State intervention: Coming to a school near you?

Connecticut’s education commissioner will announce as early as next week which low-performing schools the state will likely intervene in during the 2012-2013 school year.

As many as nine superintendents have offered up their schools for state intervention.

“We are considering how severe the problem is at the given school when making these decisions,” Stefan Pryor said Friday during an interview.

A Freedom of Information request to review the letters of interest from the superintendents went unanswered. Instead, during an interview Friday, Pryor listed the nine districts whose superintendents are seeking to join the commissioner’s network for the coming school year or the following year. Pryor declined to list specific schools.

lowest-performing schools

The districts include Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Haven, New London, New Britain, Norwich, Norwalk and Waterbury. Collectively, these districts house 23 of the 26 worst schools in the state. Pryor told school leaders at the Legislative Office Building this week that these schools would be given preference when determining his network of schools that will be overseen by the state.

Another 122 schools are eligible for state intervention because specific groups of students, such as black or Hispanic, are significantly underperforming on standardized tests or their graduation rates are low. No charter schools were included in the list of eligible schools provided by the State Department of Education, but Pryor said he is willing to consider them.

“We need to increase the level of intervention at a couple of our schools,” New London Superintendent Nicholas Fischer said.

The New London school district may have to lay off as many as 68 members, including many teachers, of its 427-person staff in the next school year.

Becoming a member of the so-called Commissioner’s Network “will make resources available to us,” Fischer said. “We want to expand the school day, but to do that, you need money to pay teachers more.”

Legislators have allocated $7.5 million to the state education department these interventions next year.

Pryor has the authority to intervene in up to 25 schools for the 2012-13 school year, but said he intends to intervene in only a “limited number.” The remainder of the interventions will take place during the following two school years, he said. He plans to ask the legislature for more money to do that.

While superintendents and school boards in the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts have overwhelmingly supported state oversight, union leaders have been apprehensive.

When designated a Network School, a teacher union’s ability to bargain can be significantly restricted if the commissioner and local board-appointed members of a “turn-around committee” cannot agree on a plan. Instead, for the first time, a new state law provides for a single arbitrator to “give the highest priority to the educational interests” when settling a dispute of what to include in a school’s turnaround plan.

Pryor said that in the first round of state interventions, in “most cases, it will be unlikely” that an agreement will not be reached. By law, Pryor can reject a proposed turn-around plan and send it to the arbitrator.

“That may be required in one case. We are considering that possibility,” he said.

Fischer said he doesn’t suspect that will be necessary in New London.

“The union works with us very cooperatively… But we haven’t reached out yet” about a New London school becoming a Commissioner’s Network School, he said.

Regardless of which schools the commissioner taps, every district is required to create a plan for their worst-off schools. This is required of schools because the state has won a waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind law.

If the commissioner approves the individual school’s plans, local district officials will be able to direct their portion of $17 million in federal funding to their new initiative. There is also $39.5 million in additional state funding for the worst-off districts and their lowest-performing schools.

“It is so important that we are deploying multiple strategies,” Pryor said.