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Teachers: What we want everyone to know about working in our high-needs school

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I recently published a post titled “Teacher: What I Wish Everyone Knew About Working In Some High-Needs Schools,” in which a middle school teacher writes about the difficult conditions that both teachers and students face in one Title 1 school. This post is a response to that post from teachers in another Title 1 school, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, where the administration has created an environment where both teachers and students can thrive. It was written by  Dana Dusbiber, Katie Hull Sypnieski, Lara Hoekstra and Larry Ferlazzo, all veteran teachers at Luther Burbank.

For those who don’t know, Title 1 is a federal program that provides  supplemental funding to school districts with the aim of help those schools with large percentages of students from low-income families. The funding has been tied to the percentage of students in a school that qualifies for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program, also dedicated to helping low-income students.

By Dana Dusbiber, Katie Hull Sypnieski, Lara Hoekstra and Larry Ferlazzo

We were saddened after reading “Teacher: What I Wish Everyone Knew About Working In Some High-Needs Schools.” All four of us taught at schools exactly like the one written about in that column at the earliest stages of our careers, and we know that there are many Title 1 schools like the one described.  But not all Title 1 schools are alike.

We chose to leave those particular schools, but stayed in the profession and moved to our present school, Luther Burbank High School.  Burbank is the largest inner-city school in Sacramento, California, and has a student population that is 100 percent free breakfast, lunch and supper eligible. Our population is comprised primarily of students from  Latino, African-American, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. Like the school described in that column, some of them face many challenges — they are immigrants who come to California on top of  freight trains from Central America, children whose parents are incarcerated or who have abandoned them, teens whose special learning needs have not been identified prior to high school.

And, like the teacher who wrote the previous piece, we’ve experienced joy watching many of our students overcome these hardships to demonstrate academic and life success.  We’ve seen a student grow from being a ninth-grader who was regularly sent to the office for disciplinary issues into an eleventh-grader who became a sought-after mentor for younger students experiencing similar challenges. We’ve watched several of our students become parents and return to successfully complete their high school education and go on to college.

How have these successes been accomplished? Unlike that educator, our students and teachers are members of a school community that provides a positive and supportive environment on a daily basis for all of us.

Our administrative team, led by principal Ted Appel, has been intact for 11 years and has provided a vision that helps teachers develop students into lifelong learners. They understand that the results of a standardized test are poor markers for evaluating teacher or student success.  Ted’s mantra has been “be data-informed, not data-driven” and he recognizes that teachers can only affect 30% of the elements that impact student achievement.  Ted emphasizes a positive and not punitive approach towards teacher evaluation, which Larry has written about previously in this blog.  His work with teachers focuses on teachers improving student engagement and whole-class thinking routines — in other words, improving the “inputs” that we teachers can control instead of placing all faith in student “outputs” that depend on so many factors that we do not control. In addition, Ted has had success in hiring a diverse faculty.

Our “data-informed” approach includes making a priority for formative assessments, including whole-school writing assessments (conducted with support from The California Writing Project)  twice-a-year where teachers are provided time to evaluate student writing using an “improvement rubric” to highlight strengths.  In addition, most teachers conduct regular teacher-created formative and summative assessments to evaluate reading fluency, comprehension, and content knowledge.  These results, in addition to being shared with students themselves, are discussed in regular after-school (and union-negotiated and supported) grade-level and subject-coordinated “study teams.”  The primary purpose of these evaluations and sharing of the results is to discuss and learn how we can become better instructors.  Our practice is also supported by ongoing professional development — with needs and providers identified by those of us on site.

In addition, our school is divided into Small Learning Communities, with roughly 300 students and twenty teachers assigned to each one.  Each individual SLC has their classrooms located in the same physical area of the school.  The students in an SLC stay together during their four years with us and, except for “global” classes like Physical Education, World Languages, Art, and upper level Sciences, will only have classes taught by teachers from their SLC during their high school career.  Each SLC has a “Lead Teacher” who does all scheduling for their students, and SLC’s hold weekly meetings to plan and ensure that no student “falls through the cracks.”  If student John is having a bad day because his mother is in the hospital, one of us can walk next door between classes to let his next teacher know (or, if John has written a particularly good essay that day, we can immediately tell his next teacher so that he can receive more praise for it).

In addition, since each SLC has a counselor whose job is to actually counsel and not schedule, additional support can be provided to students.   Finally, small class sizes are critical to our success — none of us has a core class with more than twenty-seven students.  This kind of teacher collaboration and support has been a key reason behind our negligible staff turnover year-to-year.

Our school also has a talented parent engagement coordinator, Elisa Gonzalez, who works with families to develop a well-attended multilingual parent “university” with a curriculum developed by parents.  Burbank is also a key participant in the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project, and our staff make hundreds of visits (which are compensated) each year to the homes of our students.

Through the support of our Parent University and a grant from University of California-Davis, our adult immigrant students published their second collection of writings this spring.  The parents bring their own stories of adversity and challenge.  They have found a safe environment on our campus in which to risk the telling and writing of their stories—many of which include the narratives of their own harrowing journeys to this country.

Many of these elements of our positive learning environment came previously with support from the settlement with the state from a lawsuit filed by the California Teachers Association demanding additional support for schools serving low-income students and, now, from  California Gov. Jerry Brown’s new equitable school funding formula.  Our principal and our controller, Fanny Cheung, use these resources wisely to support Small Learning Communities, reduce class sizes, and fund professional development.

Administrators, teachers, students and their families also support a safe and supportive learning environment.  A strong and well-trained group of monitors provide almost immediate assistance in case of classroom disruptions.  Administrators and our faculty make a priority of trying to identify root-causes of classroom management challenges, and emphasize student dispute resolutions, restorative practices, and strategies like “walk and talks.”  In addition, Social Emotional Learning skills are an integral part of the English and Social Studies curriculum, and are reinforced school wide.

Of course, on any given day, we have students who are angry, hurt, depressed or hungry.  These states of being can make focusing on academic work all but impossible.  Sometimes we can meet the needs of these students through resources on campus.  Often, we give them choices in the classroom that help them remain with us in a safe environment.  This might include reading from a free-choice book, writing in their journal, or some other calming activity.  Because we have the time  and supportive environment in which to build relationships with our students, we can often anticipate needs and are thus better prepared to offer help. We are also clear that we can work very hard and do our best to be teachers and mentors to our students, but we cannot and should not be “saviors.” What we do believe is that we must create the conditions where teachers, students and their families can thrive.

What have been the results of creating these conditions for our students?  Our Academic Performance Index, used by the state to judge progress, has increased steadily.  Our graduation rate has also risen, and we have an increasing number of students who have passed all “A-G” subject requirements necessary to be eligible for the University of California system.  A high-percentage of students take International Baccalaureate classes and advanced math courses.  Our suspension rate has been substantially reduced, as has our drop-out rate.

What have been the results of creating these conditions for teachers?  We have an experienced faculty who want to be there and do not feel overburdened by our work.  Burbank is a school placement desired by many teachers, unlike other schools with high-needs.

Luther Burbank High School is not paradise, by any means.  However, we do believe it demonstrates that a Title 1 school, with the proper leadership and support, can be a positive place for students, their families and teachers.