• Debate over 'contract schools' eclipses broader St. Louis schools plan

    April 11, 2014 12:00 am  •  By Elisa Crouch ecrouch@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8119

    ST. LOUIS • City school district leaders say they’re stunned by the level of scrutiny one paragraph has received in the superintendent’s 88-page plan for restructuring the school system.

    The paragraph proposes hiring nonprofit contractors to operate chronically low-performing schools — and it has eclipsed what district leaders had hoped would be a broader discussion about transforming the city system.

    The concept of “contract schools” angers the American Federation of Teachers, whose local leaders normally are in agreement with Superintendent Kelvin Adams’ reform policies. In fact, at two public forums on the transformation plan, nonprofit school management was the single focus of public feedback.

    Yet, the idea is one that district leaders say is perhaps the least significant piece of Adams’ overall transformation effort.

    “Everybody is focused on something that may never happen,” said Rick Sullivan, president of the district’s Special Administrative Board. “That’s the irony of this.”

    Nonprofit management of schools is a concept large urban districts are increasingly using to try to improve chronically failing schools. Once hired, the nonprofit companies are free to do what superintendents often cannot by replacing the entire staff. The building’s teachers become employees of the contractor, not the school district. There’s no guarantee the faculty would be represented by a union.

    Critics, including American Federation of Teachers Local 420, hold up examples of where contract schools haven’t worked. Proponents point to cities where they have.

    If the transformation plan moves forward, St. Louis Public Schools would hire outside school operators only in very limited circumstances, Sullivan said. Only buildings that fail to meet certain performance targets next school year and thereafter would qualify — and only if the school district finds the right partners.

    “Unless if we find that organization that has a proven track record that has been able to do it, I do not believe this board is ever going to contract with an organization,” Sullivan said.

    District leaders aren’t backing down from the general concept. The idea has support from a number of school reform advocates and Mayor Francis Slay.

    “People are supportive of new and innovative strategies,” said Robbyn Wahby, Slay’s education liaison. “The vast majority of St. Louisans really do want to see something happen.”

    A BROADER PLAN

    The concept is part of a much broader proposal to shore up a district that is at risk of losing state accreditation in two years. It would formalize a four-tiered system that diverts central office attention away from the best performing schools to those at the bottom.

    Under the proposal, the district’s central office would take a hands-off approach to the 14 best schools in the district, giving principals more control. Some of these schools — such as Kennard Classical Junior Academy — post test scores that exceed those of some of the best schools in St. Louis County.

    The next three levels of 53 schools would have varying degrees of accountability and oversight. The bottom 18 of them would be directly supervised by Adams, who is already in those buildings almost daily.

    Nearly 6,300 children — or roughly a quarter of those in the district — attend the “superintendent’s zone” schools. Half of them are two years or more behind in reading. Ninety-seven percent of them live in poverty.

    Adams wants to shift $6.4 million in district savings to beef up in-school tutoring, provide teachers with more training in reading instruction, hire more reading and math specialists, and add social workers and counselors.

    “I was hopeful we’d have some real feedback on that,” Sullivan said. “A lot of that does plow new ground. It’s going to be hard for us to know how important and how effective these additional services will be.”

    Instead, the idea of contract schools has provoked the greatest debate.

    ‘CRUISE MISSILES’

    Adams’ proposal would allow the district to hire one or more nonprofit entities to run any of the superintendent’s zone schools if they fail to meet improvement targets next year.

    But it might not happen if district leaders are not satisfied with the turnaround firms that have responded to the district’s request for proposals that went out in March.

    Mary Armstrong, president of the AFT Local 420, said she sent several “cruise missiles” by text to Adams after the contract schools idea became public last month.

    “We have a vested interest,” Armstrong said of the union’s 1,800 members. “If this school district is not successful, then we won’t exist.” And if the contract schools are successful, she added, “we still wouldn’t.”

    Armstrong is pushing for more of a community schools approach that would turn low-performing schools into service centers that also address health and educational needs of students and their families.

    This type of approach is proving successful in Cincinnati. St. Louis already has several schools that offer health services and evening programs. But the number of these full-service schools has dwindled in recent years because of a decline in federal grants.

    Expanding full service schools is not under consideration, Sullivan said.

    “I don’t know that I saw the resources directed to the students in the areas where they most needed them,” he said.

    Armstrong contends that contract schools are more often failures.

    But Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, said “it depends on the contract.”

    Knowles’ organization has analyzed Chicago’s contract schools since 2005, when the district became one of the first nationwide to hire nonprofit operators. Overall, the worst schools in Chicago have gone from underperforming to halfway-to-average, Knowles said. “That is not insignificant. They are moving the needle, but they’ve got a long way to go.”

    The Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools has a study underway to analyze how well the strategy has been working nationwide.

    For the broader St. Louis plan to take effect, the Special Administrative Board first must approve it. The board had aimed to vote on the proposal Thursday. But the debate over contract schools has resulted in delaying the vote until May 1, Sullivan said.

    “We never got to the whole core of this thing,” he said. “It has caused us to probably delay action on this and find a better way to communicate this entire plan to the community.”