Cleaning Slates

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

None of which is exclusive to San Francisco. Some version of reconstitution has been employed around the country, mostly in urban, inner-city schools where all else has failed. Often it involves a district or state takeover of the school.

As many of those reconstitutions have shown, the act of shaking things up, especially in a historically troubled school, is likely to produce some result -- something arguably being better than nothing. But whether reconstitution can produce lasting results is a question that's beginning to trouble some of the move's original supporters on the San Francisco Board of Education. "The Board of Education decided to move ahead with reconstitution because we were at a point in time where we were trying all kinds of things, and it seemed that we couldn't make advances in the academic improvement of our youngsters," says Leland Yee, a board member who voted against reconstitution for the first time earlier this year. "Do we need to do reconstitution anymore? More fundamental, does reconstitution work? I don't know if the district has the sufficient research design in place to answer that question. I can't support that anymore. I don't think that there's the research and data to back it up."

Mary has taught for more than three decades. Like most teachers interviewed, she will not allow her real name to be used for fear of reprisal.

More than 15 years ago, she chose to work at a tough school in a tough neighborhood in San Francisco because she felt that she was needed there. All of the evaluations she has received say that she's an excellent teacher. So do her peers.

But when her school was reconstituted, Mary didn't reapply.
"You don't feel like your work is finished and at the same time somebody's saying that you're not good enough and that your work didn't count," she says. "That's such a degrading thing. I felt like, 'Well, if they don't feel like I'm good enough maybe I ought to go somewhere else.' "

When Mary was growing up, teaching was an honored profession. So, about 30 years ago, she became a teacher.

But the game has changed since then.
Over the years, more and more of Mary's students came from homes with disintegrating families, where parents were dead or incarcerated. Discipline took more time, more energy; class sizes swelled.

Incrementally debilitating as those changes were, she says, reconstitution was the last straw:

"It takes something out of you that you never get back. Even though I still teach, and I like the kids, and I enjoy teaching, there's something that was just pulled out. You don't have that burning spirit. It's degrading and demoralizing. No matter how hard I work, no matter what I do in the classroom, I never feel like I was as good as I was before that. Going through this process just does that to you."

When a school is reconstituted, all of the staff is booted out -- the good and the bad. But the union contract prevents teachers from being fired. So, the displaced are invited to apply for open positions at other schools within the district, or reapply for their old jobs.

"Lots of times you have teachers who have gotten excellent evaluations for years individually," says Joan-Marie Shelley, president of the United Educators of San Francisco. "They are collectively found guilty. They go out to interview at other schools and get the message that they are damaged goods."

This game of musical chairs among the teachers is made possible, in part, by an early retirement plan that purged about 300 teachers from the district in 1994 and will likely do the same in 1998. This may get more complicated soon, however, especially for high schools. A teacher with a high school credential cannot teach elementary school and vice versa (both may teach in a middle school). And there are fewer high schools; therefore, fewer spots available as more of them are reconstituted.

Meanwhile, shortages of math, science, and bilingual teachers are chronic. Which is little wonder. The highest starting salary for a teacher (typically available only for such specialists) is less than $29,000 in San Francisco. By contrast, computer engineers (generally math and science majors) start at about $60,000, which is about $10,000 above the highest teacher's salary in the district -- paid after 24 years of service.

As reconstitution continues, the following scenario becomes more familiar to teachers:

Maria (also not her real name) loses her teaching position through reconstitution. She is hired by another principal in a school that has been threatened with reconstitution and is trying to get its act together, which would indicate that she is viewed as someone who could help the school improve. When that school is reconstituted, however, Maria once again finds herself out applying for a job.

The result, teachers say, is that good teachers are the ones on the run, avoiding the schools that need them the most because they don't want to go through reconstitution again.

"What this has done to morale in this district is devastating," says school board member Jill Wynns, a longtime teacher supporter. "It's easy to say that morale is not as important as student achievement, but I don't think you can have one without the other. We've undercut the staff's ability to do the work that they do.

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