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Special Schools, Special Rules
Reform Advocates, Unions At Odds

January 31, 2005

By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Teachers at Hartford's Breakthrough Magnet School work an hour longer each day than their colleagues at other city schools and they don't get paid extra for it.

The way the teachers' union sees it, the policy is a clear violation of the union contract, so a grievance was filed to end it.

The way the school principal sees it, if she and her teachers can't have more autonomy over their school, the very nature and functioning of the character education-theme school will change.

Advocates of school reform say the grievance illustrates that union rules can stymie efforts to make changes in education. They're calling for legislation to give principals and schools more latitude to remake schools in creative ways.

At the head of the group is Betty J. Sternberg, the state education commissioner who said she had planned to ask for legislation next year to require longer school days and school years for the lowest performing schools and to give magnet school principals power to pick their teachers. But now she's hoping the legislature's education committee will take on the issue this year.

Sternberg would even like to see legislation extended to all schools in low performing districts - not just magnets and schools failing to make `adequate yearly progress' under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Ed Linehan, Hartford's executive director of magnet schools and choice programs, suggests that ideas born in the magnet and charter schools can be adapted to reform all of the state's public schools.

Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the education committee, is thinking the same way. "If we're going to innovate in the magnet schools," he said, "we should do that in all schools."

From Charter To Magnet

The debate at Breakthrough Magnet stems from the school's transition from a charter school to a magnet school that is part of the city school system.

The charter school, which has greater freedom than public schools to set its own hours, was founded and designed by three Hartford teachers who decided the school day should be extended.

It became a city magnet school last year and operated as a Hartford public school for a year before the union noticed the longer days. Last fall, the union filed a grievance.

"The contract is clear," union President Cathy Carpino said. "If you teach an extended day or an extended year or an extended day and an extended year, then you get a differential [in pay]. Period."

Principal Norma Neumann-Johnson said if the school offers extra pay, the contract gives teachers a choice about whether to work the extra time. Her program won't work, she said, if some of the teachers decide not to work the extra hours.

"When she interviews people, she should tell them what the deal is," Carpino said. "If they don't want to teach an extended day, then they shouldn't teach at that school."

When Neumann-Johnson has the latitude to hire teachers of her choosing, she said, she does pick from among applicants who agree to the hours. But when the district moves teachers around each October to adjust class sizes, she sometimes loses some of her staff and ends up with others she did not interview, but who have more seniority in the district than the people she hired.

Finding New Ways

As cities around the country grapple with efforts to close achievement gaps between poor and wealthier students and between white and minority students, they are beginning to experiment with giving school leaders more flexibility.

Next fall, for example, six schools in Rochester, N.Y. - 10 percent of the district - will work under a new model that allows teachers and their principals to negotiate class size, the start and end of the school day, the frequency of meetings and other similar rules.

"If the teachers agree to work longer hours for the same pay, that's their prerogative," said Adam Urbanski, now in his 25th year as president of the Rochester teachers' union. "We want to find the right balance between what there should be across the board and the kinds of things that should vary from school to school."

For a school to participate in the pilot program, Urbanski said, 80 percent of the teachers will have to agree, and teachers will vote on which changes to make. "We're trying to give people the chance to make their own rules," he said.

Certain contract provisions are off limits in Rochester, including salary, benefits and due process.

In Chicago, as part of a program to open 100 new schools using three new models by 2010, five new schools will open as performance schools in September. These are traditional public schools with union teachers. The major difference is that they have the freedom to choose their own curriculum, manage their own budget, set their own hours or "do anything they'd like to do," said district spokeswoman Sandy Rodriguez. In exchange, the schools must meet specific performance goals.

And New York City is operating under several variations of school governance, including 30 "autonomy zone schools" and about 700 schools using a "school-based option" model. The schools in the autonomy zone have the latitude to choose their own curriculum and control their teacher training, among other choices, as long as they meet performance goals.

The school-based option was created to implement a state law passed in 1997 that requires New York City to establish a way for each school to share in decision making. Under this model, 75 percent of a school staff can vote to make any change it wishes, including lengthening the school day or year with or without extra pay for teachers. Both union leaders and the city schools chancellor must approve the change.

How About Connecticut?

The movement to give schools more flexibility has the support of the education commissioner, Hartford Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry and Hartford Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff, mother of the lead plaintiff in the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation lawsuit.

"I recognize that unions want one set of rules, to run the district like one big school," Henry said. "But there needs to be a greater flexibility for magnet schools. ... I can't see unions coming to agreement on this issue. Nothing short of legislation will address this issue."

If the state does not empower magnet schools to supersede union contracts in certain instances, Horton Sheff said, the magnets should be removed from the governance of the Hartford school system.

Sternberg advocates targeting reforms to school districts serving the most disadvantaged children. She wants the state to mandate longer school days and longer school years for low-performing schools. And she wants principals to be able to pick their own teachers, rather than having union rules dictate teaching assignments.

Teachers should be compensated for extra work, Sternberg said, and the state should pick up the tab for the eight lowest performing schools in the state - those now facing federal sanctions. Linehan, Hartford's magnet director, said schools that decide to extend the workday or year may also be able to pay teachers by consolidating grants and subsidies for after-school programs.

John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said he does not have a problem with individual unions negotiating new work rules as Rochester did. "In Rochester, the teachers' union agreed to do this. That's a very different cry than the state coming in and saying this is what we're going to do. ... We would not support the state trying to supersede the bargaining rights of teachers."

Sternberg is braced for a fight with the unions.

"I'm not surprised at the union stance that would say, `No, you can't supersede a local contract.' I just don't agree with that," she said. "I think there are salient reasons for us to say `Enough already. We need to do this.'"

Fleischmann said he is intrigued by the models in other states and would like to hold hearings on the idea. "Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Windham face such educational challenges that I think it would be a mistake for state policymakers not to be somewhat open-minded," he said.

If Fleischmann or another legislator proposes a bill this year rather than waiting for her to propose one next year, Sternberg said she would back it.

Students attending schools in the lowest performing districts are 30 percent of all the students in the state, Sternberg said. "If we allow there to continue to be an education underclass and we don't do things differently, we're going to be in trouble. You won't have a viable workforce."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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