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Can handpicked teachers turn around an underperforming school?

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NEWARK, N.J. — It was a fight to the finish, but Erskine Glover can honestly say he’s happy with the team of teachers who will be instructing his students this fall.

Erskine Glover, at a back-to-school barbeque last week, had a long summer interviewing teacher candidates. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

Glover, principal of what’s momentarily known as Quitman Street Renew School, had a grueling summer interviewing more than 100 candidates for instructional positions, with dozens more weeded out by a recruiter. Fewer than half of the 60 teachers greeting children when they arrive back today were on staff when classes let out in June.

Because Quitman is part of a showcase initiative to turn around Newark’s lowest-performing schools, Superintendent Cami Anderson handed Glover the unprecedented authority to hand pick who stands before his 530 pre-k through eighth grade pupils this year. And that meant a lot of changes.

Research is clear that having a great teacher affects how a student performs, even years afterward. Glover went from one interview to the next fueled by his students’ dire need for great teaching.

In picking his staff, he looked for passion, drive, and the capacity to pore over data and effectively use technology to drive instruction. He wanted teachers who could create an engaging classroom culture. He demanded an unequivocal belief that the children Quitman serves—more than 90 percent of them black and living in poverty—can and will rise to great achievements, not just locally but on a global scale.

“There are a lot of misperceptions we have to deal with about this school,” the principal told his new team on the first day they assembled, “and you are the folks we have chosen to deal with those through a long, hard process.”

Click to read the rest of the series

Glover wants every grade level scoring at a minimum 50 percent proficiency this year and by the end of next year, 85 percent. “I will never again stand up before you and say 80 percent of our children are failing,” he said, referring to Quitman’s past performance on standardized tests. But he was quick to add: “We don’t cheat. We do it the right way.”

Some of the teachers who left Quitman secured transfers to other Newark public schools, but a handful were lingering in an “employees without placement” pool where the district must pay them even if they don’t have anything to do.

Anderson said she would make use of teachers in the pool as substitutes, aides in special education classes, and extra hands in places where enrollment turns out higher than expected.

The chance to entirely reshape a staff is not one that comes around often. Principals typically face limits on hiring and firing because tenured teachers have job security under union contract rules.

Anderson took a big financial gamble by allowing the principals in Newark’s eight “renewal schools” so much liberty, since the district needs to pay all tenured teachers regardless of whether they are placed elsewhere. The renewal schools are receiving additional resources in attempt to turn around years of low performance while absorbing students from other schools that were closed.

“The key to school success is making sure you have a highly selective principal and that they have as much latitude as possible to pick at team not only of folks who are really high quality and meet the criteria that they lay out but also who are a good fit for the vision and mission of the school,” Anderson said.

Building a team

With such a rare opportunity, Glover wanted to be picky about his choices. He rejected three prospective music teachers, for example, before hiring the fourth candidate he met. At the same time, he was afraid he would be forced to take teachers no other principals wanted if he didn’t hire quickly enough.

Glover introduces Evelyn Vargas, his new vice principal, to students and parents. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

“Everybody in the pool is probably not bad,” Glover said in late July, when he had 20 hires remaining. In fact, the teachers union points out that the majority of teachers in it have received satisfactory ratings. The prospect of having to hire disgruntled or subpar staff nonetheless frightened Glover, 42, a sincere, dreadlocked father of two who is returning for his third year at Quitman.

To fill his 36 vacancies, Glover first looked at existing Newark teachers interested in transfers. Then he and the other renewal school principals were permitted to hire from the outside on a case-by-case basis with district permission for up to 30 percent of their positions.

The first week in August, he still had 12 openings, mostly in early childhood and special education: Quitman housed five self-contained classes for young children with autism and mild to severe disabilities last year. This year, since the school is absorbing the special needs population from newly closed 18th Avenue School, it will have 11 self-contained classes, more than half of them serving pre-k and kindergarten.

By August 13th, vacancies were down to seven. By August 15th, it would be just two or three, assuming the district signed off on Glover making outside hires.

“If the district doesn’t approve my new hires,” he said, “it would be a major problem for me.”

Glover thought August 15th was the deadline when the district would start assigning him teachers without placement, but the following week, he was still able to push though his pick for a kindergarten teacher from Orlando, Fla. By the last week in August, the district had signed off on his choice of a vice principal from the Bronx.

In the end, Glover took just one teacher from the pool—one with excellent references—for a supplementary instructional position. Two of Quitman’s previous teachers whom Glover brought up on disciplinary charges and did not want to rehire are being sent back, since they are legally required to have an opportunity to improve in their old positions before they can potentially be stripped of tenure.

