Cardozo High School is undergoing substantial construction. The modernization effort will cost the nearly 100-year-old school about $100 million. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson called it a “fresh start” and a “momentum-shifter” for Cardozo Senior High last month when administrators removed nearly half the staff at the school.

Henderson had used her power to “reconstitute” the struggling school, requiring the entire staff to reapply for their positions. It is a dramatic response to chronically low achievement, built on a philosophy that has driven D.C. school restructuring in recent years, first under Michelle Rhee and now under Henderson: Clear out poor educators and handpick a set of new ones to transform a school’s culture and performance.

Federal policymakers also embraced this approach under No Child Left Behind, the sweeping 2002 law that named reconstitution as an option for turning around low-performing schools. But the District’s efforts to remake schools this way have largely failed to produce improved test scores, suggesting that replacing staff is not by itself a reliable route to addressing the challenges of high-poverty inner-city schools.

Rhee and Henderson have reconstituted more than two dozen schools in the past five years — including Cardozo, which was last remade in 2008. Of the 18 D.C. schools reconstituted between 2008 and 2010, 10 have seen their standardized test scores decline further. Two of the schools have closed. Six have improved.

While test scores can be a crude measure of progress, school and city leaders use them as a key metric in judging schools.

Teachers say the District’s mixed record with reconstitution is a sign that urban schools and students face complicated problems — such as rampant truancy — that can’t be solved by trading one set of teachers for another.

“It seems like we’re always being told it’s our fault, like we should be superheroes,” said one Cardozo teacher who was rehired in May and who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their jobs. Reconstitution “doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of issues outside the control of the teacher.”

Henderson said she agrees that reconstitution alone is not enough to ensure improvement. But she said the system has learned from its mistakes, and she continues to believe that remaking a school’s staff is the best way to jump-start change.

“We have not always done reconstitution well,” Henderson said. “But reconstitution, coupled with a leadership change at the right time in a school’s history, can have tremendous effects.”

Wheatley Education Campus in Northeast is one school where reconstitution marked the beginning of substantial improvement. Principal Scott Cartland arrived at the school in 2008, fresh from a post at a school in affluent Northwest Washington.

“When I went into that building, I had never seen anything that was that chaotic and broken,” Cartland said. “I was so in over my head.”

Cartland replaced 80 percent of the staff, reconceived the literacy curriculum and poured resources into mental health and social workers. Working with an outside partner, New York-based nonprofit Turnaround for Children, the school connected particularly troubled students with a community health organization.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson speaks before the D.C. Council in this November 2012 file photo. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

And perhaps most important, Cartland said, the faculty reached out to families and worked to establish trust. “You have to pay so much more attention to relationships in a place like this,” he said.

Wheatley’s student proficiency on math and reading tests has nearly doubled since 2008, to 28 percent. “We have lots of work to do, but we’re a school,” Cartland said. “We’re able to teach.”

But Wheatley’s gains are not typical. Many other schools either stagnated or slid backward. At Ferebee-Hope Elementary, which is closing in June, test scores have dropped 15 percentage points since the school was reconstituted in 2009. At Anacostia High, which has operated in partnership with a charter school since it was reconstituted in 2009, proficiency rates have dropped from 18 percent to 15 percent.

School systems across the country have been experimenting with reconstitution since the 1990s, hoping to radically improve schools similar to Cardozo. Like the District, experts say, they have often been unsuccessful.

“This is a very difficult improvement problem in which you probably should expect more failures than successes,” said Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “These are not places that suddenly got bad. Over the decades, we’ve thrown every conceivable thing at these schools and they’ve failed to improve.”

The Obama administration has distributed more than $3 billion in stimulus funds to jurisdictions that agreed to use one of four approaches — including a version of reconstitution — to turn around low-performing schools .

Bryan Hassel of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consultant group that specializes in school turnarounds, said there hasn’t been enough research to know for sure what makes a reconstitution work.

“Reconstitution is just like any other school reform: It’s not some kind of magical dust that automatically produces great outcomes,” Hassel said.

Cardozo, in Northwest, will serve as a test case for Henderson’s confidence in the school system’s ability to produce more reliable results through reconstitution.

One-third of Cardozo’s students are learning English as a second language, one-third are in special education and many others are far behind grade level or are involved with the juvenile justice system.

Rhee reconstituted Cardozo in 2008 because of persistently low test scores. Scores have improved since then but only marginally. Three-quarters of students are still not proficient in reading and two-thirds are lagging in math.

Teachers say the problem is systemic, with students arriving as freshmen unprepared for high school.

“We have kids who are put in school who are not prepared to go to the next grade,” said one Cardozo teacher who was not rehired and who is now looking for another job. “They’re 14 and still reading at the second-grade level.”

Truancy is widespread, with one-third of students missing more than a month of school last year. Four in 10 students graduate on time.

“Academically, some students just don’t take it seriously, so there’s a lot of disruption in classes,” said senior Samera Paz, 19. “The students just don’t listen.”

For this year’s reconstitution, D.C. schools officials have turned to a new principal, 37-year-old Richmond native Tanya Roane, who took the helm at Cardozo a year ago.

Two administrators were hired to spend the year helping Roane plan for the school’s transformation. But the two worked for less than three months before “they disappeared overnight,” according to a teacher.

The school system had planned to pay the administrators’ salaries with federal Race to the Top funds, meant to improve struggling schools. But the city agency that doles out federal education grants ruled that Cardozo didn’t qualify for the money because the school’s graduation rate wasn’t low enough.

The work of designing a new school model was then left to Roane, who was also running the school day to day and finishing a doctoral dissertation.

Henderson, who has the power to reconstitute any of the dozens of low-performing schools across the city each year, said she wanted to give Roane the chance to choose her staff as the school begins a major transition. Faculty are preparing to move into a newly modernized building in Columbia Heights. The high school is also absorbing sixth- through eighth-grade students from Shaw Middle at Garnet-Patterson, which is closing in June.

Roane spent three days conducting 15-minute interviews with Cardozo staff before deciding who would stay and who would go. She said she wanted employees who shared her vision for a “high-performance culture.”

Cardozo staff said some of the principal’s decisions made sense and others seemed inexplicable. “We are losing consistent, methodical, strong teachers,” said one returning teacher.

Staff members who were not rehired were “excessed,” which means they have 60 days to find another position within the school system.

Those who don’t find a job within that period and who are rated effective or above on annual IMPACT evaluations can choose to take a $25,000 buyout or a grace year of employment to continue looking for permanent positions. Those rated below effective on their annual IMPACT evaluation will be fired.

One teacher who was rehired said it makes sense to give the principal latitude to shape her staff. But no one has yet demonstrated how the reorganized school will be any better at dealing with the underlying challenges at Cardozo, the teacher said.

“If Cardozo is going to turn around, you can’t just do simplistic things like reconstitute,” the teacher said. “Reconstitute, but then do dramatic things, do innovative things . . . and I haven’t seen anything innovative.”

Roane developed a PowerPoint presentation to communicate her broad vision to the staff: more rigorous instruction, more collaboration among teachers, more classroom technology in everyday lessons. Clear behavior expectations and disciplinary consequences, fewer work sheets and “absolutely no negativity” about students’ ability to learn.

But the principal said she is still working to develop a concrete approach to some of Cardozo’s more stubborn problems: How to stem truancy? How to make sure that freshmen who are years behind in reading are literate by the time they graduate?

Roane said she is confident she can turn the school around.

“We are going to be a high-performing school,” she said. “I’m not going to settle for anything less.”