Monday, May 5, 2014

The Future of Bentley Elementary School

The School Committee meets tonight with the intention of voting on MOU A between the Salem School Committee, Empower Schools, and Blueprint Schools Network, which will lead to Salem applying to the state DESE for a Horace Mann III charter. This would allow the district to switch from the Transformation Model that the district chose when Bentley became level 4, and move to the Restart Model. The Transformation Model could also be called the "model of least resistance." I won't say I told you so, but one blogger questioned whether the transformation model was really the right choice when it was made. (Check the archives.) Subsequent data on emerging practices has shown that schools that choose the transformation model see less improvement than school that pick one of the more painful models. We've certainly seen less than impressive results locally.

So what the heck does that all mean? Let's dig in.

The players:

Salem School Committee: OK, this one is a given. If you don't know the School Committee I probably can't help you.

Blueprint Schools Network: Blueprint is the proposed operator for grades 3-5 at Bentley while the charter application process takes place. After one year the "operator" for all grades would be the newly formed Horace Mann Charter School Board of Directors. Blueprint would be responsible for hiring the principal and all faculty/staff for the "new Bentley." They would also be responsible for decisions around what the new Bentley looks like. Much is left to their discretion. When does the school year start? End? How long are the days? All basically up to Blueprint.

If you listened to the school committee meeting last week you heard Dr. Walsh talk about the fact that the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) includes a lot of "shalls" for the Salem Public Schools, and a lot of "mays" for Blueprint. He's not wrong. However, the "mays" that exist for Blueprint basically define the options they have to reach a "shall." Here's an example.

7. School Calendar. The School Operator may collaborate with SPS and may replicate SPS models with such modifications as the School Operator deems appropriate for the School, or the School Operator may develop and implement new initiatives, with respect to the daily, weekly and annual schedules of students and personnel, including, without limitation, the schedule for classes, tutoring, professional development, recess and planning, the number of these scheduled, and the start and end times of each, and when attendance is required by students and/or personnel. In all events, the School Operator will consider the SPS calendar before developing the School calendar.

Re-written, you could just say "Blueprint shall develop a school calendar." A huge part of the attraction to a restart is the large amount of flexibility that it affords. As such, the MOU contains language guaranteeing the operator a lot of leeway. There's really no point if it doesn't.

The primary Blueprint person that we've seen here in Salem is Matthew Spengler, who is the founder and executive director of Blueprint Schools Network. Read his bio here. I've been impressed with what I've seen from him, and his resume is nothing to sneeze at, either.

The MOU only guarantees Blueprint the right to operate the new school in year one. Make no mistake, though. It is Blueprint's intention to be involved long-term. Blueprint is currently working with 10 Denver schools on turnarounds, and tutoring in an additional 39 schools. In Massachusetts they are working with two Boston schools right now, and will be the state appointed receiver for another elementary in Dorchester next year.

Principal Gaga: Justin Vernon is the proposed principal of the "new" Bentley. Next year, Bentley will have a grades 3-5 principal employed by Blueprint, and a K-2 principal (or two, like currently). The following year Vernon would presumably be principal of the entire school. So why do I call him Principal Gaga? This. I'll admit I think that is absolutely fantastic. Give me school leaders willing to do this sort of thing.

Justin Vernon was active in the original meeting held at the Bentley School discussing this potential path forward. However, he hasn't really been seen since. He's not without controversy. He previously interviewed for two Salem principal jobs unsuccessfully. I hear at least one interview went really terribly. It's unclear if he's still the choice to run Bentley, but he did give his notice at the innovation school where he's currently principal. Fun note: he lives on the same street as Mr. Fleming, who will likely find a convoluted reason (I'd guess some contract language someplace) to vote no Monday night. He really should be Jim Hedging.

Empower Schools: Empower is sort of the great unknown in this equation. They're a party to the MOU, but their role is kind of unclear. If I had to label them something, I guess it would be either "matchmaker," or "middleman." I got the feeling that it was Empower, rather than Blueprint, who identified Vernon as the correct person to lead Bentley as principal. I think Empower also identified Blueprint as a good partner for Salem.

Here's the thing. I'm not sure how Empower gets any revenue. We aren't paying them anything. Is Blueprint? Maybe they don't need money. The co-founder of Empower Schools is Chris Gabrieli. He's the same Chris Gabrieli who finished second to Deval Patrick in the gubernatorial primary in 2006. He had an extremely successful career in venture capital, before turning his attention to education. He's also the founder and chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning, which we've sought expanded learning time grants from. Additionally, he's a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In short, he knows his stuff. Maybe Empower doesn't need revenue. Feel free to start some rumors about Gabrieli being Kim Driscoll's next big political benefactor. May even be true.

Gabrieli largely led the original meeting about restart held at the Bentley school, and was the person who introduced Vernon. Blueprint may have been referenced at that meeting, but they weren't running the show.

