Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Sun/30803TEACHEREXPERIENCE.html

Teachers in wrong schools
Most qualified are not where they're needed
August 3, 2003
A.E. Araiza / Staff Angelica Bejarano, center, earned her master's degree in elementary education from the UA this spring, but will teach language arts to seventh graders at Hohokam Middle School.

By Jennifer Sterba

A majority of Tucson's most experienced and educated teachers aren't teaching the students who need them most - perpetuating a cycle of failure in lower-income neighborhoods, minority groups say.

"It's a pattern throughout the nation and state," said Alfredo Gutierrez, founder of Chicanos Por La Causa. "The most experienced teachers are attracted away from inner-city schools, which are extraordinarily challenging."

Tucson's teaching demographics reflect that trend.

Appearing to fall more in line with other local districts, the Tucson Unified School District reported this year that a little more than half of its teaching staff has more than 10 years of experience - right up there with Marana and Tanque Verde.

Up to 60 percent of the teaching staff in Marana Unified School District has more than 10 years of experience. The same percentage of teachers in the Catalina Foothills and Tanque Verde unified school districts - which serve Tucson's more affluent neighborhoods - hold graduate degrees.

Vail Unified School District, which plans to build 20 schools in the next 20 years to accommodate the booming Southeast, can't hire teachers fast enough. Less than one in four of Vail's teachers have more than 10 years of experience.

But a closer look at TUSD - the city's largest district with 62,000 students - shows a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers working in schools in TUSD's southwestern quadrant.

In Ochoa, Tolson, Grijalva and Miller elementary schools and Pistor, Valencia and Hohokam middle schools - between 31 and 40 percent of the teaching staff has less than three years of experience, according to data compiled by the Arizona Department of Education. The statistics for individual schools are posted on the state department's Web site under School Report Cards for 2003.

Valencia, Miller and Hohokam were labeled underperforming by the state last fall for poor test scores.

Southwest schools report higher numbers of inexperienced teachers than the district average of almost 17 percent with less than three years.

The average number of years of experience for teachers at Hohokam Middle School, 7400 S. Settler Road on the Southwest Side, was 5.4 years - barely half of the district's middle school average of 10.6 years. Adding to the lack of experience in needy schools is a high teacher attrition rate nationwide.

The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future recently reported that almost one in three teachers will leave the profession after three years. The turnover rate jumps to 50 percent after five years. The high turnover undermines teaching quality, the report says.

"Oh, you can't believe how we suffer," said John Michel, principal at Hohokam Middle School. "I just now had a teacher call me that was hired last week. She got a job in Tanque Verde."

Michel came back from retirement to help the middle school pull out of a slump of low test scores and attendance. He's aggressively sought to boost student and teacher morale by throwing pep rallies before test week and giving out "Yes you can!" T-shirts to staffers and students alike. The school slogan hangs in the lunchroom and the front attendance office.

Recent University of Arizona graduate Aimee Bludau said she chose Banks Elementary School, on the Southwest Side, because she was excited about teaching at a new school.

"The rewards of teaching such youngsters may be fabulous but in the end are rather sparse," Gutierrez said. "You have to deal with a lot of failure and a lot of hunger. So people tend to move on to other districts."

TUSD, which spans from North Houghton Road to the Tucson Mountains, is hoping to create a district-wide mentoring program to help new teachers adjust to the classroom. Individual schools already offer new teachers the chance to partner with their more experienced colleagues - providing a learning opportunity for both.

"There's research that indicates whether you're a new teacher or new principal, if you have some coach or mentor, it helps to develop collegial relationships," said Anna Rivera, TUSD senior academic officer for leadership.

Rivera was optimistic that the district's underperforming schools on average had gained more than the district average in recent Stanford 9 test scores. The results show her efforts weren't wasted.

"I think schoolteachers will be heartened to transfer to those schools," Rivera said. "But also, those that stay will see that their hard work is getting some productive ends."

Angelica Bejarano earned her master's degree in elementary education from the UA this spring. She had planned to work with elementary-school-age children but Bejarano will teach language arts to seventh graders at Hohokam beginning in two weeks.

"I actually put in several applications and they were the first to call," she said. "I've lived here for the last 10 years.  . . . I see these kids out on the streets. I know some of their parents already on a personal level."

Bejarano, who has raised her own teen-agers, said her community ties give her an edge in the classroom. Peer pressure, gangs and drugs are just a few of the obstacles students face. She said they just need guidance.

"You have to be pretty confident in yourself and your ability to leave your biases at home in order to face some of these children and their challenges," Bejarano said.

Gutierrez says the imbalance is perpetuating Hispanic students' perception that because they live in poorer neighborhoods, they're doomed to failure in school.

The cycle can be self-perpetuating, with school assessments driving surrounding real estate values. Realtor Lyra Done said more and more parents are looking at schools in the area before buying a home. She predominantly helps families in the Northwest, including Oro Valley, where test scores have been high recently.

"Whether you have children or not, you need to be thinking about it," she said. "When we buy a home, we need to be thinking about selling it."

Parent Cecilia Guillen laments her neighborhood's reputation and its effect on students.

"It's bad enough they're already considered in the poverty zone," she said of Tucson's South Side. Teachers "see these kids as coming from low-income families. Probably a lot of the parents haven't finished school."

"They don't push these kids. The expectations are low."

Some students said they value the more experienced teachers and question whether they're getting as useful instruction from new teachers.

"More valuable information comes from more experienced teachers - more things that we'd use in life," said 16-year-old Christina Dohring, who will start her sophomore year at Cholla High School in a couple of weeks.

Cholla junior Jessica Gomez, 16, asked, "How are they going to get right out of school and teach a bunch of kids if they're not used to that environment?

"It's kind of sad."

* Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or at jsterba@azstarnet.com.