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Education

Thwarted by Fact and Fiction

By Jeff Archer — January 09, 2003 8 min read
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The two schools reside in the same district, yet they exist in different worlds.

Shenandoah Elementary shares its name with a nearby country club in a seemingly endless subdivision of neat houses with golf-course-like lawns. Inside, the school displays a trophy won by its parents’ group for achieving 100 percent membership. Near the main office hangs a framed newspaper clipping that names the school the “best performing” in the region.

A 35-minute drive away, Greenville Elementary shares space along a tired commercial strip with a check-cashing service. Behind the school, tiny, dilapidated houses sit next to tiny, well-kempt ones on streets without curbs or sidewalks. At its open house this past fall, classes of 26 students drew fewer than six parents. The school is on Louisiana’s watch list for possible state intervention.

It’s little surprise, says Greenville Principal Mona Collins, that more than a quarter of her teachers this school year are new to the profession, and more than half are new to the building. Shenandoah, meanwhile, has no first-year teachers.

“Once people get [to a school like Shenandoah], they stay and stay,” says Collins, herself the fourth person to occupy her school’s main office in two years. “You work harder in an inner-city school. When we get [the children] in kindergarten, they’re already behind.”

Greenville Elementary School is just one of many examples here in the East Baton Rouge system that reveal the complex staffing challenges faced by urban schools across the country. In the competition to attract and retain qualified teachers, they find themselves pitted against schools in far greener pastures.

“It’s real hard to go out and find a group of people who will look you in the eye and say, ‘I really want to go to one of your most challenging schools,’ ” says Clayton M. Wilcox, the superintendent of the 52,000-student district. “We have people who apply for teaching positions here in this district who drive up to the school and don’t show up for the interview.”

‘Bleeding the Whole Year’

Fanning out from the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, East Baton Rouge Parish is a study in contrasts.

With 380,000 residents, the parish--the Louisiana equivalent of a county--plays host to casinos, the state’s flagship university, and an expanse of oil refineries. Its anchor city of Baton Rouge is the state capital. As the target of a 46-year-old desegregation case, the local school system has watched as white flight has pushed much of the middle class far beyond the city’s compact downtown, leaving many close-in neighborhoods ever more poor and black.

Recently, the cash-strapped district has become prime poaching ground for other school systems in need of teachers. Transferring to a neighboring parish can hike an educator’s salary by a few thousand dollars. Nearby Texas districts, which pay even more, often place help-wanted ads in the local paper here. “We’re bleeding the whole year,” says Wilcox. “Never a month goes by that we’re not hiring teachers.”

But wages don’t explain the inequities within East Baton Rouge. Shenandoah Elementary School pays its teachers on the same scale as the rest of the system, and yet its principal keeps in her desk an inch-thick stack of resumes dropped off by teachers wanting to work there.

Here, as elsewhere, poverty is one of the best predictors of turnover. District records from this past fall show that among the 15 elementary schools with the smallest concentrations of poverty, in just one did more than 25 percent of the teachers have less than four years’ experience. Meanwhile, in 11 of the 15 most impoverished elementary schools, more than a quarter of the teachers had been on the job for less than four years.

Not only do tough working conditions scare good teachers away, so do myths about working in disadvantaged schools.

Educators in high-need schools here blame a combination of fact and fiction. Teaching in such schools, they contend, isn’t the hellish experience that many of their counterparts elsewhere fear it is. But the concentration of grinding poverty does produce real challenges.

That’s what Shandella Jackson found this year when she came to Delmont Elementary. The school sits within walking distance of the ExxonMobil refinery and in the shadows of a raised highway that bisects the surrounding neighborhood. About 20 percent of the school’s teachers have less than a year’s experience. Jackson, now in her fourth year in the profession, wound up at Delmont after budget cuts eliminated her job at another school that, she says, “teachers are fighting to get into.”

Of her new school, she says: “It’s not the horror stories that I had been hearing.” A clean, bright school with recent renovations, Delmont is anything but a picture of chaos. At lunchtime, students in uniforms of navy and white line up at a sink, wash their hands one by one, and then file into the cafeteria.

In class, though, teachers notice the difference. During a lesson on sentence writing, Jackson repeatedly calls pupils to the front of the room to add notes to their “conduct cards,” on which she records rules they’ve broken. She estimates that she gives out twice as many check marks for misconduct as at her old school. The interruptions cost valuable instructional time in a class where half the students are repeating the 4th grade.

