Cleaning Slates

Superintendent Bill Rojas is pushing a simple solution for troubled schools: Get rid of everybody.

Of course, Bill Rojas has never displayed timidity. He is more often brash -- a native New Yorker rather out of place in fuzzy San Francisco. And personality seems to play a big role here.

As a group, the teachers hate Rojas. That's mostly because of his push for reconstitution, but also because of an authoritarian management style that, they complain, makes them recipients of the process rather than participants. Principals, similarly, criticize his bent for directives rather than discussion. Education experts, by contrast, quietly empathize with a superintendent who's confronting what most are unwilling to touch -- a strong teachers' union in an inner-city school district.

The supe, meanwhile, believes that people think he's a jerk because he's "decisive."

So, unbowed in his first tour of duty as head of a school district, Rojas is making his mark with reconstitution. He's sold it to the school board. He's promoted it on the lecture circuit. He's even writing his doctoral dissertation on reconstitution, something that has prompted critics to question whether this is all one big research project for Rojas' own educational advancement.

When Rojas arrived in San Francisco in 1992, the groundwork for reconstitution already had been laid.

For starters, the district had for a decade been under a federal court order for desegregation and had been slammed for the perpetually low achievement of African-American and Latino students. In many ways, the court order became the superintendent's best friend. It authorizes reconstituting schools -- in other words, evicting teachers from their classrooms despite their union contract. And that, Rojas says, is vital.

"It's one of the few professions where you have tenure for life," says Rojas. "I wish I could say that I've had wonderful discussions with the union about it, but we've had no discussions. There's no changing on that. The reason I know there's no changing on that is that if I have to dismiss people in a contentious way for abuse cases, imagine when I'm just talking about someone who can't teach."

He's not alone in this assessment. It's open season on teacher tenure across the country. With growing fervor, reform advocates from the Christian right all the way to Jaime Escalante, whose teaching in Los Angeles was the subject of the film Stand and Deliver, have blamed the tenure system for the pubic schools' sclerosis. Tenure has been used as an argument for charter school and voucher programs and is central to many debates on education funding.

Teachers with tenure -- meaning that they have passed the district's two-year probationary period -- are protected by contract from being fired without due process, and from involuntary transfer.

"It takes about $100,000 and a lot of real good lawyering [to get rid of a tenured teacher]," says Rojas.

Union contract also precludes the district from sidestepping its standard wage scale by paying extra for special qualifications or based on merit. So Rojas is chasing the teachers around with the big stick of reconstitution.

"Some schools in San Francisco, Detroit, New York, doesn't matter where it is, obtain a dysfunctional organizational culture that becomes absolutely resistant to change," Rojas explains.

"On occasion, the trauma of going through [reconstitution] is unfortunate, but people do get with the program and understand the seriousness of it," he says. "It's not only important for them, but it's important for their colleagues."

And the reform is critical, says Rojas, for students.
African-Americans are lagging behind their peers on standardized tests by about a third. And Latino students aren't faring much better. The district hadn't done anything else that produced meaningful results for its poor and minority students, which was exactly the court's point in 1992. It's hard to argue against something when you're not doing anything better.

Shortly after the court sanctioned reconstitution and Rojas took the helm, the district instituted its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan (CSIP), which measures school performance by test scores, dropout rates, suspensions, and so forth. Poorly performing schools are given a year to improve or be reconstituted. And, some have.

Alvarado Elementary, Leonard Flynn Elementary, and Luther Burbank Middle schools, for instance, all managed to clean up their acts enough to pass muster with the district and avoid reconstitution. Five other schools did likewise. But another eight were not so successful and were reconstituted, beginning in 1994 with Bret Harte Elementary and Visitacion Valley Middle schools.

The decision to reconstitute a school is made by a review team consisting of Rojas, two assistants, and consultant Hoover Liddell, former principal of Wilson High School. It must also be approved by the Board of Education. The evaluation is based both on the hard numbers, such as test scores, and on less definitive measures such as student portfolios, the school's general plan, an oral presentation to the review team, and the general opinion of how the place is working.

The team looks at how involved students are in their work, what kinds of activities are going on in the classroom, and lesson plans and makes a judgment call.

If the vote is negative, the staff is tossed, and the cavalry arrives. The district hires a new principal, who hires a new staff, which may or may not include members of the existing staff. Class size is often reduced and a new structure imposed, like the "families" at Visitacion Valley.

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