Kids play at Stege Elementary school in Richmond (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

By many measures, Stege Elementary School in Richmond demands change.

The K-6 school is one of 481 of the 10,000 California schools cited as lowest performing in the state in 2017-18, based on low test scores, high suspensions and chronic absenteeism. Because it is losing so many students, the West Contra Costa Unified School District in the East Bay has designated the school for a complete redesign over the next 18 months in hopes of attracting more students and experienced teachers.

In the last decade, Stege Elementary, which serves mostly low-income African-American and Latino students, has lost about a third of its students, dropping down to 260 as families turned to charter schools and other district schools.

Most students are struggling to learn reading and math, yet they are increasingly taught by first-year teachers. Most teachers elect not to return the next year. On any given day, many students are missing too — the school’s rates for absenteeism and suspensions last year were more than triple the state’s average.

“What we’re trying to do here is ring the bell, raise the flag and say we believe it’s time to do something different,” Superintendent Matthew Duffy told the community at a recent meeting. “We cannot be back here in three or four years with only 110 kids at Stege, talking about how we need to close the school.”

Stege, pronounced Steej, is named for the founder of the 19th century town now tucked between two freeways in a corner of Richmond, a diverse industrial city on the edge of San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay. The school operates out of a one-story building erected in 1943.

Community members called for the district to hire more experienced teachers at a public meeting in February 2019. (Photo by Zaidee Stavely/EdSource)

Many of the school’s students live in four nearby low-income apartment complexes. More than half are African-American — far more than any other school in the district. Almost all students are considered poor because they qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch.

“We feel that it’s really worth putting our best foot forward and giving the community a great option right in its backyard,” Duffy told EdSource.

The federal Every Students Succeeds Act, a law that went into effect this year to replace the No Child Left Behind law, requires the state to come up with the annual list of lowest-performing schools that serve low-income students. For each of the 11 schools on the list in West Contra Costa, the district is eligible to receive about $150,000 in federal aid, and in return, must come up with an improvement plan for each one. The funds can be used for analyzing data and planning interventions, but not for hiring permanent staff. Stege Elementary is the only school in the district slated for a complete redesign because it’s losing so many students.

Community asked to help redesign the school

Just what the redesign will look like is still unclear. To start with, the district plans to hire more experienced teachers next year and follow a teachers’ union proposal to give all teachers assigned to the school more time to work together and training on topics like how to teach young children to read or how to help children manage their emotions.

The union also proposed longer school days and a longer school year so teachers will have more time to work with students who come to school behind their peers. To attract more experienced teachers, the union proposed to pay each teacher a $30,000 annual bonus. The district agrees it should improve teacher compensation, but has not yet announced any details.

Gonzalez said the union has committed to providing $50,000 next school year to pay for a full-time community coordinator, who would do home visits with families and conduct a study on what programs neighborhood families want the school to provide.

The goal is to unveil a new program in Fall 2020. Options include focusing on curriculum. Examples include art or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) but that will depend on the community, Duffy said.

“We do know we have some core beliefs,” said Duffy. “One of those is a dedication to hiring experienced teachers, teachers who have experience in urban areas, with communities of color. And when I say experience, I mean experience being successful.”

Duffy knows finding teachers committed to Stege Elementary is his primary challenge.

This year, seven of the 17 teachers at the school have what are called “intern credentials,” which means they received only a few weeks of training, typically in the summer before they began teaching. To continue teaching they are required to get a full credential within two years, which means enrolling in a teacher preparation program and taking additional coursework.

The other teachers have full teaching credentials, but many of them are relatively new to the profession, and have what are called preliminary credentials which they must upgrade to a “clear” credential within five years.

Teacher turnover is also high. After the 2016-17 school year, 11 of 18 teachers left; after the next year, 15 of 18 teachers left.

Hiring strong teachers was the most consistent recommendation made at a public meeting the district held in February on the school’s future. Speaker after speaker said many teachers and staff do not believe in the children, are afraid of the children, and have no idea how to work with children who have experienced trauma, poverty, or homelessness.

‘Our kids are amazing’

“Our kids are amazing. They are not flawed. They are not broken. They are not dysfunctional. They need a community of adults who are proficient and have the highest belief possible in them,” vice principal Stephanie Sanchez told the school board at the meeting. “I highly urge you not to just come up with a gimmick, not just come up with a branding. If the mindsets of the adults who are in the program do not believe in the children, no amount of iPads are going to change the school.”

