Report: Many officials willing to replace half of staff to turn around schools

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 5:23 PM

Education officials across the country have replaced the principals and at least half of the staff in about 150 struggling schools to obtain federal aid, the Obama administration disclosed Thursday.

In several hundred other cases, principals have been replaced and other major steps taken as part of the administration's unprecedented $3.5 billion campaign to rejuvenate thousands of the nation's lowest-performing schools.

The initiative, which reflects President Obama's get-tough policy on school reform, is likely to be central to the coming debate in Congress over revision of the No Child Left Behind law.

Thursday's report on the school improvement grant program shows that despite protests this year over proposals to fire large numbers of teachers in Central Falls, R.I., and elsewhere, many state and local officials are willing to replace half or more of a school's faculty in an effort to turn it around.

What's more, some of those turnaround attempts are moving ahead without opposition from teachers unions.

On Dec. 1, the president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a tour of G. James Gholson Middle School in Prince George's County.

The Landover school, which has failed to meet academic targets for the past eight years, won a $2.7 million turnaround grant. This fall, it has two new co-principals, and half its staff is new. Three other county middle schools - Benjamin Stoddert, Drew Freeman and Thurgood Marshall - are on a similar path.

Van Roekel said Thursday that his appearance at Gholson was not meant to endorse a fire-the-faculty strategy. But he said, "I talked to the local [union] there and was impressed with the level of collaboration and parental engagement."

He said the NEA, with 3.2 million members, in general prefers other strategies for fixing schools besides staff replacement. But he added: "We're not going to ignore kids in any school. The success of the students is what we have to focus on."

Many other schools nationwide targeted for major shakeups are represented by the 1.5-million member American Federation of Teachers.

Duncan said he was pleased at the high level of participation in the school improvement campaign. "The story is that there hasn't been screaming," he said. "There hasn't been outcry. Folks are just doing the hard work together. Folks are taking this work extraordinarily seriously."

Education Department data on the initiative, which is funded by the 2009 economic stimulus law, offer the most detailed look yet at efforts underway to overhaul (and in some cases shut down) at least 730 low-performing schools in 44 states.

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