Glover is grateful for the support he received from Superintendent Anderson’s administration, which approved 15 external candidates and funded a new administrative position. He brought in three teachers from Florida, one from New Orleans and three from New York state. The new staff includes a children’s book author and the founder of a nonprofit serving children of incarcerated parents. Last year’s vice principal was promoted to be the new “chief innovation officer” overseeing building operations and literacy and math programs.

Citywide, 50 percent of 1,229 instructional vacancies were filled by candidates principals chose, according to a letter Anderson sent to principals that was released by the teachers’ union. Another 20 percent were filled by principals picking from existing candidates, and 20 percent were forced placements.

“No one is more frustrated than I am that we cannot simply allow for selections made exclusively on quality and fit—but that’s not the way it works under state law,” Anderson wrote in the letter. “We did everything possible to allow for as much principal choice as possible without breaking the bank or the law.”

Tatana Pitts, 39, moved to Newark from Miami over the summer and will teach seventh-and eighth-grade math at Quitman. Pitts grew up in the Czech Republic under a communist system where “to make it somewhere, you had to push yourself harder than everyone else.” She said she is inspired to work at Quitman because “here we are in the United States where you have so many opportunities, but these kids don’t get to see it.”

To get hired—or rehired—at Quitman this year, Glover made everyone go through a group interview session in which he played two videos.

The first was a clip from the HBO series The Wire, in which middle school students in inner-city Baltimore dominate the room as a new teacher tries to teach fractions. Colleagues later advise him that “you don’t teach math; you teach the test” and “the first year isn’t about the kids; it’s about you surviving.” Such a scenario, though fictionalized, has been all too common at places like Quitman.

The second was the true story of a middle school in Tucson, Ariz., that has successfully turned itself around. According to a student, the stereotype of failure “pushes us harder, makes us want to prove them wrong.” An administrator speaks of the “moral imperative” to give children what they need.

After the screenings, Glover divided the teachers into groups to discuss what they’d seen. The candidates with a collective sense of purpose were invited for a second round.

Rosemary Coyle, 28, from another Newark school that closed, said she was so inspired by Glover’s passion during her interviews that she “screamed and yelled” when she received her transfer papers to teach seventh- and eighth-grade social studies at Quitman. “I thought,” she said, “maybe we would have a chance to excel.”

Staffed to succeed

To make a school succeed, put a highly effective teacher in every classroom. Glover has learned that a measure so simple in theory can be enormously complex in practice, particularly when hiring effective teachers first requires the removal of ineffective ones.

Tatana Pitts, who moved from Miami over the summer and will teach math at Quitman, meets students at the back-to-school barbeque. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

In May, as Gov. Chris Christie made the case for reforming New Jersey’s tenure law during a speech in Jersey City, he mentioned a public school teacher whose removal a few years back took 17 months and cost $450,000 in legal fees. Christie said that the teacher came from Newark but did not name his school. It was Quitman.

Glover arrived just after that teacher finally left the school. He inherited other teachers who were not producing results. For his first two years on the job, a number of teachers on his staff struggled to keep students engaged.

“Students were working, but they weren’t learning,” Glover said. “And I don’t think teachers knew what that looked like. There’s that term ‘ritual compliance’ … I think teachers were continuing to focus—I don’t think they knew they were doing it—on ritual compliance.”

Despite extensive teacher training, the school’s test scores remained dismal. This year, Glover is hoping to take professional development to a much higher level.

Last week, as the custodial staff scrambled to prepare the building at Quitman, the teachers gathered in a muggy basement lecture hall at nearby Central High School. Glover had them evaluate themselves against the school’s core tenets, from data-driven instruction to a mindset of continuous improvement.

Regarding high expectations for student behavior, he asked, “How many have that on a lock?” Most hands went up. But is it high expectations if you belittle a child? Walk in front of your class as students trail behind in the hallway?

“Sometimes we say it, we write it on our bulletin boards, but we don’t live it,” Glover said.

Regarding high levels of student engagement, he asked again, “How many have that on a lock?” Again, most raised their hands.

“I want you all to put your hands down because I have yet to see it, and I’m not being disrespectful,” he said. “High levels of student engagement, it’s not easy. We’re going to work on that together and challenge each other.”

This summer, Christie signed into law a tenure reform bill including new annual evaluations for teachers and principals and a provision making it easier to remove teachers after two consecutive years of negative evaluations.

But the bill, criticized by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and others for not going far enough, did not change anything for Glover this year.

Searching for a new home

As part of reform efforts, Newark schools ran a new online system over the spring and summer that allowed any teachers unhappy with their placements to easily look for a match elsewhere. At Quitman, many of the teachers Glover did not want to hire back didn’t want to return anyway—Glover had not been shy about the demands in store—and they requested in-district transfers.

