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Holyoke Educators Ask BESE to Change Morgan Turnaround Plan

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester named the Morgan Full Service Community School in Holyoke a Level 5 “chronically underperforming” school on October 30, 2013. He later appointed the Texas-based company Project GRAD USA as the school’s receiver. Morgan will be Project GRAD’s first attempt at turning around a K-8 school.

Chester Funding Priorities for Morgan School

The commissioner released a final turnaround plan for the school on April 18, 2104. The Holyoke Teachers Association filed an appeal with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on May 19 seeking modifications. An appeal hearing will be held on June 9. While the commissioner is responsible for creating the plan, BESE is ultimately responsible for the quality of education provided in this and other Level 5 schools.

Morgan is the fourth poorest school in the state: 98 percent of its 400 students are eligible for free lunch and nearly half (47 percent) are English language learners. Despite these challenges, Morgan student MCAS scores were rising between 2008 and 2010. Notably, the scores took a downward turn after the state intervened and designated Morgan a Level 4 school in 2010. That intervention coincided with significant teacher turnover. The HTA is greatly concerned that the commissioner’s Level 5 plan for the Morgan will lead to even more turnover, creating instability for students who have the greatest need for stability and to be taught by experienced teachers. Once the commissioner’s plan was released, only 7 of 43 Morgan teachers reapplied for their jobs. We believe that the onerous working conditions, top-down management style, lack of attention to instructional priorities, and lack of a clearly reasoned plan to address the needs of Morgan’s students will lead to continued turnover of staff in this school.

We are also deeply concerned that so much of the turnaround funds allocated to the school will be going to pay the management fee for Project GRAD and to fund other outside vendors and new administrative positions rather than directly addressing pressing needs of the students.

FINANCES

  • Financial plan. The Achievement Gap Act mandates that Level 5 plans include a detailed financial plan. The commissioner’s financial plan is vague and lacking in detail, containing no line-item budget articulating how funds will be spent. The MTA had to file a public records request to find out how the money will be allocated, and was concerned to learn that the commissioner had had information about how the monies will be allocated that was never made available to the Local Stakeholders Group. What we learned was alarming. For example, the budget allocates $200,000 to Project GRAD for a Management Fee for “planning” plus a $50,000 payment to the Project GRAD project director for activities  from January – June – this in a school that has lost 7 teachers over the past three years and where insufficient resources affect classrooms every day.  Also, Project GRAD has requested for school year 2014-15 a management fee of $350,000 plus a salary to a Project Director of $130,000. In addition to substantial sums of public money for its own management fees, travel fees and Project Director salary over the three –year term of the plan, Project GRAD has requested hundreds of thousands be paid to other consultants to perform work at Morgan.

INADEQUATE CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION RESOURCES AND PROGRAMS

  • ELA and Math. Despite Morgan’s low test scores in ELA and math, the commissioner’s plan fails to identify any specific standards, curricula or strategies to be used to improve student achievement in these subjects. Since Morgan is Project GRAD’s first elementary turnaround school, there is a concern that, despite being richly compensated, GRAD is unprepared to deliver the necessary education to Morgan’s students. The HTA recommends that the plan be modified to include specific strategies and curricula for ELA and math.
  • ELL and SPED students. Like ELA and Math, the plan is deficient in the areas of ELL and SPED. The plan does not identify meaningful steps to address the achievement gaps for ELL students – an explicit statutory requirement - despite the Morgan’s large ELL population. The plan is also silent regarding specific resources that will be utilized to help students with disabilities to succeed. The HTA recommends that plan include information about specific strategies that will be used to address the needs of these students.
  • PreK program. This year, only three of the nearly 60 students entering kindergarten knew their letters. Morgan teachers and other stakeholders agree that the single greatest need is for a strong, universally available preK program so that Morgan students arrive at school ready to learn. The commissioner’s plan calls for a preK program, as well, but only to be created space-permitting – and space at the Morgan is lacking. The stakeholders had an alternative plan that would have freed up space in the school. The commissioner rejected that plan,  so it is now incumbent on the commissioner to identify space or funding to rent new space for a preK program. The HTA recommends that a preK program be a required component of the plan.
  • Wraparound services. The Morgan is a “full service community school” and its wraparound social services and counseling have been among the school’s success stories. Unfortunately, the commissioner’s plan does not endorse continuation of the successful programs that have been implemented. The HTA recommends that the current wraparound services be continued in this plan unless the commissioner can offer a justification for why one or more of the current services should be dropped or replaced.
  • Class size. Morgan has several large classes, including current kindergarten and Grade 4 classes with 26-29 students. The plan does nothing to addresses this problem, even though research shows that high-need students, in particular, benefit academically from smaller class sizes. The HTA recommends that additional staff be hired to ensure small class sizes in grades K-5.
  • Schedule. The plan lacks a detailed explanation of what the student or teacher schedules will include, and thus it is impossible for the stakeholders or BESE members to determine if the planned use of the time will lead to the rapid academic achievement of students. The HTA asks for that schedule details be provided by June 15.

WORKING CONDITIONS

  • Lower rate of pay violates the statute. The plan requires teachers to work 31 percent more time – including significantly longer days and 10 [?] additional days per year – without providing fair compensation for those additional hours. In fact, since so much money is spent on outside consultants the school is not left with adequate resources to offer pay commensurate with time required. The result is an unlawful net reduction in the rate of compensation.
  • Dispute Resolution. The plan eliminates the current collectively bargained grievance procedure and replaces it with a process that gives “substantial deference” to the receiver and deprives educators of a right to have disputes resolved by an impartial third party. The commissioner offers no rationale as to how depriving teachers of their due process rights will lead to the rapid academic achievement of students. The HTA recommends restoring the fair and impartial process contained in the HTA contract.