Seeking 'turnaround,' Georgia's Beach High School fires all staff

Beach High School in Savannah, Georgia, will fire all teachers and then rehire some as part of a plan to improve chronic low performance. The number of schools resorting to mass teacher firings is on the rise.

The entire staff of Beach High School in Savannah, Ga., will have to reapply for jobs in the district this summer under a “turnaround” plan to improve chronic low performance.

Despite the school’s academic improvement in recent years, Savannah-Chatham Public Schools superintendent Thomas Lockamy told staff Thursday that he had to take dramatic action to avoid a state takeover and to qualify the school for $6 million in aid over the next three years.

Of the 200-member staff, up to 49 percent could be rehired at Beach, and the others will probably find positions within the district, says public information manager Karla Redditte.

“The superintendent is very pleased with the staff – it’s not any fault of theirs,” she says. “It’s just a tough decision that he had to make.... He chose the turnaround model because he figured it would give Beach High School a clean slate.”

The other options for the worst schools – under guidelines from the US Department of Education – include closing a school altogether, turning it into a charter school, or replacing the principal and making a range of other transformational changes.

Teachers in Georgia don’t have collective bargaining rights, which may partly explain why this case is playing out less contentiously than a similar turnaround case in Central Falls, R.I.

The Rhode Island decision in February attracted protests from local and national union leaders after the entire high school staff was told they’d be fired and would have to reapply for jobs. Tensions ran so high there recently that a teacher was being investigated for hanging an effigy of President Obama in his classroom after the president cited the turnaround decision as an example of holding failing schools accountable.

A mediator could be involved in further negotiations between the Central Falls superintendent and the union to see if another school improvement model can be worked out to avoid the mass firings.

Typically, about 20 to 30 schools each year undergo turnarounds involving the firing of the staff, says Justin C. Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education & Research Institute in Boston. That number is on the rise, he says, because of stimulus dollars and new policies at the federal level focusing on improving the worst-performing schools.

“For years and years, we’ve sort of tinkered with low-performing schools, [but now] you have these examples where schools have had dramatically different results with the same children” after major interventions such as shaking up the staff, says Mr. Cohen, who previously ran the school innovation office in the District of Columbia.

When Principal Deonn Stone took over Beach High School in 2006, it had already been on the state’s needs-improvement list since 2003. She took it from a 49 percent graduation rate in 2006-07 to a 66 percent graduation rate in 2008-09, Ms. Redditte says. Among other improvements, participation in college-level Advanced Placement exams rose from 9 percent to 23 percent.

Neither Ms. Stone nor the teachers at Beach could be reached for comment Friday.

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