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Officials: Temporary stay on turnarounds could derail process

City officials are fretting that even a temporary halt to hiring at 24 turnaround schools will weaken their ability to carry out a key piece of the improvement strategy for those schools: recruiting top-quality teachers.

On Tuesday, when the Department of Education agreed to halt hiring in the schools for at least a week during the first round of a union lawsuit, officials said no hiring would be happening yet anyway. But they are worried about what would happen if Judge Joan Lobis grants a temporary restraining order extending the freeze, as she did two years ago when a union lawsuit over school closures came before her.

If that freeze extends into June, officials say it could hurt the schools’ chances of attracting and retaining the most qualified teachers in the applicant pool.

When the judge decides whether to grant a temporary restraining order, she will weigh the likelihood that the unions’ case has merits — but not the merits themselves — and also the likelihood that a delay would harm the schools. Department officials seem likely to argue that the schools would not be able to recover from a slowdown because teachers may not be able to hold out until June if they receive other job offers before then.

But the request for a restraining order is not unexpected: The UFT vowed to sue almost as soon as Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plans in January, and seeking a temporary restraining order is the first step in many legal fights over school policy.

Administrators at schools across the system have already begun posting job openings for the next school year, and teachers who want to move between schools have already begun applying for them. Teachers at turnaround schools have told GothamSchools they are also reviewing job listings at district and charter schools, and some are weighing options to leave the school system.

“Our directive is to hire the best possible staff that they can,” Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said at last month’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, where the turnarounds were approved. “Anyone who turns away a qualified teacher is making a mistake.”

One GothamSchools reader, a teacher, wrote in a comment on Tuesday that the delayed hiring process has motivated teachers at at least one turnaround school to apply to jobs elsewhere. “I have zero desire to stay in my current ‘turnaround’ school. No one has given me the indication that they want me to, and I am too good to wait for the DOE and the union,” to resolve the lawsuit, the teacher wrote. “You are driving away the good teachers this city needs and keeping the ones who don’t care.”

Gillian Smith, the principal of August Martin High School, one of the turnarounds, told me yesterday that she has not begun posting job openings, and doesn’t feel the time-crunch yet.

“There’s still some time,” she added.

Speaking to a group of educators last night celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week, Smith said her main focus since she came to August Martin last month from a job as principal of the Facing History School in Manhattan has been supporting the current teaching staff as it prepares for Regents exams.

“It’s my job to come back and make sure my teachers get professional development that they have time for curriculum planning, that I bring people in, that I actually take ownership and accountability for the longterm vision of how we’re going to get there,” she said. “I work for teachers. I have to make sure I prepare them and that they can meet the standards.”

Smith, who was appointed principal of August Martin by Department of Education officials in an abrupt, mid-year leadership change, did not mention the turnaround process she is slated to oversee, or her hiring plans. But she noted that she is not happy with everything she is seeing in the August Martin classroom, but interested in helping the struggling teachers improve.

Recently she observed a tenth grade classroom where a teacher asked students to spend a 45 minute long period writing a paragraph, and told them they could finish it for homework.

“I said so they’re not going to write the 45 minutes in class, not even the paragraph in class? She said ‘no,'” Smith said. “To me, that’s not her. Part of it is her, but it’s also about who’s educating her. Who’s helping her become more of a professional?”

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