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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

NTN Contract Update

So, just to be clear, we have an answer from the District staff about the differences between the requirements of the NTN Contract and the story that the staff has been telling the Board and the public about STEM.

The differences are real.

The contract requires the District to create two completely separate schools each with their own individual identity, identitification code with the state, facility, staff, principal, and IT administrator. We have been told that the two STEM academies will share an identity, identification code with the state, facility, staff, principal and IT administrator.

The contract strictly limits enrollment of each school to 450 for a total maximum of 900. We have been told that the capacity of STEM is 1,000 students.

The contract requires that all core classes be taught on campus. We have been told that the students can leave the campus for Running Start classes.

When asked about these discrepancies, it took the staff several days to respond. The eventual explanation was that these differences were discussed with NTN, and NTN agreed, in those discussions, to accept the District's intended performance in deviation from the contract language. This explanation fails to satisfy. It fails for three reasons. First, if there were were negotiations and agreements that differ from the language of the contract, then those terms should have been the ones codified in the contract rather than the ones that were codified. That is, after all, the purpose of a written contract - to codify the results of a negotiation and agreement - not to codify anything else. Second, any such oral agreements outside of the contract would not be enforcable if they contradicted the written agreement. Third, the contract has a clause which specifically says that any discussions or agreements outside of the written language of the contract are void.

Just to be clear and fair. The contract does not require perfect performance from the District. The District is required to make their "best effort", but Exhibit C provides a better measure of what is acceptable and what is not. Exhibit C provides descriptions of three levels of District achievement: At Risk, Emerging, and Advanced. The District is required - by the contract - to reach at least the Emerging status on all measures. NTN could find the District in breach of contract if it fails.
District commits to use its best efforts to attain in all categories at least the status of "emerging" (and with the goal of attaining in all categories the status of “advanced”) in accordance with the School Success Rubric standards attached hereto as Exhibit C.

For one of the measures of school culture and autonomy, the Emerging level is "School has a unique identity." The At Risk version of that effort is "School has failed to develop an identity separate from other institutions." If STEM continues to be one school, then the District will have failed to achieve Emerging status on this measure. That failure will put the District in breach of contract and would make the contract voidable by NTN. The contract could be terminated:
At the non-breaching party's option, effective immediately, if a party materially breaches, violates or otherwise fails to comply with any of the terms contained in this Agreement and fails to cure such breach within sixty (60) days of receiving written notice of such breach from the non-breaching party;

Would a family with a student at STEM have standing in a Court to appeal the Board's decision to violate the terms of the contract? The law on the appeals is that anyone who is aggreived by a decision (or non-decision) of the Board can appeal. Is having only a 1/1000 share of the principal's attention instead of a 1/450 share sufficient cause? Is putting the NTN contract at risk sufficient grounds for an appeal?

Should it even come down to a legal appeal in Superior Court? Shouldn't it be enough that we, as citizens, expect our government bodies to fulfill the letter and spirit of the contracts they sign? Isn't it enough that we demand they have the legal acumen not to enter into contracts that they - erroneously - believe are modified by ancillary oral agreements? More than anything, isn't it enough that not a single member of the Board ever asked a single question about any of these differences between the contract language and the public information about STEM?

In the end, this isn't about whether or not the District will fulfill the terms of the contract or if NTN will terminate the agreement due to the District failure to fulfill those terms. The critical issue here isn't the contract at all - it is the obvious failure of the Board to conduct the minimal due diligence of reading the contract they were approving.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Charlie, could you name the time and place where you were told that any class at Cleveland would be taught in a method other than project based learning? Or a time when "wall-to-wall" project based learning was not explained as every course using project based learning?

Charlie Mas said...

Catherine, that's an excellent point. I'm not sure why I had this idea in my head.

Upon review of the materials from the District, I see that they all say that ALL courses, including instrumental music and world languages, will be taught using the Project-Based Learning instructional strategy.

Thanks for the correction!

Charlie Mas said...

I have updated the post to remove the erroneous paragraph.

Again, thanks for the correction!

Charlie Mas said...

Hey, Catherine, are you Catherine Brown?

Melissa Westbrook said...

