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Published in Print: March 28, 2007, as Top-to-Bottom Support

Top-to-Bottom Support

Through intensive mentoring and training for everyone from novice instructors to top district leaders, a long-troubled California system is seeing teacher turnover fall and test scores rise.

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When Erik G. Brown launched his teaching career at the Cesar Chavez Academy here four years ago, he wasn’t alone: Seventy-five percent of the teachers in the 400-student middle school were new to the district, and two-thirds of those were new to the field.

The school had gone through six principals in six years, and its largely Hispanic, low-income student population was struggling. That year, only 1 percent of 8th graders scored at the “proficient” level on the state algebra test.

“We had one other 7th grade math teacher at the school site,” Mr. Brown recalled, “and she was brand-new as well. There wasn’t too much we could do to help each other.”

Cesar Chavez Principal David Herrera, left, listens to students during a spelling exercise with Lorie Chamberland, right, his coach from the New Teacher Center.
Cesar Chavez Principal David Herrera, left, listens to students during a spelling exercise with Lorie Chamberland, right, his coach from the New Teacher Center.
—Jessica Brandi Lifland/Education Week

This year, the once-troubled school retained more than eight in 10 of its teachers. It has enjoyed the highest student-attendance rate in the district for three consecutive years. And 22 percent of last year’s 8th graders scored at the proficient level on the state algebra exam—nothing to write home about, but a huge improvement from where the school started.

The transformation is part of a major push to turn around the 3,000-student Ravenswood City School District, which serves East Palo Alto and part of adjoining Menlo Park. The effort involves intensive mentoring, staff development, and leadership training up and down the K-8 district—from novice teachers to principals to the superintendent herself.

While a national debate has focused on recruiting teachers to hard-to-staff schools and districts by offering signing bonuses and other financial incentives, Ravenswood and its partner, the New Teacher Center, based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, are taking another tack.

They are gambling that the key to improving student achievement, teaching, and teacher retention is to build human capital and create environments in which educators want to work.

As Miakje Kamstra, the project director, put it: “We’re mentoring the system one conversation, one relationship, at a time.”

Casting a Wide Net

For a district of only 2.5 square miles, Ravenswood has had its share of problems. Separated from its more affluent neighbors by a major thoroughfare, East Palo Alto is overwhelmingly poor and minority.

At a Glance

The K-8 Ravenswood school district serves East Palo Alto, a largely disadvantaged community, and a small part of neighboring Menlo Park.

Ravenswood City School District
County: San Mateo, Calif.
Enrollment: Approximately 3,000 students, grades K-8
Average Teacher Starting Salary: $39,128
School Population:

Teachers With Full Credentials (2005-06):

In 1992, it was dubbed the “murder capital” of the United States, notorious for its high rates of gang violence and gun assaults. A court-ordered desegregation plan, now in its 20th year, permits students to transfer out of the school system to neighboring jurisdictions, starting in kindergarten.

And since 2000, the school system has been under a court-ordered consent decree because of deficiencies in its special education program that nearly led to a state takeover of the district in 2001. Five area charter schools compete with the school system for students.

“Ravenswood has historically been involved in a lot of controversy and conflict and lawsuits, and turmoil at the top,” said Maria Meza-De La Vega, who was named the superintendent of the district in December after serving in an interim capacity for 1½ years. “The high turnover of teachers,” she added, “was a huge impediment to us moving forward.”

In 2003, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, based in neighboring Menlo Park, Calif., provided a $350,000 grant for the New Teacher Center to provide intensive mentoring support to novice teachers in two schools: Cesar Chavez and Green Oaks Academy, a K-4 school that also had a teacher-turnover rate of about 75 percent.

But project participants soon realized that in order to mentor novices, they had to address other aspects of the district—from getting paychecks and purchase orders out on time to supplying reading books and math materials for classrooms.

