Over the last year, Youngstown Schools have embarked on a reform plan to raise student test scores and improve the district’s academic rating. Six months in, ideastream’s Michelle Kanu reports the district has started by replacing most of the students and the teachers at one of its low performing high schools.
Teenagers can get pretty rowdy when they’re ready to leave school for the weekend. But on this Friday afternoon, Chaney High School students are calm and quiet as they shut their lockers for the week.
English teacher Angela Dooley says the peace in the hallways is one of the biggest changes she’s noticed since the superintendent converted the campus into small magnet schools at the beginning of the year
Dooley: “I remember the third week of school and the teachers were in the hall and were saying, you know, we haven’t even heard anyone using bad language! Because before, the kids and their mouths, you’d just want to go and take a shower. But it wasn’t that way, it was a different kind of kid.”
Dooley says fights used to break out regularly between the kids who were bussed to Chaney from Youngstown’s east and west side neighborhoods. Not anymore. Now, kids attending the new Visual and Performing Arts or STEM academies housed at Cheney have to apply for the privilege.
And they’re not the only ones; teachers must apply to teach there as well.
Those were the decisions of Connie Hathorn, the superintendent who took over the Youngstown Schools in 2011. Chaney high school was plagued with low test scores and poor attendance, prompting Hathorn to apply for a federal School Improvement Grant that allowed him to replace the principal and fifty percent of the staff.
Hathorn: “I didn’t want to maintain status quo. Because it was based on seniority, and the number of years you have, if you’re going to be up for a position you can get it. I didn’t want someone there just because of the number of years, I wanted someone there based on their skills and their desire to be there.”
Hathorn says he had the power to bypass the union's seniority rules because state law allows districts in academic emergency – which Youngstown was in at the time - to exert certain management rights. And while he knows the move was unpopular, Hathorn is unapologetic.
Hathorn: “I realized that I cannot make everybody happy. If I try to do that I’m not going to make anybody happy. So what I have to do is try to make decisions based on what’s best for kids.”
Will Bagnola—president of the union representing teachers—is decidedly unhappy with the change, and he says many teachers are too.
Bagnola: “Those who were displaced from Chaney and were either made to bid on their job or chose not to go through the process because it was something that was unilaterally imposed, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Back at Chaney High School, Angela Dooley is one of the few teachers who worked here before it was reorganized. Dooley says she’s passionate about teaching so she was willing to reapply for her job, but she was concerned that having tenure didn’t automatically ensure she could keep her position at Chaney.
Dooley: “It kind of bothered me, you know, because I had done the work. I had never had a poor evaluation—it was hard. You know it’s been hard, it was a hard summer, waiting to find out what are they going to decide and where will I be.”
Dooley says the teachers who were chosen to work at Chaney have had to be flexible as the school’s new programs ramp up, and there have been some logistical rough patches. But so far, she says, the results are positive. She’s especially impressed with what they call a “behavior contract” signed by not just the students, but their parents too.
Dooley: “Attendance has improved. The kids come because they want to be here and their parents want them here. That contract for grades and attendance for the most part has been very effective.”
Eliyah Conner is a tenth grader in the performing arts academy. She says this year her classmates are more excited about learning and she feels the teachers are more supportive.
Conner: “It’s a lot different. We get a lot more attention than last year. We didn’t have the after school tutoring, or the teachers who would sit down and take the time, so I think that it’s a lot better.”
Chaney High School still faces several challenges—for one, the principal resigned abruptly in January citing health concerns. And the school is under scrutiny to demonstrate better results when the first of the new crop of students take the state achievement tests this spring.