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Robinson overhaul aims to light way for TPS

Changes in works at struggling school


The changes at Robinson are necessary for improvement, says Jim Gault, TPS interim chief academic officer.

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Major changes are planned for one of Toledo's lowest-performing public schools, in a move that district officials hope can be a model for school reforms across the city.

The former Robinson Middle School is being overhauled. Its entire staff was removed, and it will open in the fall as a K-8 school. Hiring will be done by the school, not the district, in a departure from traditional Toledo Public Schools practice.

A performance-pay model will be tried out at the school. An intensive reading program will be added. A summer camp will debut next year. And Robinson will be one of two schools to develop a "schools-as-hub" model that partners TPS buildings with community-based organizations.

The changes are extensive, district officials said, but necessary.

The school, attended overwhelmingly by low-income and minority students, for years has had low scores on state standardized tests.

"Obviously, we have struggled at Robinson," said Jim Gault, Toledo's interim chief academic officer. "And we know that by doing what we've always done, we are going to get similar results."

Changes were always going to come to Robinson.

The district's transformational plan eliminates middle and elementary schools and replaces them with K-8 schools. Robinson would have many new teachers, grades, and a different student body, regardless of the overhaul.

But the planned changes at Robinson go far beyond those at the district's other former middle schools.

The whole staff at Robinson last year -- about 30 teachers -- was removed, Mr. Gault said, as was the principal. About 25 teaching spots are open for the fall.

Reconstitution of an entire school's staff is not uncharted waters for the Toledo school district.

In 2008, after years of failing test scores, TPS remade Pickett Elementary. More than half of that school's teachers were replaced by either new hires or teachers from other schools. A new principal and assistant principal were put in place.

Since the change, incremental growth has occurred in Pickett's test scores. But the remake wasn't flawless, and TPS officials are hoping to avoid mistakes made in 2008.

The Pickett move was largely a reactionary, last-minute decision. After kicking around ideas for months, the district decided to reconstitute the staff.

Teachers were told on the next to last day of school that they could no longer work at Pickett.

The changes at Robinson, in contrast, have been under consideration for months.

The district committed to remake Robinson as part of the federally funded Race to the Top program, and teachers, administrators, and district staff worked together on the new model.

"In Pickett, [the Toledo Federation of Teachers] entered into an agreement in reaction to what the district did," said Kevin Dalton, new president of the union.

"In this, we have been working in collaboration, designing the whole thing through," Mr. Dalton said.

The influx of new teachers into Pickett also had an unintended consequence. Those new teachers had no seniority in the district, and when layoffs came the next year, they were the first to go.

Pickett got a whole new crop of teachers in 2009; it's hard to build reform momentum when the churning of staff occurs.

This time, teachers must have at least five years in TPS to be eligible to apply at Robinson. That way, the new staff would be likely to be immune from layoffs. School administrators expect to have plenty of teachers who will apply for the jobs.

"We learned from that mistake," Mr. Gault said of Pickett. "We want to make sure they are a stable staff."

But the biggest difference between Pickett and Robinson is how staff members are hired. District administrators traditionally make staffing decisions in Toledo, and they did so at Pickett.

At the new Robinson, only the principal and lead teacher will be hired by the district, through a committee of district officials, administrators, and teachers. Everyone else -- from teachers to an assistant principal -- will be hired by that two-person leadership team.

Seniority won't come into play for hiring decisions. Teachers will be selected based purely on whom the school's leaders view as the best fits for the turnaround. Those leaders, in turn, will be held accountable for the school's results.

"With that privilege comes great responsibility," Mr. Gault said.

The changes aren't limited to hiring practices.

Robinson and the former Leverette Middle School will both test the school hub concept for the district.

In May, TPS and the United Way of Greater Toledo announced the program in which a nonprofit group will provide services such as medical and dental care and mental health and social services to the community from the schools.

The United Way is paying for the implementation and housing of the programs.

The school also will use the social and emotional learning program, which focuses on such things as student behavior, school climate, and parental approaches to improve academic performance.

The program is in use at two TPS schools, including Sherman Elementary, and is credited at least in part with academic progress at those schools.

Robinson will use a reading initiative called RAISE -- Reading Academy Intensive Support Education -- a third-grade reading program in use at five district schools and expected to garner significant test-score gains.

Next year, Robinson will hold a six-week summer camp for students, focused on academics and leadership strategies. The event could not be held this summer because the staff is not yet in place.

Robinson also will be a pilot school for the district in a performance pay model that has been developed by the Ohio Department of Education. The model uses student academic progress as part of the determination of teacher pay levels, instead of the traditional automatic longevity pay raises. The system hasn't been formally approved at the state level, but once it is, Robinson will be the first in Toledo to use it.

If these changes work, and Robinson produces significant academic progress, the model could be expanded to other schools.

"I expect and predict some good things coming out of Robinson," Mr. Dalton said.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: or 419-724-6086.

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