I received a reply from Dr. Enfield on my concerns about the NTN contract. However, I am with Charlie; a letter of agreement is not a contract if the contract language supercedes anything following. Also, all my concerns were not addressed.

I need to sit down with the contract, the agreement and the presentation Dr. Enfield referenced to see if I can figure out what exactly will be happening. Charlie is also right that the contract has specific measures for SPS to try to achieve and if that doesn't happen in year one or two, they could find the district in breach of its contract.

I think the district is, of course, trying to shake us off. Anything that is costing the district this much in time and resources does deserve close scrutiny.

Charlie Mas said...

STEM has an updated FAQ page.

Changes include additions about transportation, one school, and Running Start.

Interesting point: it says "Each STEM student will be issued an Orca public transit card (just like students in every other Seattle high school)."

Does this include students who live within the walk zone for Cleveland?

Charlie Mas said...

Hey, Catherine Brown, could you name the time and place when the differences between the public statements made about STEM and the terms of the NTN contract were explained?

Differences such as the contractual requirement that each of the two schools have a separate identity and the District's statement that Cleveland will remain one school with a single identity?

Differences such as the contractual limitation of 900 on enrollment and the District's claim that enrollment could grow to 1,000?

Differences such as the contractual requirement that all core classes be taught on campus and the District's statement that stdudents could take core classes as Running Start off campus?

Differences such as the contract's Entire Agreement clause that nullifies any discussions or agreements not written into the contract and the District's claim that through discussion they reached agreements with NTN that allow the variations listed above?

When were those differences publicly discussed and explained? When was the Board advised of those differences?

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm a little out of my knowledge base about how the contract negotiations went. This year, I am the Academic Dean at Cleveland, where I have been a teacher for 6 years. I don't work at the district office, and am not really able to speak on behalf of my bosses. With the slight discomfort that most of us might feel in talking publicly about our workplace, I will share the following.

1. Since we first began designing the model for STEM @ Cleveland, the building-level folks have been talking about two separate STEM-focused academies co-located on the Cleveland campus. The NTN contract names some particulars--state ID code, etc.--that don't seem inconsistent with what we've talked about. I believe every bit of STEM material mentions the two academies (Engineering and Life Science), and I know we have spoken at meetings about the separateness of the schools, the advantages of that, and some of the trade-offs. The distinctness of the schools was no shock to our staff. I thought we had communicated this to families at the meetings as well, but clearly some here had a different experience, and it is good to know that we should be more clear about this.

2. On the 900 versus 1000 students, at the building level we've always gone with the 1000 student enrollment, and when someone from NTN was visiting recently, we were all discussing the same number. Again, I was not present at contract negotiations and would not claim expertise on contract issues generally.

3. On the Running Start thing, I do not know, but wonder if this is a misunderstanding of the contract language, because a very common part of the NTN model is to incorporate either on-site or nearby college classes for upperclassmen and women. This was the case at every NTN school I visited or heard about. So I don't know why they would be discouraging Running Start. Their rep was very excited about our partnership with South Seattle Community College and the on-site math class they're offering this spring on our campus.

On the PBL issue, thank you for the prompt correction. And thank you for raising issues that push our thinking about how to design the program well.

SolvayGirl said...

Catherine
Thanks for being so forthcoming. Will the two academies have two principals as the contract as published on the website states? We all understood about the two academies, but thought they would be under the one umbrella, sharing some common staff, and certainly a principal. What about language teachers, etc? Can they be shared? The contract makes it appear that they can't.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Solvay Girl. Part of my reluctance in identifying myself as a Cleveland staff member is my worry that people will ask me questions that I don't have enough knowledge to answer, especially systems-level/School Board questions. Also, to be clear, my views and opinions are not representative of SPS, or Cleveland, or any such thing--I'm a person with my own biases and blind spots.

In my attempt to answer your question about principals, I'll quote Dr. Enfield's response to Charlie's question, because it matches my own understanding of this matter completely:

"Both the District and NTN understand and agree that the two academies will meet the requirement for separate "schools", that they will have separate assistant principals but a single principal, that except for a limited number of electives (such as foreign language, art and music) the teaching and office staff will serve only one of the two academies."

