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Innovation program will let schools tinker with hiring, evaluations, grievances

Schools that participate in a new program run jointly by the education department and the city teachers union will be able to experiment with new ways of evaluating teachers, handling labor disputes, selecting principals, and using technology in classrooms or for teacher training, according to a letter with new details sent to schools on Friday.

In a sign that the city will be open to wide-ranging changes, the letter says that city and union officials would “consider seeking relief from the state” if schools’ plans run up against state laws, such as those dealing with student testing or teacher evaluations.

The letter from Chancellor Carmen Fariña and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew asks any schools that are interested in the program to submit forms by this Thursday. By then, the schools must be able to list which contract rules or department regulations they are looking to alter. The schools must also describe how their administrators and teachers have collaborated previously and how interested their staff members are in participating in the new program.

The quick turnaround time for schools looking to participate in the program, which was established in the teachers contract that was ratified just last week, is one of several tight deadlines that schools must meet as they start to carry out the contract’s new rules and try to take part in its new initiatives.

City and union officials have ballyhooed the program as a way for district schools to take advantage of the flexibility that charter schools enjoy in order to try out new ideas.

“Of all the breakthrough ideas in the new contract, this one in particular has incredible potential to empower educators and their school communities,” read Friday’s joint letter.

Officials have already begun reaching out to individual schools or groups of schools with similar approaches that they think would be a good fit for the program. The contract sets a goal of enrolling 200 schools in the program over the next five years, but the letter makes clear that the first batch of schools will be small, since they have had limited time to come up with ideas.

Schools that express interest in the program by this Thursday will be told by the following Monday if they should submit “brief” applications, according to a UFT timeline. Schools will be notified by June 20 whether a joint city-UFT committee has approved their proposals.

If a school’s plan is approved, the principal and at least 65 percent of the staff must vote to move forward with the plan.

Here is the full letter that the Department of Education posted on its internal website on Friday (the union sent a similar letter to its school chapter leaders):

Dear Colleagues, We are pleased to invite you to apply to participate in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program. Of all the breakthrough ideas in the new contract, this one in particular has incredible potential to empower educators and their school communities. The opportunities for innovative practices PROSE will provide are based on our shared belief that the solutions for the challenges faced by our city’s schools can be found within our school communities themselves, rooted in the expertise of those who practice our profession every day. The PROSE program may not be right for every school. Many of our schools are thriving just as they are. At some schools, however, staff, leadership, parents, and other stakeholders want to work together to create and expand innovative approaches for supporting student success. For those schools, PROSE offers the ability to alter some of the most basic parameters by which schools function, which are currently defined by the collective bargaining agreement and by Chancellor’s regulations – including but not limited to the ways teachers are selected, evaluated, and supported; programming for students and teachers; the handling of grievances at the school level; the selection of the principal and other administrators; and the use of technology to support teacher development and student learning. The UFT and DOE would also consider seeking relief from the state when worthy plans cannot be implemented under current statewide regulations. Schools that are interested in implementing the PROSE program beginning in September 2014 must submit a letter of intent by June 12. We encourage groups of schools to apply together using one letter of intent; however, each school’s School Leadership Team, principal, and staff must vote to approve the model individually. While the PROSE program will eventually accommodate up to 200 schools, we expect that a smaller number will be approved in this initial round through an expedited application process. The key for successful participation in the PROSE program will be the extent to which schools’ proposed initiatives are driven by teachers, school leaders, and other school community members, working collaboratively to focus on excellence for students. Proposals will be submitted to a central committee staffed equally by the UFT and DOE, and only the plans which come from school communities with a proven record of collaboration and a strong potential to impact student success will be accepted. Accepted proposals must then be approved by at least 65% of the UFT members who vote at the school, as well as by the school principal. Whether you are interested in applying for this year, are hoping to use 2014-2015 as a planning year, or are just interested in more information, click here . During the 2014-15 school year, the DOE and UFT will offer a series of planning meetings and workshops which will offer information about the program. We are encouraged by the enthusiastic responses we have already received from many schools about PROSE, and are looking forward to working with our city’s educators and school communities to launch this exciting new program. Warmly, Carmen Fariña Chancellor Michael Mulgrew President, United Federation of Teachers