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Wanted in Tampa Bay: teachers drawn to the challenge of a low-rated school

 
Published May 8, 2016

Dawn Scilex knew she had a challenge on her hands.

Hudson Elementary School, which she took over just three weeks earlier, faced heightened scrutiny by Pasco County and Florida education officials after more than a decade of low student performance.

Turnover had already been high. Two-thirds of the 51-member teaching staff from three years ago had transferred out. Now, nine more teachers wanted to go after Scilex told them about the added demands, and another two were leaving for other reasons.

The new principal didn't mince words at a job fair last week aimed at bringing dedicated, effective teachers to Pasco's six most needy schools.

"We need teachers who are passionate," Scilex told a group of about 30 candidates. "It's going to be hard. But when we have all the right players in place, we can change a community."

That goal — finding the right mix of teachers to get the most from impoverished students — is not a solo mission. It has in recent years become a national imperative, as evidenced by the Obama administration's 2014 Excellent Educators for All initiative.

"Research proves the most critical school-based factor is the quality of the classroom teacher," said James Cole, U.S. Department of Education deputy secretary. "Access to strong teaching should not be connected to a child's color or wealth."

Yet, it's not easy to do.

In Pasco County, superintendent Kurt Browning has grown so frustrated trying to stem long-term teacher turnover that he's now just aiming to keep teachers in the same school for a year.

Pinellas County, like Pasco, is holding job fairs specific to its lowest-performing schools. Officials said nearly 200 teachers opted out of the district's turnaround schools this spring as the district placed renewed attention on fixing them.

Hillsborough County school officials say they don't expect heavy teacher turnover this year, but they have been looking to draw the most effective teachers to the district's high-needs "Elevate" schools. After placing the "right leaders" on those campuses, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said, the administration asked principals to find faculty to "take the schools to the next level."

Across the nation, districts have tried to attract and keep top teachers using a variety of enticements, including higher pay and enhanced career paths.

Communities must understand there's no simple answer, though, said Sonja Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy at the Education Trust.

"It's working conditions above anything else that determines whether teachers stay or go," said Santelises, whose group has researched several schools in poor neighborhoods that achieve high results.

Browning said he has heard the same from teachers.

He recently ended a three-year experiment paying teachers at rural Lacoochee Elementary an added $15,000 for their effort. But even with the incentive, nearly half of teachers who joined the faculty during Lacoochee's 2013 restaffing did not stay to receive the full amount. Some said they did not get enough support to succeed.

"I'm not convinced money is the motivator," Browning said.

It didn't lure John Leidy, who teaches with his wife at New River Elementary in Wesley Chapel. The couple lives close to Lacoochee, but didn't apply.

"$15,000? Yeah, that's significant, especially when there are two of us in the same profession," Leidy said. But "the challenge is what motivates me, and there is definitely challenge (at New River)."

Browning plans to put the former bonus money toward added services and training in the high-needs schools.

That focus resonated at the job fair.

"If (students) come from a rough home life, they need to know when they walk in the classroom they are safe, know they are an important part of the class, and someone is looking out for them," said teacher Barbara Rattee, who recently returned to Pasco County. "I don't have any question in the depth of my soul this is where I belong."

Cameron Cashman walked away from the job fair with a new position at Hudson Elementary.

He taught at Eastside Elementary in Brooksville as it worked to shed its F, and relished a similar challenge. His current post at Moon Lake Elementary wasn't the "right fit," he said.

"I really like inspiring the students and seeing the lightbulbs turn on," Cashman said. "It's the best satisfaction I can get."

Jamie Miller, who graduates from USF this spring, shared that passion.

"An F school is what I want," Miller said. "I want to see what we can do as a collaborative team to help these kids." An A-rated school "would be boring," she added. "I need to be where I am needed."

Educators say the team approach is critical to success. That's why keeping teachers is as crucial as recruiting them.

In Pinellas, once the school year begins, teachers are not allowed to transfer unless they win a promotion or get a job that requires additional hours.

Browning said he'd like to negotiate terms that would stop, or at least slow, midyear teacher transfers, too. "We're trying to provide greater stability," he said.

The needed team-building can't happen overnight.

"What really matters is the critical mass of teachers who are given the time to work together," observed Dyan Smiley, assistant director of the American Federation of Teachers' educational issues department.

Scilex and others said they hoped new federal rules would allow them more leeway to make meaningful change. The Every Student Succeeds Act eliminated prescriptive requirements that forced turnaround schools to make dramatic changes such as restaffings in quick succession.

Hudson Elementary is working on a three-year plan for improvement. Scilex said she needs to "stick with things" — including teachers — so they have time to take hold.

"Consistency is important," she said. "It's hard work, but it's the right work."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.