“Kids took this very seriously at my last school,” Jackson says. “At Delmont, it’s like, ‘I don’t care. You can give me 200 checks.’ ”

Few teachers blame the students. They know plenty of the youngsters have seen adults engaged in violence or abusive relationships. Many are being raised by grandparents, aunts, or uncles. At Greenville Elementary, a teacher says a 5th grader went home to an empty house for more than a week while his mother was in the hospital and his father in jail.

But the often-fractured nature of the students’ lives compounds the challenges that new teachers face at such schools. Not only must they address a wider spectrum of academic abilities--from those on grade level to those who have never had a parent read to them--but they’re also confronted with behavior they were never trained to deal with.

“At college, they said, ‘If you want a kid’s attention, clap once, and if you want more attention, clap twice,’ ” says Stephanie Cola, a second-year teacher at Delmont. “They never said what to do when a kid gets so upset that he has a fit, or when one stabs another with a pencil.”

New Pools of Recruits

Principals say high turnover makes it harder to form a cohesive team that plays to each teacher’s strengths. A stable staff, for instance, has let Shenandoah Elementary set up a committee that maintains schoolwide consistency in approaches toward study habits and discipline. Schools with experienced staff members also can ensure that each grade has at least one strong veteran who can assist others who teach the same material. At Greenville, all the 3rd grade teachers this year are new.

We have some resources that other schools don’t have. But it’s the human resources that matter.”

What’s more, teachers here have little time to learn from colleagues. The system lacks “duty free” lunches, meaning elementary teachers must chaperone their charges throughout the lunch period. For the most part, teachers’ only chance to talk with others at their grade level is during a weekly 45-minute meeting. “That’s no time to collaborate, as far as I’m concerned,” says Principal Collins.

A few efforts have been made to improve the work life at such schools. As part of a consent decree in the desegregation case, urban schools in East Baton Rouge Parish get money for classroom computers and additional staff members, such as counselors and parent liaisons.

“We have some resources that other schools don’t have,” says Delmont’s principal, Antoinette Bienemy. “But it’s the human resources that matter.”

Bienemy thinks smaller class sizes would do the most to attract teachers and help them succeed at such schools. In her ideal world, no educator would spend her first year at a high-need school, nor would classes at them be larger than 18 students. At least one new teacher at Delmont has 28 youngsters in her class.

Superintendent Wilcox says his options are limited. The system underwent budget cuts last year, and may soon face another round. Some community leaders are calling for bonuses for teachers in inner-city schools, but Wilcox doubts he can find the money. Moreover, he’s not sure that compensation gets at the core issues. “The perception of the work that people are being asked to do is more the determinant,” he says.

Given that perception, his system has taken a different tack. For the past 12 years, East Baton Rouge has partnered with Teach For America, the national Peace Corps-like effort that recruits noneducation majors from selective colleges, puts them through an intensive summer training program, and places them in teaching positions in needy urban or rural schools for at least two years.

More recently, the district has contracted with TFA’s consulting arm--the New Teacher Project--to set up a similar program called Teach Baton Rouge that recruits local people wanting to switch to teaching from other careers. Of the 500 teachers hired by the district for this past fall, 75 came through one of the two programs. The idea is simple: if traditional teacher-preparation programs aren’t providing enough graduates who want to work in high-need schools, then open the field up to more who do.

How much of a solution that is, however, remains unclear. The two fast-track options for teacher preparation still ensure that many of the schools with the most needy children wind up with the most unpracticed teachers. And 60 percent of Teach For America recruits nationally leave the profession once their two-year stints are up, a situation that keeps the revolving door in motion.

At the same time, administrators at many needy schools here say such recruits mark a big improvement over the old days, when the schools had to fill many posts with applicants who lacked even an initial teaching credential. “With Teach For America and Teach Baton Rouge, it’s a lot better than what it’s been before,” says Vera Dunbar, the principal at Eden Park Elementary School, not far from Greenville Elementary. “I would not trade their level of commitment, and they are willing to learn.”

Some new teachers themselves see the quandary. Josh Gerber, a TFA recruit teaching 5th grade at Greenville, says he wouldn’t want to work at a more affluent school. Still, the idealistic 2002 graduate of Colby College in Maine sees the downside.

“Truthfully, I think it’s a shame that these students get all the newest teachers, because when a needy school gets the newest teachers, it basically screws the kids,” says Gerber, a few gray hairs showing through the young man’s dark bangs. “I’m confident I will be a good teacher, but I’m not there yet.”

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See also: Swimming Upstream

The Road Less Taken

Mission: Stability
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2003 edition of Education Week

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