Regarding shared classes, as stated above, classes such as music and world language and a few others will be shared across academies (i.e. no student locked out of them because of which academy they are in). To my knowledge, NTN has been supportive of this, and I have seen examples of "shared resources" in schedules on other "co-located" campuses in their network.

A detail we have shared at community meetings, but which bears repeating: the only 9th graders that will be scheduled into World Language classes next year will be those who are continuing their studies from middle school.

Hope this helps.

SolvayGirl said...

Thanks again Dorothy. I am still perplexed as to why the District did not have these variances written into the contract. it's pretty standard business practice. Verbal understandings don't hold much sway in a court of law.
I know that Princess Shariff is a strong principal (I was impressed with her work at Meany) and hope she will be able to make STEM a success.

Charlie Mas said...

Just to be clear

I have no problem with how STEM will be organized. I don't care if the two academies are separate or not. I don't even care if there are academies. In fact, I find it restrictive. Why shouldn't the students be able to take whatever classes they want without regard to the academy that houses the class? I certainly don't care if the academies have separate principals. In fact, I think it would be stupid for a school of 1,000 to have two principals.

I don't care if there are 900 or 1,000 or 1,200 students at STEM. It's not an issue.

I don't care about ANY of the discrepancies between the contract terms and the public information about STEM - at least not for their own sake.

I will say again that STEM is likely to be my daughter's first choice for assignment and I would love it if she enrolled at the school.

There are two issues of concern here.

The first is the Board's failure to do their job properly and conduct the minimal due diligence of reading the contract prior to approving it. Had they read the contract they could not have failed to ask about the discrepancies. The absence of their questions about the discrepancies is ample evidence that they either did not read the contract or - worse - read the contract and still didn't ask about the discrepancies.

The second area of concern lies with the performance of the District central staff who did such a poor job of negotiating and writing the contract, did such a poor job of informing the Board, and did such a poor job of informing the public. For Susan Enfield to explain away the discrepancies by claiming to have outside agreements with NTN is simply unacceptable.

Once again we see that the failures, the arrogance, and the dishonesty in Seattle Public Schools is located almost exclusively in the JSCEE.

Also, I am grateful to Ms Brown for her candor, her dedicated work, and her participation. It's refreshing to staff willing to honestly engage the community.

Charlie Mas said...

Ah! One last thing!

There never was as much community engagement as promised with the creation of the STEM program.

There were supposed to be all of these oppportunities for members of the community to participate in the development of the program, but there were, in fact, no more than one or two.

That was a disappointment.

Dorothy Neville said...

Solvaygirl, you must mean Catherine here for the thanks. I also appreciate her candor.

The STEM school idea does sound good. I just can't get over the lack of due diligence in accepting the contract as written. My reading of the contract makes it pretty clear that NTN is a business with a product. It wants to grow. To do so, it needs current clients to provide them with two things: data to help improve the product and data to help market the product to new school districts. Really, it's fidelity of implementation on steroids. If I ran NTN, it's exactly what I would want as well in the contract.

The variances that the the district has a verbal agreement on interfere with that fidelity of implementation. That's why I cannot see NTN really being all that open to the variances.

Plus, NTN schools seem to be concentrated in high poverty settings. Cleveland is perhaps a good foot-in-the-door for them for the lucrative STEM magnet school for middle class kids. That may be a reason they're willing to discuss verbal variances, but wouldn't they want fidelity here for marketing purposes?

I also cannot get over the fact that I really thought we were getting robust curriculum with the contract. I suppose I was imagining that. How can you possibly train everyone to teach in a particular way, using a particular piece of software (a Web 2.0 collaboration tool) but then the teachers have to create/modify all the curriculum themselves? Sure, they claim that the NTN Commons has vetted projects. But nowhere am I seeing that those vetted projects fill out to make full courses. And remember, these vetted projects were created and vetted in current NTN schools, which don't really have great track records. AND the Board was told that 2/3s of the schools were STEM focus. But really much fewer. So how much of the vetted projects available are actually useful?

It sounds like it could be an exciting teaching opportunity for the right kind of enthusiastic person who is not afraid of Web 2.0, being flexible and creative and working many extra hours. Many extra hours. It also could be an awesome place for students, if a small number of flexible, patient and enthusiastic students apply to be the guinea pigs.