East Palo Alto schools see flexibility as key to keeping good teachers from leaving

Rachel Spector (far right) laughs with a group of her students at Costaño School in East Palo Alto, where Spector teaches seventh-grade English and social studies. (Photo: Alexei Koseff/Peninsula Press)

The first time Rachel Spector taught in the Ravenswood City School District, she quit out of frustration.

Spector was hired at a K-8 school in 2007 as a Teach for America corps member. During her four years there, she said, she felt “squashed” by educational pressures to raise student performance on standardized tests, resulting from Ravenswood’s status as a failing district under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I felt that I was being forced into teaching a certain way,” Spector said. “I wasn’t trusted to develop my own methods of teaching to be the best teacher I could be. I didn’t feel respected.”

Spector said this rigidity sucked the creativity and fun out of teaching, so last year she began looking for a new job. Committed to serving the most needy kids, she took a position in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, closer to her home in the city. The move left her feeling even more constricted. “There was such an emphasis on test scores, I couldn’t teach anything else,” she said.

Now Spector is back in Ravenswood, as a seventh-grade English and social studies teacher at Costaño School in East Palo Alto. Her return is the result of a promise from Principal Gina Sudaria, who told her, “As long as you’re teaching the standards and you’re teaching at a rigorous level, you can teach however you want to,” Spector said. “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

“More and more, I’m the instructional leader of my classroom,” she added. “I haven’t been able to take that and really own it as much as I have this year.”

Greater input is just one strategy that schools in Ravenswood are exploring to boost teacher retention, which has been a priority for the past five years. Under a strategic plan developed in 2007, staff at all levels of the district are re-examining hiring practices and looking at ways to increase teacher satisfaction. The goal is to attract and retain the most qualified educators, according to Assistant Superintendent James Lovelace.

“Research tells us there’s nothing more important than who’s in front of the class,” Lovelace said.

Lovelace said the plan came about through Ravenwood’s efforts to improve student achievement. In those discussions, the stability of district staff was identified as a problem area. In addition to the natural turnover of teachers retiring or moving each year, the district was losing a large number who, he said, were not fitting with Ravenswood’s educational mission.

Data prior to the strategic plan was not available, but in the first three years after its implementation, teacher retention averaged 71 percent, according to Lovelace. This jumped to 89 percent after the 2010-11 school year and was at 82 percent last year.

During the same period, Ravenswood’s academic performance index (API) on standardized tests has steadily climbed by about 100 points. Though the district remains below the state target of 800, Lovelace pointed to the improvements as an encouraging sign.

He emphasized the importance of finding the right teachers to bring to the district in the first place. Ravenswood encompasses East Palo Alto and part of eastern Menlo Park, both low-income, predominantly minority communities.

“More than anything, it’s the identification of people who come to Ravenswood because they believe our children can achieve, not because they are doing good missionary work,” Lovelace said.

That belief is essential for motivating teachers in an under-resourced district, where pay is relatively low and 77 percent of students are learning English as a second language, he added. Those who are easily discouraged by Ravenswood’s challenges are the ones who do not last.

(With a starting salary of $42,460 in the 2011-12 school year, Ravenswood ranked 14th out of 22 school districts in San Mateo County, almost 20 percent lower than neighboring Menlo Park and Palo Alto, according to data from the California Department of Education.)

The interview process is now guided by the work of Martin Haberman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has researched selecting and preparing urban teachers. Haberman posits that certain characteristics of background and personality make an individual more likely to succeed in teaching at an urban school.

Rachel Spector reviews test answers with her English class. (Photo: Alexei Koseff/Peninsula Press)

Tami Espinosa, the principal at East Palo Alto’s Brentwood Academy, noted that because of funding uncertainty, Ravenswood usually cannot start looking for new teachers until the summer, long after other districts. A desire to work with an underserved student body becomes useful in choosing among candidates who are often inexperienced or have been let go elsewhere.

“You get leftovers. That sounds awful, but that’s what you end up with,” Espinosa said. “Having someone who comes to the team with a good attitude is going to impact how the school works all year.”

Ruby Dellamano, a veteran second-grade teacher at Costaño, stressed the importance of what happens at the school level.

“Our own happiness—I mean, coming to work every day and being happy—matters,” she said. “The more success you feel, the more inclined you are to stay.”

When she came to Ravenswood more than a decade ago, she said, she was warned against it because of dysfunction in the district. “I felt like I was so secure in my life, that the challenge of coming here wouldn’t be an obstacle,” Dellamano said. “But even that is only sustainable for a little bit of time.”

She credited Sudaria, who has been principal at Costaño for five years, for creating a school culture that is moving it forward.

“When you start to really share a common vision of what can happen, that’s going deeper,” Dellamano said. “Being able to go deeper into what we’re doing here is just another layer that maintains and sustains people physically here.”

Part of Sudaria’s philosophy is that good teaching requires constant self-reflection and development. “Sustaining effective teachers has a lot to do with filling their cup,” she said, “so they continue to grow and know how to respond to everyday challenges.”

Costaño uses research and training from outside resources such as the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, as well as a system of peer coaches that allows teachers at the site to learn from one another.

Third-year kindergarten teacher Mellissa Schmitz said she stayed at Costaño to get tenure because of these development opportunities. Not only have they allowed her to start working up the pay scale, but she is excited by the innovative practices the school is implementing.

“I feel like I’m part of something that is actually making great change within our educational system,” she said.

Sudaria also focuses on the role of collaboration at her school, in teaching as well as leadership. She said she rarely makes a unilateral decision.

“Teachers are the ones who are doing the groundwork every single day, so their input and their knowledge needs to be highly valued,” she said.

The staff is divided into five committees that meet weekly on topics involving curriculum, safety and parent outreach. Sudaria said that allowing them to be involved beyond their teaching or support role gets everyone more invested in the school.

Though she acknowledged that her management style might not work for everyone, Sudaria said she replaced only five of the school’s 67 staff members this year. Costaño has also seen its API jump from 612 to 783 in the past four years.

Espinosa, Brentwood Academy’s principal, agreed that collaboration is key to teacher retention.

“We need to be successful as a school, not just as individual classrooms,” she said.

Espinosa added that she wants to empower everyone at Brentwood, from the teachers to the custodians, and she believes most Ravenswood schools are heading in this direction. “You want to be in a place where you’ll be successful and you know you’re doing great things for kids,” she said. “Once you find that fit, I feel like people want to stay.”

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