So those are the players, but what's the game?

The game:

As I mentioned, we'd be agreeing to allow Blueprint to run grades 3-5 at Bentley next year, while applying for a Horace Mann III charter for the entire school. So what's a Horace Mann III? There are 3 types of Horace Mann charters. Types I and III are nearly identical except for one thing. A Horace Mann I requires that there be an agreement in place between the district and the teachers' union. In a Horace Mann III prior agreement is not necessary.

From the state's description of a Horace Mann III:


An agreement with the local collective bargaining unit is not required prior to Board approval, however, the charter school’s board of trustees must negotiate with the collective bargaining unit and the school committee in good faith regarding any modifications to collective bargaining agreements following the award of a charter. ... it is our understanding that the charter may be fully implemented if an agreement on such an MOU is not reached at least 30 days before the school’s scheduled opening.

Basically, the union has a weakened position in a HM III. We apply for the charter without their approval, and if agreement can't be reached, we can implement anyway. Not being hamstrung by collective bargaining agreements is a common theme throughout the MOU. For example:

SPS acknowledges that the School Operator’s ability to take the actions required and permitted to be taken pursuant to this MOU during Phase I, including but not limited to actions with respect to personnel, recruitment and hiring, working conditions, school organizational structure, job descriptions, policies, training and professional development, teacher evaluation, non-renewal, and termination would be limited to the extent that local collective bargaining agreements and the past practices of SPS and the School continued to apply to the School and the School Operator. Accordingly, the parties acknowledge and agree that if the School Operator decides in its sole discretion during Phase I that it is not sufficiently exempt from the local collective bargaining agreements and past practices at SPS and the School, the School Operator may terminate this MOU.
So if we don't make it so that our current collective bargaining agreements don't apply to the new school the operator can terminate the agreement. Joyce Harrington won't be happy about that. There are clearly some timing concerns that lean towards a Horace Mann III rather than a HM I, which requires pre-agreement, but I'm fairly certain that the ability to have that 30 day window as leverage is a big part of it as well.

Exhibit C at the end of the MOU calls this out even more.


Teachers Union
EXHIBIT C
PHASE I PLAN
It is intended that the Bentley Elementary School shall be exempt from local collective bargaining agreements and the past practices of Salem Public Schools with respect to personnel, recruitment and hiring, working conditions, school organizational structure, job descriptions, policies, training and professional development, teacher evaluation, non-renewal and termination. As expressly set forth below, the Bentley Elementary School shall be exempt from the following provisions of the Agreement Between the Salem School Committee and the Salem Teachers Union Local 1258 – Teachers Agreement (2011-2014) (“Teachers CBA”), and all past practices pertaining to the relationship between the Salem School Committee (“Committee”) and the Salem Teachers Union Local 1258 (“Teachers Union”) contained in or related to the following sections of the existing Teachers CBA, as well as any corresponding sections of any future collective bargaining agreements with the Teachers Union, and any Side Letters or Letters of Understanding thereto:
Working Conditions
  • ;  Article I (“Union Recognition, Jurisdiction and Definitions”)
  • ;  Article III (“Salary and Rates of Pay”)
  • ;  Article IV (“Supplemental Benefits”)
  • ;  Article V (“Leaves of Absence”)
  • ;  Article VI (“Working Conditions”), including but not limited to the length of the school day and the school year, and any professional development requirements
  • ;  Article VII (“Transfers; Promotion”)
  • ;  Article VIII (“Grievance Procedure”)
    Union Negotiations
  • ;  Article IX (“Union Privileges and Responsibilities”)
  • ;  Article X (“Handling of New Issues”)
  • ;  Article XI (“Savings Clause”)
  • ;  Article XIII (“Mandated Change in Length of School Year or School Day”)
  • ;  Article XV (“Duration”)
    ;
    Side Letter





I imagine that the ones they really care about are articles VI, VII, VIII and XIII.
Why? they don't want to give bumping rights to teachers they don't retain, they want the ability to change the length of the day, the year, and the amount of professional development time, and they want the conversation to be solely about what will be paid for those things, not whether or not they happen.

Want to be a teacher at the new Bentley? You'll likely have to report for professional development days starting on or about August 6. During the school year, which will start in August, you'll work from 7:20 to 3:20 each day. You'll also complete 100 hours of professional development annually, with more than half occurring before students arrive in mid/late August. You'll also be encouraged to participate in Saturday or vacation academies. Are you a Bentley parent? This should give you a good idea of where things are headed.

Tonight will be a historic night. Joyful? Absolutely not. It's a failure, yet again, that we're here. I've seen enough to believe that this is a necessary step, and I'm more hopeful for the future of Bentley than I have been. I'll be at the meeting tonight, probably posting on Facebook. I don't know if you've heard, but the American Federation of Teachers, Massachusetts Chapter has promised a demonstration before the meeting. Can't wait.