Foster mother Thelma Randles also spoke at the meeting, saying teachers need training to understand children who have experienced trauma or loss, like those who have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

“We expect them to go to school, sit down, behave and do what the teacher asks them to do. And all the while, they are thinking, ‘When am I going to see my mom? When I am going to see my sister? If I tear up this, if I do that, perhaps I can go back home,’” Randles said.

Principal Nicole Ruiz, who began at the school last fall, agreed the top priority is more teacher preparation.

“They’re just not properly trained to deal with trauma-impacted students,” she said.

The students are facing multiple challenges. The school has a higher percentage of homeless students, foster students, students with disabilities, poor students and English learners than schools statewide. Ruiz says many have witnessed domestic violence and gun violence in the neighborhood. Some children have multiple family members who have died from gun violence.

Ruiz says the trauma they have experienced often fills the young children — who range in age from 4 to 12 — with rage.

“They destroy things,” she said. “They have a fight or flight mentality sometimes.”

Glimpses of a different future

Despite its troubles, the school has shown glimpses of a different future. In her first year, Ruiz and the special education team won an award from the district.

“They have done extraordinary work with limited resources,” wrote Leslie Hernandez, Program Specialist for Special Education in the district, who nominated the team for the award. “I commended the Stege Team, for all they do and believing that ALL students can learn.”

Some community members have called for the school to become a “full-service community school,” meaning it should offer services like medical check-ups, mental health counseling, and referrals to social services for families and students.

Ruiz agrees with that idea. She says without those services, “we’re just putting Band-Aids on things.” The school currently has a counselor from a non-profit organization, but Ruiz says he can’t see all the students who need therapy. She believes the school needs at least one more full-time counselor.

As Ruiz strolled through the halls one March morning, two young students approached their classroom doors, but ducked back in as soon as they saw her. Ruiz smiled, pleased to see she’s making a difference.

“I can tell you when I started, there were students literally running out of the classrooms,” said Ruiz.

One of her first goals, she says, has been to help the students stay in their classrooms and at their desks ready to learn.

“They’re amazing, they really want to learn, they want consistency,” she said. “When they know the expectations you have of them, they work really hard to meet or exceed those expectations.”

In the Transitional Kindergarten classroom (for children who turned 5 between Sep 2 and Dec 2), children rushed to give Ruiz hugs, then gathered on the colorful rug.

“Why are we working on our letters?” asked teacher Meredith Hamilton.

“To grow our brains,” answered one little boy. “So we can be whatever we want,” replied another student. “So we can learn to read,” said another.

Learning to read is an ongoing struggle for these students. More than 90 percent of students scored below the state standard on math and English Language Arts tests for the 2017-18 school year. Ruiz also stopped in to see a group of 1st and 2nd graders reviewing simple one-syllable words, like flat, cat and shin, with special education teacher Hannah Geitner. She played an online video for them to sing along with. “If you can read a-t, at, then you can read cat!” the children sang.

Ruiz said special education teachers like Geitner started pulling out all 1st through third-graders to work on reading in small groups this year. They’re doing the same for fourth- through sixth-graders with math.

“There are teachers who work extremely hard, despite what may be said about them,” said third-grade teacher Sam Cleare. Originally from Georgia, it is Cleare’s second year teaching at Stege Elementary, and she says she loves it and hopes to be at the school for a long time. 

“That feeling was strengthened when I went to the board meeting and heard alumni of Stege speak and get to see a full community effort,” Cleare said.

As a white teacher who is not from the Bay Area, she says she agrees with community members that it is important for her and other teachers to examine their own biases.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the school with the highest population of students who are African American is facing this high turnover,” she said. “I think it’s important to have an honest conversation looking into the different biases or racist ideas that play out in different types of actions and different situations throughout the day.”

Lorena Galvez, whose daughter is in third grade, said parents have raised alarms for years about how far behind their children are in school. She said teachers are inexperienced and often miss class, leaving students with frequent substitutes.

“I’ve had my child there since kindergarten, but I don’t see any change,” Galvez said in Spanish.

Parents, staff and other community members expressed distrust of the redesign process and skepticism that it will actually make the school better.

Zaidee Stavely