The superintendent said he is also planning to add another "signature" program at the school, similar to International Baccalaureate, but details of the new program haven't been hammered out yet.

Around the country, there's uncertainty about whether "reconstitution" - declaring positions at a school vacant and having staff reapply - works.

Joe DiMartino, president of the Center for Secondary School Redesign in West Warwick, R.I., said while there have been successes in Rhode Island, New York and Boston, there have been an equal number of failures, most recently in Denver.

"There's mixed results out there for how well reconstitution works," said DiMartino, who was scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at a summit at Annapolis High to discuss high school reform yesterday.

"The reform can't be based on the assumption that it's the educators' fault. You have to go into it thinking, `What do we want our students to learn, and how do we realign the school completely so it serves that goal?' For it to work, it takes complete buy-in from everyone. Everyone - the students, the staff, the community."

Without that cooperation, DiMartino said, reform is fractured and weak, and the resulting upheaval causes more harm than good - as was seen in Van Bokkelen, where the school struggled with teacher morale and uneven student performance for two years before it saw a rise in test scores, and a drop in absenteeism and discipline problems.

Van Bokkelen is off the state's list for failing schools but struggles to stay off because of mounting challenges with special education and low-income students.

Buy-in might not be easy at Annapolis High, where the staff is still reeling from the superintendent's decision.

This week, the staff will receive more information about how to reapply for jobs at Annapolis High, or how to apply to another school if they'd prefer. Everyone will continue working at the school until June 30 but will find out at the end of April where they'll be working in the 2007-08 school year.

"They're going through an angry, grieving phase," said Tim Mennuti, president of Anne Arundel's teachers union. "It's like telling a fireman he's been laid off at the beginning of the shift and then asking him to fight fires all day and then come back and turn in his gear. It's tough to keep your morale up in that situation."

Some, like English and French teacher Lydia Smithers, are considering not returning. Although she has been at the school since it opened in 1979, Smithers said the staff overhaul will make the culture too punitive.

Others say they are thinking about responses such as letter-writing campaigns, and picketing and refusing to do the overtime work that many staffers do for free to make the next day's lessons go smoothly.

"I know how it's going to be. We'll be constantly scrutinized and dragged into long meetings with people who pretend to know more than we do and tell us things we already know," Smithers said. "The whole thing feels punitive. Why should anybody let themselves into a situation where they have to face that kind of professional abuse?"


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