“Suddenly, for me, the job description widened and shifted,” Ms. Kamstra said. “We started going to the district office and building relationships very carefully with each stakeholder—with the person involved with purchase orders, with the person in the human-resources department, with the person involved in business. That became a huge part of our job, just having conversations and finding out what we could do at the district-office level to support them.”

In 2005-06, a third school, Willow Oaks Elementary School, asked to join the project. And this school year, the New Teacher Center scaled up its work to provide mentoring and professional development to all seven schools in the system.

The New Teacher Center is a national, nonprofit organization focused on providing systematic support to new teachers, and more recently principals, through the work of highly trained, full-time mentors.

Under the more intensive model being used in Ravenswood, the typical ratio of one mentor for every 13 to 15 novices is reduced to one mentor for every nine new teachers, all of whom work in the same school. By working closely with a small number of teachers in one site, said mentor Michael Russo, mentors are able to develop deep, trusting relationships and to tap into the “heartbeat” of the school.

Coaching Leaders, Too

The project also provides a coach for every principal and for the superintendent. And it has made available ongoing professional development, focused primarily on literacy instruction, to teachers and administrators throughout the school system.

Ms. Kamstra and her colleague Kitty Dixon, the director of school/district support and innovation for the center, serve as liaisons between the school-based efforts and the work at the district office. Ms. Dixon, for example, participates in the superintendent’s leadership team in an ex officio capacity.

Erik G. Brown, a 7th grade math and science
teacher, talks to his students at the Cesar
Chavez Academy in the Ravenswood school
district in East Palo Alto, Calif.
Erik G. Brown, a 7th grade math and science teacher, talks to his students at the Cesar Chavez Academy in the Ravenswood school district in East Palo Alto, Calif.
—Jessica Brandi Lifland/Education Week

“As we are on the ground, supporting teachers, we really have a good sense of what is working and what’s not working, and what level of support is needed,” Ms. Dixon explained. “Although our individual work with teachers is confidential, my job is to listen to my mentors and my administrative coaches and think about the patterns and trends.”

Those messages are then fed back to district leaders, she said, to focus on what needs to happen for teachers and students to move achievement forward.

Ellen Moir, the director of the New Teacher Center, said the kind of “full-court press” being applied in Ravenswood is needed, because the nation’s hardest-to-staff schools are often in districts that themselves face so many challenges and complexities that they can’t pave a path for success for new teachers.

“What we have found is that by really intensifying the support services for new teachers, we’re able to not only accelerate their development and retain them in the profession,” she said, “but we’re [also] trying to change the culture of the school.” In essence, Ravenswood and the center are trying to create a “community of practice” across the district, said Ms. Moir.

That has meant doing everything from writing grant proposals to pay for book corners and math manipulatives for classrooms, to working with teachers to supplement the Open Court reading program with strategies and materials to address individual students’ needs. It has also entailed helping the district revise its professional-development policies and even draw up a strategic plan that will link its after-school programs to instruction.

Grade-Level Teams

One of the biggest breakthroughs came last school year, when the district formed a professional-development committee to address teachers’ concerns about the lack of time for planning and collaboration. The committee—which included teachers, administrators, and providers of professional development—met once a month throughout the spring.

Now most Wednesday afternoons, which previously had been devoted to district workshops and activities, are reserved for novice and veteran teachers to meet in grade-level teams at their school, with a mentor providing support. At the middle school level, 7th and 8th grade teachers meet in subject-specific teams across schools in the district.

The teams follow a standard “cycle of inquiry,” developed by the New Teacher Center, in which teachers analyze student data, plan an activity, and go back and implement it in their classrooms. They then meet the next time to reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t, and either revise their plans or begin a new cycle.

Each of the meetings is led by a teacher facilitator who receives training once a month from the New Teacher Center, helping prepare a corps of future leaders for the school system.

“This year has been awesome,” said Mr. Brown, who was a member of the professional-development committee. Before the school year began, members of his 7th grade math and science team were able to agree on the units they wanted to cover and their sequence.