Tuesday, March 4, 2014

How do you Solve a Problem Like the Bentley?

I think (and this is really just an educated guess) there are big goings on being planned for Bentley Elementary School. Maybe even really big goings on. The conversation that took place regarding Bentley was really weird, and shrouded in behind the scenes stuff that we aren't privy to. The Committee of the Whole meeting that was scheduled for last night was canceled, and two additional meetings were set, Thursday at 6:30 and Monday at 6. I'd like to take credit for the cancellation last night, but I'm betting that Mr. Schultz inability to attend is the real reason. It was mentioned that the meeting Thursday would likely be almost entirely executive session (so feel free to stay home), but no reason was given. That alone is odd. Usually it's executive session "to discuss contract negotiations," or "to discuss a grievance."  The discussion that was on the agenda for last night's regular school committee meeting was basically punted until after the COW meetings.

I pointed out when we were designated a Level 4 district that the turnaround model that we chose (Transition) was the path of least resistance, and created the smallest amount of short term pain. It also required the smallest amount of change. I asked one school committee member when MCAS results came out this year with no real Bentley improvement, even after the large amount of effort (and money) spent when it was time to ask if we picked the right model. The response was something along the lines of "we're getting there."

The other three options were Turnaround, where all staff and administration are let go, the principal is replaced, and no more than half the teachers can be rehired. That would definitely require some executive sessions, followed by some collective bargaining. There is a Restart model, where the school is closed and reopened with a new operator, and massive staffing changes. Again, there'd be plenty to talk about in executive session. The most drastic model is Closure. Literally you padlock the school and reassign all the students. I'm not sure, but I don't think we have the capacity across the district to make that happen.

It's possible that because we already have our School Improvement Grant that we can make changes on the fly without without declaring a new model. The model has to be declared to get federal school improvement and race to the top funds. Even if we don't officially change turnaround models, I'm pretty sure we're about to see big changes proposed, and you'll see a schism between newer and older committee members. The new members will embrace more aggressive action, while the committee members with more seniority will not want to admit that a school that they oversaw for so many years reached a point of being beyond saving. If you watched last night you saw the beginnings of that already, with Walsh and Bryant pumping up Bentley, and pumping the brakes on these meetings. I agreed with Walsh's call for sunshine on these discussions, but executive session exists for a reason, too.

I don't have great personal vision into Bentley, so I'm pretty much stuck with the stats. The stats show little, if any, improvement. We're halfway through the time set by the state to get out of level 4, and that school is currently closer to going to level 5 than it is to level 3. It may well be that the time for bolder action is now. (Personally, I like the sound of the Salem Academy Charter Elementary School at Bentley.)

An agenda for the Thursday meeting should legally be posted today. Expect it to be pretty generic.



Monday, March 3, 2014

Do Actions Speak Louder?

From the "actions speak louder" department. Some of you won't like this, and that's OK, but come on a little logic journey with me.

We were named a level 4 school district largely due to chronic under-performance at the Bentley Elementary School. In fact, since Bentley was named a level 4 school, the school has seen the decline continue. In 2012 the school was in the 4th percentile statewide. In 2013 the school fell to the 3rd percentile, even with a massive amount of turnaround effort and resources pointed at it. Literally 97 of 100 schools perform better. We're 2.5 years in to this, and the spiral appears to continue.

My point is this. There is still plenty of work needed in our schools, and at Bentley in particular. The problem isn't solved. Why then, is our "focus on education" mayor skipping the Salem School Committee of the Whole meeting at 5:30 tonight, where the only agenda item is Bentley Turnaround Progress, to hold a ceremonial bill signing at the same time?

And yes, I support the non-discrimination ordinance completely. It echoes state law, while adding and expanding some protections, especially for a group of the most marginalized people you'll find, who aren't currently afforded accommodations by the state law. The No Place for Hate Committee, which worked hard on this ordinance, has a regularly scheduled meeting tomorrow night. I'd think the bill signing could have been done just before, in conjunction with, or just after that meeting. Let's celebrate the crap out of the ordinance, and the No Place for Hate Committee, but let's not do so at the expense of what Mayor Driscoll has referred to as "perhaps the most critical issue facing Salem today." She said herself that we need all hands on deck.

Coming three days after a column in the newspaper from the mayor that discusses our continued commitment to school improvement, and cites the Bentley Turnaround review, and 8 weeks after an inaugural address that included the following:

"We are gathered here, at the Collins Middle School, for the first inauguration in our City’s history to take place in this building – we are gathered here, in this place, for a reason: To signify to all, with unmistakable clarity that our primary focus in the years to come will be fixed with unwavering commitment upon Salem’s public schools. And this charge is not simply for our School Committee and School leaders. We must all together devote ourselves to this end. This is a community mission."

I'm not sure why we couldn't have found a different time to sign an ordinance. So I go back to my first sentence above, and say I hope this isn't a case of actions speak louder.