The back-to-school event took place outdoors as repairs were finalized inside the building in preparation for the school’s opening.(Photo by Amanda Murphy)

Seven teachers Glover would have rehired also asked for new placements. Some were wary of the extra hours and pressure involved in working in a renewal school, and teachers union leaders are wary generally of the renewal school reform process.

“I’ve stopped calling them renewal schools and started calling them dream schools,” said Joseph Del Grosso, the Newark Teachers Union president. “There hasn’t been a lot of planning; there haven’t been a lot of discussions about what constitutes a renewal school … I think it demonstrates one of Newark’s systemic failures that they continue to repeat over and over again, and that is rushing into things without planning them.”

Del Grosso said he couldn’t understand how the district could justify the spending on outside hires when hundreds of teachers with satisfactory ratings remained without placement. “What’s the logic?” he asked.

As of last week, the union reported that 490 of Newark’s 4,000 teachers were in the unassigned pool, a figure Anderson said was inflated. This week, the district said the number was down to about 200; union officials concurred that there had been a flurry of placements over Labor Day weekend.

While teachers in the pool were reluctant to speak on the record, Del Grosso said they were facing enormous stress and frustration.

“I felt very degraded and very underrated,” said Cynthia Wade, a music teacher and union vice president who finally was assigned to a school a few days ago. She said many principals favored young recruits, and “experienced  teachers were left until the end for placement.”

The district asked renewal school principals to bring back 50 percent of their previous staffs, to avoid having too much change for children who often lack continuity in their home lives. Glover would have met that target had everyone he extended offers to accepted. As it turned out, 44 percent of his staff is returning. “I’m worried about kids adjusting,” he said, “but if the teachers are on point, the kids will quickly gravitate.”

A chaotic summer

Erskine Glover’s only time off this summer was a few days to take care of his wife after she had rotator cuff surgery. Back at Quitman, phones rang incessantly as two regional summer school programs and a recreation program operated out of his building.

Veteran teacher Angela Johnson (front) will mentor Tiffany Arce, a new recruit. Both teach early childhood education. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

Each of the summer schools had a separate principal and separate front office staff, which created widespread confusion. There was a secretary who would not allow a returning Quitman teacher to use the photocopier since the paper came from the summer school’s budget, and the time Glover sat waiting in his office for a teacher who was told he wasn’t there.

The district invested heavily in physical upgrades and new technology for the renewal schools this summer, which Glover appreciated—except that much of the work had to happen hastily or in late August because of all the activity.

One morning Glover arrived to find classrooms painted the wrong shades of green, yellow and blue. A shabby home economics classroom being converted into a pre-k room was in shambles in early August, with stoves pulled out of the walls. “Four weeks,” Glover said with a sigh as he looked at the mess.

Last week, Glover had to turn the school’s grand re-opening for the community into an outdoor barbeque since the building was not ready.

Numerous complications got in the way of the 10 days of professional development for teachers before school began. Glover did not want to start before he was done hiring, so those brought on board last wouldn’t enter already behind.

A game of touch-football at the back-to-school barbeque. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

What’s more, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge over the additional work renewal schools were asking of teachers over the summer; Glover made attendance optional and paid staff for the hours, but at least one other principal had characterized the time as mandatory.

Glover also was awaiting word on the Newark Global Village School Zone, a partnership with New York University that has provided Quitman with extensive social services and professional development in the past few years. Three of the other seven schools in the zone were closed this spring and all but one other principal turned over, causing the initiative to be re-evaluated. “We are very hopeful that we’ll have an ongoing partnership,” Anderson said.

Making a first impression

In early August, Glover convened a few days of brainstorming sessions with his instructional leadership team, including teachers, the technology coordinator, and the social worker, plus a consultant the district provided.

On a Wednesday morning, Glover entered the classroom with a turquoise rolling chair he’d pushed down the hall piled high with binders and books: Teach Like a Champion, Fires in the Middle School Bathroom, Driven by Data, and his recent personal favorite, The Pedagogy of Confidence. The walls were covered in poster-sized paper with learning goals they had been working on for each grade. (Second grade: Alphabetize to the third letter; tell time on the hour and half-hour; choose the correct word to complete a sentence.)

How would they change the culture of the school? How would they signal that things are really different this year?

“People will be quick to say it’s the same-old, same-old,” said the consultant, Dorian Burton.

“That is what people are saying,” Glover replied. “How is this different than when we walked out June 24?”

Students and parents will immediately notice the new paint in the office, cafeteria and classrooms and the new technology, which includes SMART Tables or SMART Boards in nearly every classroom, more laptops for grades five to eight, and iPads in autistic classes.

Beyond the physical, suggestions ranged from designating parent leaders in each classroom to naming different parts of the school after businesses and regions of the world. The team decided that all students will establish goals for their learning and behavior for the year, with little ones checking from a list and older students writing their own. They will keep portfolios to document their progress.

