By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
All the teachers at Akron's Buchtel High School and Perkins Middle School will have to reapply for their jobs at the end of the year.
Only half of them will be retained.
The other half will be transferred to other district schools in a sweeping plan district officials announced Wednesday to comply with a federal mandate to reform failing schools.
Buchtel and two alternative schools for children with disabilities and/or social and emotional problems Bridges Learning Center and the Akron Opportunity Center are among the bottom 5 percent in the state for academic performance.
Buchtel and Perkins, which will merge in the fall of 2012 in a new building, both received the second lowest rating on last year's state report card: academic watch.
Bridges serves children with special needs in grades K-8 who also have behavioral problems. The Akron Opportunity Center serves children in grades 6-8 who can't be in regular classrooms because of emotional and social problems. Both alternative schools received the state's lowest rating: academic emergency.
Although a plan to reform the schools has been in the works for almost two years, the results of last year's report cards forced the district to choose among four options, which included closing the schools or turning them into charter schools.
Akron chose from two other options that involve substantial instructional and staffing changes. No teachers will lose their jobs because of the changes, although many will have to accept new assignments.
Akron will seek a waiver to keep the principals at the three schools, as they are relatively new to their jobs.
When the combined Buchtel-Perkins opens in the fall of 2012, Buchtel will belong to a network of 62 New Tech High Schools across the country that focus on problem-solving skills and computer
literacy. Students will get laptop or tablet computers that will provide them 24-hour-a-day access to the school's online resources.
The teaching approach focuses on projects that capture students' interest and require them to draw on knowledge and skills from different subjects.
The district will pay New Tech Network $500,000 for a 41/2-year contract to set up the school, train the teachers and support the new computer technology.
Akron is applying to multiple sources for grants and hopes to compete for $5 million over three years for Buchtel, as well as for smaller grants for Bridges and the Akron Opportunity Center.
Bridges and the Akron Opportunity Center also will use the problem-solving lessons in science, technology, engineering and math developed at the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM school.
But unlike that specialty school, which accepts students through a citywide lottery, the new Buchtel will continue to be a neighborhood school.
The New Tech Network began in the mid-1990s in Napa Valley, Calif., and has opened schools in 14 states across the country, including Texas, North Carolina, Michigan and Indiana.
Cleveland opened two New Tech high schools last year: New Tech @ East Tech High School and Garrett Morgan New Tech High School.
''We had a team go up and visit the New Tech at East Tech,'' said Akron's assistant superintendent, Ellen McWilliams. ''They're having significant success in a very short time in this one year of implementation.''
The U.S. Department of Education has approved the New Tech approach as a model for districts forced to reform failing schools.
''Rather than us look at trying to create a model and try to sustain it and learn it and push it out ourselves, this fit our desire in Akron to do something bold, innovative,'' McWilliams said.
Not new to 'tech' label
It's not the first time the ''tech'' label has been applied to Buchtel.
In the district's 1995-96 school information guide, Buchtel is described as the ''Natural Science & Technology High School.''
Such magnets were supposed to draw students into the Buchtel cluster, but an Akron Beacon Journal series in 2000 revealed the opposite had taken place: Motivated parents and students took advantage of open enrollment policies to flee for better schools, and several teachers followed them.
A University of Akron professor said the phenomenon resulted in the cluster becoming a ''reservoir of mediocrity and failure.''
The district has long promised to do something substantial to improve the Buchtel cluster.
''I think over the years we've tried different reforms at Buchtel,'' McWilliams said. ''But we've just been tweaking or adding some reforms or doing some additional professional development that just is pushing around the edges of what needs to happen.''
City Councilman Russel Neal Jr., whose Fourth Ward includes the Buchtel area, worries that such programs fade when the outside money dries up.
''There have been many different initiatives, but when the dollars run out, it seems the commitment wanes and goes by the wayside,'' Neal said.
He said he found out about Wednesday's news conference too late to attend and wasn't involved in any discussions about the new approach.
Project GRAD Akron, an organization that has been working in the cluster since 2002 to improve college attainment, this year is celebrating the awarding of $1 million worth of scholarships since 2006.
Jacqueline Silas-Butler, Project GRAD's executive director, said she wasn't included in the planning. She said she has a lot of questions about how the new high school will work.
''We were not consulted. However, the superintendent has assured us that Project GRAD will continue to be adistrict-supported program,'' she said.
The Buchtel PTA wasn't involved in the planning, either, but President Diana Autry said she's thrilled with the plan.
''In the '90s, there was a flight of excellent teachers from Buchtel, and many of them ended up at Firestone,'' Autry said.
She hopes the new interview process will get rid of the teachers who don't want to be there and attract new ones who do.
''The core group of teachers up there at Buchtel deserve this support,'' she said. ''I think when they get surrounded by more colleagues who are just as passionate and dedicated as they are, that's going to make a world of difference for the school.''