“Each meeting, we had something tangible to work on,” he said. “Sharing ideas definitely helps people teach certain concepts and avoid some of the mistakes. And building up the morale and teamwork and enthusiasm of teachers helps people get over rough spots.”

He also predicted that it will keep people like him in the Ravenswood district, “because when you feel isolated and frustrated and unsuccessful, I think that’s one of the big reasons for teachers quitting or moving to a different district.”

Scores on the Rise

Because the charge to be advocates for teachers and help them navigate the district bureaucracy is novel work for mentors, they also receive intensive, continuing training in addition to that regularly provided for mentors through the New Teacher Center.

In Ravenswood, the mentors get together three or four hours every other week to focus on systemic issues in the district. “It’s very powerful,” Mr. Russo said. “In tough-to-teach settings, you need that.”

Principals also meet once a month to do walk-throughs of one another’s schools and learn how to create and nurture professional learning communities, in addition to more frequent, one-on-one meetings with their coaches.

“The walk-throughs have been tremendously helpful,” said David A. Herrera, the first-year principal of Cesar Chavez Academy. Joan E. Talbert, a senior research scholar at Stanford University who is conducting an evaluation of the New Teacher Center’s work in Ravenswood for the Hewlett Foundation, said that the center’s focus on improving teaching and learning at all levels of the system is starting to pay off.

Last year, Green Oaks had a 101-point gain under California’s accountability system, known as the Academic Performance Index, or API, the largest for any elementary school in San Mateo County. In 2004, 84 percent of Green Oaks’ students scored “below basic” in language arts; in 2006, that figure dropped to 53 percent.

At Cesar Chavez Academy, the proportion of students reading “below basic” dropped from 62 percent to 48 percent from 2004 to 2006; at Willow Oaks, it declined from 61 percent to 46 percent. A similar pattern has occurred in math.

“So the schools the New Teacher Center was working in before this year are definitely showing a real bringing-up of the bottom,” said Ms. Talbert, who is a co-director of Stanford’s Center for Research on the Context of Teaching.

A Sense of Hope

Equally important, teachers and principals here say, the initiative has brought back a sense of hope, collaboration, and stability to the district. The retention rate for new teachers has jumped to 87 percent in the three schools in which the New Teacher Center began its work.

Students walk between classes at Cesar Chavez
Academy. The 400-student middle school has seen
its formerly sky-high teacher-turnover rate plummet
and its student attendance and test scores climb.
Students walk between classes at Cesar Chavez Academy. The 400-student middle school has seen its formerly sky-high teacher-turnover rate plummet and its student attendance and test scores climb.
—Jessica Brandi Lifland/Education Week

But sustaining such an intensive effort is a challenge, and the proof will come in whether Ravenswood can continue to hold onto teachers and improve student achievement over time. Last year, the Hewlett Foundation provided $2.46 million for the New Teacher Center to scale up its work in Ravenswood, or about $800 per student. In February, its board approved another $3.8 million over the next two years. (The Hewlett Foundation also helps support Education Week’s coverage of district-level improvement efforts.)

The plan is to reduce foundation support over the next five years as the district builds its own internal capacity. The center calls the approach a “gradual-release model,” in which leadership is increasingly assumed by the district.

“People have seen a shift in working conditions,” said Amy R. Gerstein, an independent consultant who is helping the center evaluate its work in Ravenswood. “The schools are safer. It’s a lot calmer, and their systems are a lot smoother. The leadership opportunities for teachers are significantly different.”

But salaries still lag well behind those for teachers in neighboring school districts, she said, and the overall workload for teachers and administrators has not changed.

“Our pay scale is one of the lowest in the area,” acknowledged Superintendent Meza-De La Vega, who has worked to increase teacher salaries and benefits and to improve practices within the human-resources department.

“How, then, do we try to hold on to teachers?” she said. “We believe that it’s through the support that we can give them, and the voice to participate in the learning and teaching process.”

Vol. 26, Issue 29, Pages 24-26

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