Maybe nine is Cooper Dawson's lucky number. The principal at Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary doesn't look like a gambler. But she rolled the dice this year on something that will affect the lives of 150 children. And the number that turned up was nine. Nine is how many rookie teachers she hired, which is about a quarter of her teaching staff, and more than any other school in Pinellas County. Dawson, warm but no-nonsense, said she would rather have hired more experienced teachers. She knows what research says about "newbies" and student achievement. But for high-poverty schools like Seventy-Fourth Street, where 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, that's not how the system works.
So Dawson did the best she could, carefully choosing from a pool of eager faces who are happy, for now, to work in any school they can.
"I was a little scared," Dawson said last week. "But after the first day of meeting the teachers, I knew I had done the right thing. I knew I had winners."
Dawson's dilemma is the result of a system that doesn't give veteran teachers many incentives for staying at high-needs schools — or give those schools the best options for replacing them. The transfer system in Pinellas and many other districts often gives more affluent schools the pick of the litter in choosing experienced staffers, while high-poverty schools are left to lean on rookies.
The result, some experts say, isn't good for teachers or students.
More than 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. And some experts say there's a link between that relentless churn and the tough assignments rookies are often thrown into.
Meanwhile, those inexperienced teachers often end up in front of poor and minority students who struggle the most. In Pinellas, 10 of 14 schools that hired five or more rookies this year have about half or more of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Only one of them is an "A" school.
"One of the worst things you can give a child is a first-year teacher," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "So if you have a school where a child has a first-year teacher every other year, you can imagine the repercussions."
• • •
In Kaitlin Baker's third-grade class at Seventy-Fourth Street, a dozen pencils are twitching like bobbers on a fishing line. The students are writing stories: How do you make your friends laugh?
Baker, tall and confident, paces, gives advice and gently keeps order — sometimes all at once.
"This is your beautiful masterpiece."
"Either swallow it or throw it away."
"Remember, you're a brave speller. No fear."
It may be impossible for the casual observer to tell, but Baker, 21, is a rookie, fresh from the University of South Florida.
She said she never thought about teaching in a high-poverty school. But given the economic climate, which has left many other budding teachers unemployed, she's not knocking the opportunity.
"I'm thrilled to be here," she said.
Principals say rookie teachers like Baker offer plenty of upside. They bring energy and enthusiasm, and in some cases, a better rapport with students.
"You have somebody coming in with fresh new ideas, someone coming in with a better handle relating to this age group," said Stephanie Adkinson, the principal at Tyrone Middle School, which has six rookies this year. "I don't look at that as a negative."
But experts say with many rookies, there's a trade-off. According to the research, first-year teachers are generally not as good at boosting student achievement as those with a few years of experience. And generally, it's not even close.
Stanford University professor and teacher quality expert Eric Hanushek said the research shows that students under first-year teachers score roughly 4 percentile points lower on achievement tests than peers taught by average teachers with more experience.
"A second-year teacher is so much better than a first-year teacher, it's hard to believe," added Walsh, with the teacher quality council.
That said, Cooper is sure she has a good crew, brimming with intangibles that don't show up on resumes. Baker, for example, is the daughter of a teacher at another Pinellas elementary school. And some of the other new hires are older, inspiring hope that their life experiences may allow them to more creatively handle the challenges posed by high-needs students.
Rebecca Caroll, 52, was a bursar at a Manhattan business college before moving to Florida to become a teacher.
"I think I'm a little more realistic about my expectations for the children," said Caroll, who's teaching third grade. "I'm not looking for perfection. I'm just looking for them to learn."
• • •
Experienced teachers are not flocking to the Seventy-Fourth Streets of the world. Not when the challenge is greater, but the pay is the same.
This year, 19 Pinellas teachers requested transfers to Seventy-Fourth Street, while 13 asked to go to Woodlawn Elementary and eight applied to Lealman Avenue Elementary.
By contrast, 66 teachers asked to transfer to Lake St. George Elementary in Palm Harbor.
This year, especially, Seventy-Fourth Street could have used a bigger pool of applicants.
Because the school had repeatedly failed to meet federal standards, the No Child Left Behind Act required it to "restructure" in a way that would be more likely to bring success to its students. As part of that process, Cooper asked every teacher to re-apply for his or her job — an almost unheard-of move for a public school.
In the end, she told nine veterans she wasn't going to rehire them. "I had to put the needs of the kids first," Cooper said. Even if that meant taking a risk with rookies.
Cooper was hardly the only principal forced into doing so.
Pinellas hired 232 rookies this year, and 78 percent of them who are middle or elementary school teachers ended up in high-poverty schools. In Hillsborough, with 793 rookies, the corresponding figure is 73 percent.
Cooper asked her rookies to commit to stay for three years. In return, she promised them more support, including a new mentoring program the district rolled out this fall.
She's counting on them. She's hoping they can build on the momentum Seventy-Fourth Street established last year, when its third-graders posted some of the biggest FCAT reading gains in the district. And she's keeping her fingers crossed that with more progress like that, the cycle of transfers and rookies can start spinning the other way.
With "the better environment we're creating here," she said, "teachers will want to come."
Until then, she'll keep rolling the dice.
Times researcher Connie Humburg and staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.
Pinellas County schools with the most rookie teachers.
|% minority||School grade|
|Seventy-Fourth Street Elem.||9||80||50||C|
|John Hopkins Middle School||8||54||61||B|
|Lakewood High School||8||34||63||D|
|Gibbs High School||7||49||66||D|
|Lealman Ave. Elementary||7||79||48||C|
|Seminole High School||7||14||11||B|
|Tarpon Springs High School||7||22||19||D|
|Tyrone Middle School||6||71||58||C|
|Azalea Middle School||5||67||49||C|
|Oak Grove Middle School||5||35||29||A|
|*Percentage of children eligible for free/reduced-price lunch.
Number of rookie teachers as of Aug. 26; Source: Pinellas County schools