High-poverty schools continue to wear on teachers, surveys show

Published June 2, 2015

TAMPA — School districts offer cash bonuses. They hire teacher coaches. They appeal to the idealism of educators who want to make a difference.

But the proof is in their own data: It's hard to teach at a high-poverty school.

There's less buy-in from parents. Kids don't follow the rules. There aren't even enough computers. And staff turnover is sky high.

"We have 32 new teachers on board," said Krystal Carson, principal of Potter Elementary School in east Tampa, which is struggling with behavior and other issues.

Although virtually everyone is happy at Grady Elementary in South Tampa and Bevis Elementary in suburban FishHawk Ranch, the atmosphere at other schools is wanting, according to this year's Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning survey.

Job satisfaction numbers run from 50 to 60 percent at Dowdell Middle, Van Buren Middle and Miles Elementary schools, called renaissance schools because they serve the lowest-income students.

It's a similar story in Pinellas County, judging by the last climate survey released in 2014. Although 77 percent of teachers countywide were satisfied with their jobs, those numbers were 56, 58 and 60 percent at Fairmount Park Elementary, Lakewood Elementary and Meadowlawn Middle — all schools where more than half the students come from homes in poverty.

"It's not about the money," said Julie Hiltz, a teacher leader and media specialist in Hillsborough.

In her job at Lutz Elementary School, she is part of a staff that has been together for years, sometimes teaching multiple generations. That stability builds trust. "You tend to give a person the benefit of the doubt," she said.

At a school where she used to work, serving a less stable community, "parents would walk in the front door ready to fight."

The challenge of staffing high-needs schools stymies many districts, as seasoned teachers often opt for less stressful jobs in middle-class neighborhoods.

Despite their best efforts, districts end up filling vacancies in their highest-poverty schools with teachers who are new to the district or right out of college.

"They are extremely dedicated," Pinellas teachers union president Mike Gandolfo said of teachers who work in schools under state improvement plans.

But he acknowledged many first-year teachers leave, or are pushed out, and do not get the support they need from administration. "There's no job security," he said. "There is a general climate of fear."

Although Pinellas has not yet released its 2015 statistics, the Hillsborough numbers offer an in-depth look at contrasting attitudes at more than 200 schools.

Composite scores, measuring how many questions drew positive answers, tended to be higher at schools in the suburbs and comfortable sections of South Tampa. Eighty percent of the time, they were lower than average at the renaissance schools.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

At Just Elementary, which borders the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex, 9.5 percent of teachers said students follow the school rules. Districtwide, the number was 70 percent.

At Pierce Middle School in Town 'N Country, only 20 percent of teachers said they had enough time in their day when they weren't teaching.

Asked if "parents and guardians are influential decisionmakers at this school," fewer than one-fifth answered yes at Dowdell in the Clair-Mel area, and at Shaw Elementary near the University of South Florida. At Potter, the number was 6.3 percent.

Not one teacher at Van Buren Middle in Sulphur Springs agreed that parents are decisionmakers.

Sherry Ochs, Van Buren's teacher of the year, wondered if some teachers rushed through the survey. Though acknowledging parents do not make school decisions, she said the staff works hard to accommodate individual parents. And the school is working to reactivate its PTA.

"It's definitely a challenge," Ochs said. "But it's rewarding in the same breath. You think you are changing their lives. But they wind up changing yours."

Van Buren also had the lowest percentage — 3 percent — of teachers among schools that weren't exceptional centers who agreed students follow the rules. Ochs attributed the behavior problem largely to students who are older than middle school age, and said the school is addressing it.

In 2014, Brandon's McLane Middle School had the lowest response to the behavior question, also 3 percent. Since then, McLane, which buses hundreds of kids from east Tampa, has worked to make routines more consistent and improve relationships with its east Tampa families.

This year, 17.7 percent of McLane's teachers said students follow the rules, better than at nearly a dozen other schools, including Chamberlain High (9.6 percent) and Potter (5.9).

Carson, who became principal of Potter in late 2013, said the elementary school worked extensively this year with male students and will build on those efforts next year with a character education program.

She's reaching out to churches and community organizations for help. "If I can get a mentor for every child on campus, that would be fabulous," she said.

And it helps to have a positive attitude. "I personally believe that all kids can learn and all kids can behave," she said.

Although teachers typically gave the most positive answers at schools in wealthy neighborhoods, there were exceptions.

Dunbar, a West Tampa medical and science magnet school, had some of the happiest teachers, with a composite score of 96 percent. But the percentage of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches was relatively high at 83 percent.

It's a small school, with only 287 students. Principal Sarah Jacobsen Capps also said she is deliberate about maintaining a culture of collaboration.

"We have constant conversations and reflections on what we're doing," she said. "We always talk about it all the time. Even after we saw the survey results, we asked, 'Where else should we focus?' "

Contact Marlene Sokol at or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.