There’s talk of changing the school name, but the majority of 50 parents who attended a recent community meeting on that topic opposed the suggestion.

Glover has charged the new music teacher with writing a school song, a challenging assignment given that Quitman might not stay Quitman. Glover’s suggestion is QUEST Global Village Academy. The acronym would stand for Quitman Unifying Educational Environment around Science and Technology—or something like that. He’ll sort out the details if the suggestion gains momentum. For now, the district has changed the school name from Quitman Street Community School to Quitman Street Renew School.

Should the mascot stay the peacocks? What should be the procedure for collecting parent feedback? Every detail was up for discussion.

The drilling went deeper still last week as the staff finally did gather for professional development. Glover divided the teachers into groups to brainstorm: What does a culture of caring look like, and how do you create it?

How do you create a strong culture in the classroom, in the hallways, in special activities? How do you celebrate students’ milestones even if they’re getting on your nerves? Quitman’s basketball and cheerleading teams are number one in the city’s elementary division, but how do you get attention for the competitive accomplishments of the robotics team and the cinematography club? Why would a parent opt to send a child to Quitman over a charter school?

“You get one chance to restart a school like you get one chance to make a first impression,” Burton told Glover on that initial meeting day. “This is your first impression.”

Mix and match

Late on the morning of August 24th, about 30 adults in business-casual attire signed in to the Quitman visitor log. The new teachers, still awaiting their school IDs, gathered in the lobby with a palpable mix of first-day excitement and jitters.

Parent liaison Stephanie Ruff collects paperwork for students to receive free and reduced-price lunch. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

“I’m young. I’m open-minded. Just point me in the right direction,” said Giovanni Mavilla, 33, a new sixth- and seventh-grade math teacher.

The social worker, CaMisha Hill, came in and led them to the cafeteria, newly repainted in the school colors of ivory and blue. The scene was a little surreal for the veterans coming in. “It’s a lot of new faces,” said Joyce Henry-Faller, a reading teacher and the union representative. Angela Johnson, a prekindergarten teacher, said she’d never seen so many changes in her 18 years at the school.

Charlette Givins, a special education teacher, pranced in practically giddy, liberally dispensing hugs. “I’m back!” she announced. “Oh, I’m back! … I see a lot of new faces. Let me go mingle.”

Hill and another veteran, Christina Patterson-Bright, began taping pieces of paper on everyone’s back with names like Cher, who would need to find Sonny, and Jelly, in search of Peanut Butter.

“Good morning, everyone,” said Hill, one of a handful of recruits Glover was able to bring in the previous year. “If you notice, you have a paper on your back. Does it say ‘hit me’? No, it says ‘choke me, spank me, pull my hair.’ ” Seriously, now: she instructed them to work the room to find their pairs with questions like, “Am I a cartoon character? Am I a woman? Do I drop it like it’s hot?”

While they’re at it, she said, get to know each other: “What did you have for dinner last night? Are you lactose intolerant?” OK, maybe that’s a little too personal. How about, “What grade will you teach?”

Glover was pleasantly surprised to see two teachers there who had just gotten contracts from the district; he had not yet been informed that their hiring was approved. “I’m pretty excited,” he said watching as Lois Lane found Superman and Beyoncé found Jay-Z, and then the pairs introduced each other.

“I’m Aimee,” said one of the teachers in a See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil trio. “I believe I’m middle-school science.”

“I hope you’re middle-school science,” Glover said.

In one of his signature stylish suits, this one paired with a lavender bow-tie, he stood to welcome them. “I’m gonna tell you,” he said, “it’s great to have a good team.”

They all had the option to choose another school, he said. If they aren’t on board, they still can. To succeed, he told them, they all need to move in the same direction: “There is no room on this boat, ship, plane—I like planes better because they go farther—for us to be going in different directions.”

He reminded them that they’re all on a one-year contract and said he doesn’t have much room for error. When someone inquired about school hours, he replied that “in our interviews, we all discussed what the expectations will be.”

What are his expectations? “We will be effective. We will be on point. We will be what everyone believes a great academic institution should be,” he said. “We need to do a great job for our children.”

And with that: “I welcome you to the 2012-2013 school year. Please give yourselves a round of applause.”

Sara Neufeld is a Brooklyn-based writer who has spent the past 12 years covering and working in public education. She reported about schools for The Baltimore Sun and San Jose Mercury News, and contributed to the new book The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools.

A version of this story also appeared in the New Jersey Spotlight.

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The stuff of dreams « In the Zone

[…] and choosing your own teacher candidates for your school.  The Hechinger Report is running a series following Principal Erskine Glover of the Quitman Street Renew School in Newark, NJ, as he wades […]

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