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Union, Boston School Dept. at odds over math tutors

The Boston School Department, as it attempts to prevent a state takeover of two underperforming schools, has run into opposition from the Boston Teachers Union over one turnaround strategy: bringing in math tutors.

The union is planning on filing a grievance over the tutoring issue, contending that anyone who fills the one-year positions should automatically become union members, said Richard Stutman, the union’s president.

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“The issue is we think we should represent the tutors, and they are being shortchanged salary and benefits,” Stutman said.

The tutors, who would make about $20,000 annually and receive health benefits, would work at the two underperforming schools at risk of a state takeover, English High School in Jamaica Plain and the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, an elementary school in Hyde Park.

The tutors are being overseen by Blueprint Schools Network , a Newton nonprofit with which Boston has contracted to help run the two schools for the next three years, at the recommendation of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Intensive tutoring is a key turnaround strategy employed by Blueprint, which is also working with schools in Denver and Houston. Other elements call for establishing a culture of high expectations, conducting frequent assessments, and extending the school day. The organization will also share in decision-making on the hiring of teachers and administrators at the two schools.

Lee McGuire, a School Department spokesman, said school officials have been “reaching out to the union for some time to talk about this issue,” and he also expressed optimism that common ground could be found, such as possibly having some teachers or aides do some of the tutoring.

He said that other turnaround schools, such as Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, use a combination of staff and outside partners for tutoring with great success.

It remains unclear how many tutors would be hired. The union put the number at 21 tutors combined for the two schools, but the School Department said it is still working on a final number with Blueprint.

The union is also raising questions about the School Department’s hiring of Blueprint without consulting staff, students, and parents at the two affected schools, and about the kind of bidding process, if any, that was used.

Stutman said the stakes were particularly high for English High School, which touts itself as the oldest public high school in America and has repeatedly been targeted by the state for academic interventions over the last several years.

“English High School has undergone three or four major transformations,” Stutman said. “Why should we have confidence this transformation will finally be the one that places English High on the right direction? What confidence do we have that the School Department would get it right?”

The School Department selected Blueprint from a list of seven state-approved turnaround operators, after state education officials warned Boston last fall that it may seize control of English and Elihu Greenwood this September if dramatic changes were not made to each school’s turnaround plan.

The two schools are among nine statewide that were declared underperforming three years ago. They are running the risk of state receivership because academic results have shown little, if any, notable improvements. In almost all cases, school districts have taken up the state’s advice of hiring one of its pre-approved turnaround operators.

McGuire said the School Department liked Blueprint because of the gains the organization was achieving at Denver schools, and because the organization uses strategies similar to other Boston schools that have orchestrated a rebound in student performance. The School Department will pay Blueprint $233,000 in the first year of the contract.

“We have confidence they will do a great job and help students succeed,” McGuire said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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