Education Lab

Fresno Unified overhauls staff at failing schools

Students returning next month to Fresno's Webster Elementary School, Carver Academy and Yosemite Middle School will find new faces and new rules.

Two of the principals and most teachers have been replaced. The schools will have tougher standards, longer school days, extra tutoring, more assessments and far more demands for accountability -- from students, teachers and parents.

The dramatic overhaul is the latest effort to turn around failing schools -- those that are persistently in the bottom 5% of schools statewide. Of 188 on the list in California, 13 are in the Valley, including three of Fresno Unified's 87 schools, two of Parlier Unified's seven and another eight schools in Tulare and Kings counties.

The sweeping changes are happening this year in districts that want to qualify for up to $2 million per school in federal grant money by adopting one of four reform models recommended by the California Department of Education. Choices facing districts include replacing staff, adopting instructional changes, and even reopening campuses as charter schools.

The changes are drastic but necessary, said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson.

Hanson said the process has been eye-opening and the need for reform was painfully obvious. For example, Yosemite had "a toxic school climate," he said without elaborating.

Federal education officials have tried for years to make districts apply these reforms to schools that cannot improve poor test scores. Under No Child Left Behind, the federal education reform program, schools designated as "program improvement" campuses for three years or more were supposed to adopt reforms similar to those in the four reform models.

But districts were reluctant to take that step -- until this year.

The pot of federal money seems to have provided a much-needed incentive. In Fresno Unified, the overhaul began before spring break, when teachers at the three schools were told that most would be reassigned because of their school's low performance. The meetings were followed by letters of "ineffectiveness" delivered to every teacher -- about 50 in all -- a step required under the district's union contract.

Greg Gadams, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, complained that even good teachers got a letter. But Hanson said the district had to put all the teachers on notice until it determined who would stay and who would go -- a time-consuming process involving school officials, teaching staff and even some students. Student test scores were also a factor.

In the end, many teachers volunteered to move to other schools. And teachers from other schools chose to come to the low-achieving schools. "Most teachers are where they want to be," Gadams said.

The reassigned teachers went to various schools throughout the district and no permanent teachers lost jobs, said Hanson. The superintendent said the district was careful when selecting new teachers for the three low-achieving schools and equally careful with the reassignments "so we were not creating issues somewhere else."

The changes had to happen because the schools were struggling, he said. Carver and Yosemite were the district's only two middle schools scoring below 600 on the Academic Performance Index -- a measure of how schools perform on standardized testing. The state's target score is 800 out of a possible 1,000.

Ed Gomes is the new principal at Yosemite in central Fresno. He comes from Jefferson Elementary, a downtown Fresno school where all the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. He is credited with improving Jefferson's API ranking among schools with similar demographics from a 4 to an 8 out of 10.

Gomes said it will take good teachers, professional collaboration, quality instruction and good relationships with students for the school to see improvement. "It's never one thing," he said.

He said teachers will be working closely together and collaborating in what are called "professional learning communities" -- a term that essentially means teachers share ideas on how best to reach students.

Yosemite's parents were told in meetings before school ended in June about the new expectations -- for them as well as students. District officials said parents will be expected to be willing partners, check that homework is completed and meet with teachers up to four times a year.

Teachers at the district's three underperforming schools are being paid 11% more because of the longer school day.

The money helps draw teachers, but it's not the only reason some volunteered, said Deidra Babcock, a second-year teacher who taught ninth-grade English last year at McLane High School. She said it's also about the challenge.

"Every child deserves a chance to learn and I feel those are the students who need me the most," said Babcock, who had been told she would be laid off at McLane because of budget cuts.

Babcock said she was considering applying at other districts but was recommended for a job at Yosemite. She said she welcomes a new way of teaching. "I know I will be under a microscope," she said. "Every teacher will have to be on their A-game."

It has been a similar hiring frenzy, although on a much smaller scale, at Martinez Elementary and Parlier Junior High School. The two Parlier Unified schools are undergoing transformation similar to Fresno Unified's three campuses.

Instead of a pay increase, Parlier is giving out $5,000 bonuses for teachers to work at the two low-achieving schools. Superintendent Rick Rodriguez said they will cover the bonuses with the federal grant money he is sure the district will receive.

As at Fresno Unified, a screening process was used to decide which teachers would stay and which would be reassigned. They also worked closely with the teachers union. In addition, new principals were hired.

Many other districts in the Valley with low-performing schools eligible for the federal money, including Visalia Unified, aren't adopting one of the four state reform models and therefore, cannot apply for the grant funds.

Visalia Unified's interim Superintendent Craig Wheaton said the district already made major changes at Highland Elementary in recent years -- including replacing the principal -- and the changes are now bearing fruit.

"We basically adopted an improvement model already," he said.

Rodriguez said the changes have been hard for Parlier's district leaders as well as teachers.

But there was no alternative, he said: "For me, it would be a travesty not to do anything."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the name of Yosemite Middle School's new principal as Ray Gomes.

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