Two new JP pilot schools, maybe

December 15, 2006
By

LOU MANCINELLI

Jamaica Plain’s John F. Kennedy Elementary School (JFK) and The English High School may be converted to pilot schools.

Neither proposition is final, and the potential change at JFK, on Bolster Street in Hyde Square, has ignited controversy between the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and Boston Public Schools (BPS). Both sides claim to be correct in their positions, which filter down to a heated disagreement over procedure.

Last winter, the teacher’s union signed an agreement with BPS setting in motion the development of seven more pilot schools throughout Boston by 2009.

Pilot schools supplement their curriculum with arts and athletic-based field trips and events. Teachers in the schools have greater independence in areas of professional development and teaching strategies.

“We support pilots,” said Dan French, executive director at Boston-based Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), whose web site says its mission is “to transform schools so that all students succeed.”

A 2006 CCE executive study found pilot school students’ MCAS scores outranked non-pilot students on a consistent basis. In 2004, 36 percent of fourth-grade pilot students turned in language arts scores in the “advanced/proficient” range compared to 17 percent of non-pilot students.

“This data suggests that the pilot model of granting schools control over their resources and holding them to increased accountability is a powerful formula for improving our urban schools,” said French in a CCE study.
John F. Kennedy School

Last week, the Boston School Committee announced plans to forge ahead with a proposal to convert JFK Elementary into a pilot school despite a November vote by teachers that fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority needed to transform the school. That move is opposed by the BTU, which claims the school committee is acting on an October vote that the BTU considers illegitimate.

The issue may be settled in court.

Initially, faculty at JFK voted 30-7 in favor of converting to a pilot school. Since then, after three subsequent informational meetings with the BTU, JFK teachers changed their position.

In November, the faculty voted 19-15 in favor of the transition. That number falls short of the required two-thirds majority. The total amount of votes is 35, two less than October’s total.

The sudden change has spurred conflict, as well as confusion between BPS and the BTU, which are still negotiating the issue.

“The question we is ask is, if the [JFK] staff worked on the proposal for a
over a year, came to an agreement, voted in favor, made no changes and no additions, what changed?” said Jonathon Palumbo, a spokesperson for BPS. “We’re confused. Hopefully we can come to an agreement.”

BTU President Richard Stutman said he does not know why teachers changed their minds either. “I wish I knew,” he said.

The November re-vote ensued after BTU officials questioned the validity of the faculty’s October vote. Stutman said the school did not correctly follow procedure and claims two long-term substitutes who were not supposed to vote were allowed to vote.

He also claimed the vote violated a BTU membership policy adopted in May, 2006.

“Before scheduling a vote on whether or not to convert to a pilot school, a school must schedule a staff meeting with union leadership for an explanation of the ramifications of conversion,” the policy says.

A Gazette phone call to the school was redirected to BPS media relations. “We’ve been instructed all media communications be done though the [BPS] communications office,” said Eunise Fernandez, a secretary at the JFK.

Teachers who teach in pilot schools remain members of the BTU.

They retain their right to receive base salary and benefits, including group insurance and health and welfare benefits. The seniority assignment system is also maintained.

However, no other guarantees are available. Job security, class size, teacher programs, length of the workday/year and professional development are determined by the school’s governing body. The governing body may include the principal, teachers, students, parents, business partners, higher education partners and community activists, according to a BTU question-and-answer document about pilot schools.

Stutman said the purpose of the process is the protection of members’ rights. He said teachers have a right to be presented information about how a decision to convert to a pilot school affects their decision-making ability, and that is part of membership policy.

“We insist on our right for the staff to meet with us first,” Stutman said.

BPS denies BTU membership policy has anything to do with the pilot school process. “BTU membership policy is above and beyond the agreement between BPS and BTU,” said Palumbo. “Frankly, we’re not concerned with it at all. We negotiated [contract conditions with the BTU] for a year. As far as we’re concerned, that is not part of the agreement.”

“It’s a legal matter now,” said Stutman. “It will go from lawyer to lawyer.”

Since the November vote overturned October’s decision, public statements have suggested the BTU bullied teachers.

