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With ‘turnarounds’ coming, new school creation proceeds apace

Bronx assistant principal Michelle Vargas wants to open a school where teachers will have ample time to work together and students will benefit from her years of experience in the classroom.

But before she can get started, Vargas must persevere through the city’s new school creation process. She took the first step Thursday night by joining more than 400 other school leader hopefuls at a fair to learn about what the city wants to see in new schools.

Every year, the Department of Education opens new schools — more than 400 since 2002. Director of Portfolio Planning Debra Kurshan told fair attendees that the city intends to keep up the pace in 2011.

What’s different this year is that the city is telling wannabe principals exactly what kind of schools it wants to open, and where it expects to site them. The request for proposals released today lists schools identified as having extra space and schools that could be reopened with new leadership under new federal rules. This means that prospective principals have a clearer sense than ever before that they’re likely to be opening schools in shared space, or to replace long-failing schools through the federal “turnaround” process.

The formal request for proposals — itself a first — is the result of the department’s move to “tighten the screws” in a process that has happened several different ways in the past, said Paymon Rouhanifard, the new chief operating officer for the Office of Portfolio Development. Instead of having the career and technical schools office coordinate applications for new vocational schools, for instance, proposals for those schools will be considered in the same pool as proposals for new transfer schools and new early college schools. Last night’s fair also included charter schools, which do not follow the city’s rules for new school creation.

In addition, the timeline for proposals has been moved up, with prospective school leaders expected to submit a letter of intent by early June and a formal application by the end of July. In contrast, most of the schools opening this fall are the result of proposals submitted in December.

The accelerated timeline will allow prospective school leaders to have a chance to identify where they’d like their school to open and to begin building relationships with the community. “We wanted to start building relationships early in the process,” said Justin Tyack, the department official who oversees the structure of networks that supply instructional and management support to schools.

In some cases, the department is already saying what types of schools would make the best fit for each building. For example, the city says it prefers a transfer school or a school belonging to the new Innovation Zone for the Bronx’s Theodore Roosevelt campus, which already houses five schools. The list of spaces and their needs will be updated as the department meets with local parent councils, said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

At the fair, school leader hopefuls weighed the thrill of running their own school against the burden of developing a formal proposal, complete with a planning team and partner organizations, while continuing their current jobs. A small pot of federal funds is likely to help pay school developers for their time for the first time this year, Rouhanifard said, but the process is still onerous.

“Running the school is the easy part,” said Vargas, the Bronx assistant principal. “Developing it is what’s going to be hard.”

And she’s likely to have stiff competition. Last year, with fair attendance a third smaller, 115 people started the application process. The department interviewed 50 of them. This fall, 32 new schools are set to open.