June Showalter is blunt about it: Teaching at D-rated Middleton High School in inner-city Tampa last year was tough.
Angry outbursts from students were frequent; personality conflicts between them, constant. In one of her English classes, nearly half the students had probation officers.
"The good news is, about half of those kids were gone most of the time," Showalter said.
But for an eight-year veteran, it still was too much. So Showalter did what hundreds of area teachers quietly do every year, with the blessing of district officials and potentially profound impacts on student achievement.
She transferred to a school with fewer poor children.
"There's a certain type of person it takes to deal with those kids, and it's not me," said Showalter, who now teaches at Sickles High, an A-graded school in whiter, more affluent northwest Hillsborough County.
Teacher transfers are rarely fodder for school board debate or news stories, but a St. Petersburg Times review suggests they deserve more scrutiny.
More than 60 percent of the 1,500 teachers around Tampa Bay who transferred this summer went to lower-poverty schools, the review found.
And transfer requests in Pinellas County show even more of them wanted to: Seven of 10 Pinellas schools with the most teachers requesting transfers were high poverty and seven were high minority. Meanwhile, none of the 10 schools that teachers most wanted to join were either.
Teachers transfer for many reasons, but principals and district officials are more apt to point to housing patterns and gas prices.
"You're probably seeing more (transfers) because of the economy," said Ron Stone, an associate superintendent in Pinellas who's in charge of human resources.
Many teachers say otherwise. And their frustration highlights a dilemma for public schools.
Transfers can act as a relief valve for teachers at schools like Middleton, which the state is now threatening with closure because of chronic problems, or Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, which has earned D's from the state four of the last five years.
But transfers can also result in a brain drain.
High-poverty, high-minority schools often have high numbers of rookie teachers, who studies show are generally not as good as more experienced teachers at boosting student achievement.
"If the pattern is students in certain schools get teachers with the least experience, that's going to reinforce the historical patterns of low achievement," said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a group critical of transfer rules.
More than 1,500 school-based instructional personnel transferred this year in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, with about two-thirds of them in Hillsborough.
The vast majority of them were classroom teachers, but the Times analysis also included a small percentage of other employees such as reading coaches and speech pathologists.
Overall, the percentage of teachers on the move may look small — they ranged from about 3 percent of the teaching force in Pinellas to about 7 percent in Hillsborough. But the numbers were lower than usual because of slowing enrollments and budget cuts, which shrank the number of teaching slots.
They also mask the fact that in some schools, a third or more of the teaching corps may turn over in a single year.
Oak Park Elementary in Tampa had 16 transfers this year, according to employee lists Hillsborough officials said could be used to identify transfers. Principal Joyce Miles said for the students' sake, she'd like more stability.
"They say they can't wait to get to fifth grade to be in Mr. So-and-so's class. But when they get there, Mr. So-and-so isn't there," Miles said. "What happens to children when people come and go so much, they sort of lose faith in people, in teachers."
Pinellas had far fewer transfers than Hillsborough, with about 270. That's down from 378 two years ago. But the number of employees requesting transfers went up, from 1,480 last year to 1,766 this year. That's about 20 percent of the entire teaching corps.
Pinellas is the only area district that keeps track of transfer requests.
This year's increase was fueled in part by requests from teachers at three schools that closed, and from administrators who were forced back into classrooms by budget cuts.
Still, the collective wish list is imprinted with a clear pattern.
The Times found 73 percent of middle and elementary school personnel who asked to move were in schools where a majority of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. No Pinellas high schools have such a majority.
Topping the request list: Gibbs High, with 42, followed by John Hopkins Middle and Bay Point Middle. All are high poverty and high minority. All are in south St. Petersburg.
The principal at Gibbs could not be reached for comment. Principals at the other two schools did not return calls.
James Masson, who taught chemistry at Gibbs High last year, said he wanted to teach something new. Now he teaches physics at Pinellas Park High.
"I had great kids," he said. But "I was kind of bored."
Masson spoke cautiously when asked why other teachers want to leave. A "small, very hard group of kids" makes Gibbs especially challenging, he said.
Does that tie in to transfer requests?
"Obviously yes," he said.
In Tampa, teacher Arthena Rutledge was more up front.
She transferred from Oak Park to Dale Mabry Elementary in South Tampa in part because she didn't want her own children to attend Oak Park. This, despite the fact that Hillsborough paid her 10 percent more to work there.
"It wasn't about the money," she said. "The population just wasn't for them."
Other teachers said principals are a factor.
"I truly believe in my heart of hearts that the principal is what makes the difference in these transfer requests," agreed Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark. "Teachers will work in a tough school and they'll go the extra mile if they have the right principal."
Then again, teacher unrest might be a sign that a principal is cleaning house. Some education experts say high-poverty, high-minority schools can be dumping grounds for sub-par teachers — a phenomenon often called the "dance of the lemons."
In Pinellas, some observers said school "restructuring" that kicked in this year — mandated for high-poverty schools that repeatedly fall short of federal standards — may have caused anxiety among teachers and led more to seek transfers.
Some of those schools initially were told they would have to bring in either new administrators or new teachers, said Oscar Robinson, the new principal at St. Petersburg's Melrose Elementary, where 27 teachers asked to transfer.
So some teachers "thought it would be better for them to seek another location," he said.
Two Pinellas teachers threw out another possibility: changing demographics.
The likely resegregation of schools in south St. Petersburg, under the district's new, close-to-home student assignment plan, may be ratcheting up transfer requests, they said.
They said teachers at those schools fear they'll be facing an even greater percentage of troubled kids.
• • •
Showalter, the teacher new to Sickles High, sat next to another Middleton transplant during recent planning meetings. Other teachers kept asking them why they were so happy.
Sickles is "just a really positive place to be," she said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.