“The union basically came in and put the fear of God in some people,” said Eileen Morales, principal at Kennedy, in a Boston Globe interview.

“She is full of hot air,” said Stutman in a Gazette phone interview. He said representatives from CCE and BPS were present at the meetings, and could have spoken up at the time if they felt his actions were inappropriate.

He said it is insulting to teachers to say they were coerced into changing their minds. “It is a desperate attempt by the school committee to save face. Staff made up their minds based on the information alone. We know that honest and truthful information wields more power than bullying. That’s something some of our administrators often forget,” Stutman said in an e-mail to the Gazette.

“I can assure you I am no thug-—not like Richard Nixon says, ‘I’m not a crook,’” he said. “I can’t afford to be less than honest. We encourage the growth of pilot schools, but not bad procedure. This is bad procedure.”

The Boston School Committee has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the BTU.

Palumbo said BPS will wait until joint steering meetings, a legal part of the pilot process, between the BPS and BTU to see if the union will discuss the Kennedy school conversion.

If not, Palumbo said, the superintendent will explore other options.
According to Palumbo, last week, BPS Interim Superintendent Michael Contampasis met with JFK faculty to tell them BPS wants to collaborate. He reportedly said, “If this is not what you want, we want to work with you.”

“I have no idea what the resolution will be,” said French of CCE. “It’s too bad the school and faculty are caught up in this spat between the teacher’s union and the school district.”

“Everyone will regroup, and over the next six to eight months there will be more progress made,” said Stutman.

“By contract the union has veto power over any vote to convert a traditional school to a pilot school… The union will not approve the conversion of the Kennedy school unless and until faculty approves the plan. Should the school committee go ahead as it has threatened and open it as a pilot school in September, 2007, we will stand our ground, push back, and defend our contract using all means necessary, legal and otherwise,” said Stutman in his e-mail.

English High
Last week, new chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) Chris Anderson convinced board members to delay a vote that would have labeled English High as “chronically underperforming.”

Anderson convinced board members to allow English High teachers and officials the chance during December to evaluate initial proposals to convert to a pilot school before submitting to state oversight, which could limit teachers’ decision-making authority in the classroom.

English High, on McBride Street off of Washington Street, was on the BOE’s “chronically underperforming” agenda because students there continue to produce poor MCAS results that do not illustrate consistent improvement each year.

The state has an assessment system that labels and implements restrictions on schools whose student body does not improve its MCAS scores over a few-year period. “That’s the point where English High is at now,” said Palumbo.

In 2006, 26 percent of English High 10th-grade students scored a “proficient” test score in language arts, compared to 53 percent statewide. In mathematics, 40 percent of 10th-graders at English high turned in a score in the “warning/failure” level, compared to 12 percent statewide.

In 2002, 12 percent of 10th-graders at English High turned in a language arts score in the “proficient” level, compared to 40 percent statewide. In the math section, 71 percent of 10th-graders scored a result in the “warning/failing” section, compared to 25 percent statewide.

As of now, details of the pilot school proposal are unclear.

“This is still at the planning stages…and is all very new,” said Palumbo.

English High was founded in 1821 and was the first public school in the United States. “A label of ‘chronically underperforming’ is not a history we necessarily want for the nation’s first public school,” said Palumbo.

“All we’ve suggested to the staff and headmaster is, ‘You have a good advantage here,’” he said, referring to the chance for English High officials to avoid the state’s harshest status for one of its schools.

“We’re working with the state to put together a proposal to craft what becoming a pilot school would mean, what it would like, and what the process is,” said French.

He said they are working on one front with state officials to determine what the conditions would be at the state level and on the other with the school to help it decide.

Officials from the BTU say as long as teachers meet with the union before voting, the BTU is inclined to accept the vote.

“We want to negotiate terms. We are willing to work with the commissioner of the school department as well as English High School to get the best results,” said Stutman.

A vote is expected this month. If two-thirds of the faculty vote in favor of converting to a pilot school, then the proposal goes to a joint steering committee between BPS and the BTU for review where both the superintendent or union president have the authority to veto the bill.