Sisters and teachers, Juli and Robin Bryant, prepare for the start of a new year at Stege Elementary School. (Photo by Andrew Reed)

Students entering Stege Elementary in Richmond last Monday may not immediately noticed it, but their school is in the midst of dramatic change.

For the first time in years, every new classroom teacher is arriving with more than five years of experience as an educator. The K-6 school, which struggled with keeping teachers, will also have a full-time substitute teacher.

The school building, in West Contra Costa Unified School District, also got an update with new office furniture and a fresh coat of paint in the classrooms.

A mainstay in the community since 1943, the school sits between two interstates north of Berkeley in a diverse, industrial city on the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

The school was slated for an overhaul after it became one of 481 of the lowest performing schools in California in 2017.

A lot of eyes are on Stege Elementary to see how these changes impact the school and the students. If the reforms show significant change, it could emerge as an example for how to turn around other low-performing schools in California.

“Unfortunately we have a district with a lot of high need,” said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of United Teachers of Richmond, the teachers union. “This was supposed to be a pilot or experimentation of something we can replicate. We’re already talking about if this works what are our next schools, which is pretty exciting.”

“We’re already talking about if this works what are our next schools, which is pretty exciting.”
— Demetrio Gonzalez, president of United Teachers of Richmond

District officials and the community demanded change to end declining enrollment, poor test scores, high suspension rates and chronic absenteeism. About 260 students, who are mostly African American or Latino and between the ages of 4 and 12, will attend the school this year.

As everyone at the school and in the district agrees, it’s a big year for Stege Elementary.

“There was constant turnover with new teachers,” Gonzalez said. “So I’m happy to see we had a large number of people apply for the positions and some from outside of the district wanting to work at Stege.”

The school had been labeled “hard-to-staff” because of high teacher turnover. After the 2016-17 school year, 11 of 18 teachers left. The following year, 15 of 18 teachers chose to leave.

This year, all classrooms will be fully staffed largely because each teacher is receiving a $10,000 stipend to work at the school this year. Six teachers are returning from last year. The district also hired six fully credentialed teachers. Those new teachers each have anywhere from five to 30 years of educator experience.

Marie McEntee, a third-grade teacher and curriculum leader, moves books from the library to her classroom at Stege Elementary.

“I feel like a coach who got to draft my own dream team,” Stege Principal Nicole Ruiz said. “This is how (former LA Lakers coach) Pat Riley felt when he coached the original Dream Team. We have great people here who are willing to do the hard work.”

Among the new teachers are sisters  Juli Bryant and Robin Bryant who volunteered to join the faculty – Juli to teach art and Robin to teach kindergarten.

Hiring more experienced teachers wasn’t the school’s only summer goal. Students will have longer class days by 20 minutes and a longer school year. Teachers are getting 10 additional workdays without students.

Low test scores have been a problem for the school for at least 20 years. More than 90 percent of students scored below the state standard on math and English for the 2017-18 school year, the most recent available. But school officials and teachers are optimistic that a new teaching approach will help improve overall student school performance. That approach recognizes student problems outside of the classroom like hunger and dealing with the loss of family members to gun violence.

Marie McEntee, one of the new teachers to the school who has been an educator for 30 years, said she’s heard about the traumas these students have experienced and thinks that she can help by building “nurturing relationships” with them.

Sam Cleare, a Stege third-grade teacher, was excited to welcome her students back last Monday.

“And then there is going to be reality,” she said. “It sounds great now but … I’m just hoping I can do what’s best for every student in the class.”

McEntee could have retired, but she said she saw something special happening at the school and wanted to be a part of improving it. A third-grade teacher and curriculum leader, she is introducing a new way of teaching reading and writing that meets students at their reading level and allows them to progress at their own pace. The approach is known as the Readers-Writers Workshop or the Lucy Calkins method.

“I am absolutely positive that this approach to reading and writing is extremely effective for all students and helps build relationships between teachers and students,” she said.

Students will also have dedicated gym, art, music or technology classes. The district also hired a dedicated tutor for the school.

“They weren’t getting art or P.E. except for whatever their classroom teachers were doing,” Gonzalez said. “Now all kids are getting these classes.”

The changes include the district building a better relationship between the school and the community.

Theresa Griffin, a sixth-grade teacher, prepares her classroom for students on Aug. 19, the first day of school at Stege Elementary in Richmond.

The union, for example, has partnered with the district by paying the salary of a full-time Community Schools Coordinator by using a $50,000 grant it received from its national union, the National Education Association. The coordinator, who is expected to be hired soon, will meet with families, teachers and community leaders to generate support for the redesign and help build better relationships between each group. The union also supported the district’s plan to give each teacher a $10,000 incentive.

“We’re claiming the school as one of our own,” said Dale Weatherspoon, pastor of Easter Hill Methodist Church, who has been encouraging people to volunteer at the school. “I don’t know if we have any children at the school at our church, but Stege is in our community, and we’re a community church.”

Weatherspoon said about six people from his congregation have agreed to be mentors or tutors to the students.

“We want the kids to see older black folks as mentors and role models and grandmother and grandfather types,” he said. “And to hear their stories.”

In an effort to involve the community in the school’s redesign, the union hired teachers to canvass the district this summer to learn from families with children attending the school what they wanted to see change.

“We want Stege to be around for a long time.”
— Pastor Dale Weatherspoon

Those families said they wanted more contact with the school, resources, a safer environment and an education that was relevant to the lives of many black and Latino students at the school, said Mitzi Perez, a teacher at Kennedy High School, who volunteered to go door-to-door.

One common theme the teachers heard was that families felt their children didn’t have enough resources or support in the past, said Sam Cleare, a third-grade teacher who is returning for her third year at the school.

“What I heard most was a lot of personal or negative interactions between the school and the community,” Cleare said. “I’ve known some amazing teachers who worked there, but staff members were under-resourced, and they’re expected to take care of all these things that most staff would not have to think about.”

Nearly 94 percent of the school’s students come from low-income families and many of them are experiencing trauma, poverty or homelessness. Cleare, who is originally from Georgia, said families could see that the teachers had little experience and no understanding of the community.

The play area and blacktop are ready for kids at Stege Elementary School in Richmond.

“I was only a second-year teacher … and I felt spread thin,” Cleare said. “There is this concern from families that it’s your child and they’re being taught by this person who is not from here, and it’s pretty apparent when one of the first year (teachers) is teaching.”

Cleare said one thing the community and the teachers asked for was training so the teachers could be more sensitive to the culture students were coming from. She’s also made a point of getting to know her students’ families, attending alumni events, board and community meetings.

“What’s important for me is having staff members who will be there for a very long time, are trained well and have relationships with the community,” she said.

Weatherspoon, the Easter Hill pastor, said he’s feeling positive about the new direction the school is moving.

“I always want things to move faster but I’m optimistic because there is good energy around Stege,” he said. “Some good things are happening at Stege and people want to help the school be more effective. … We want Stege to be around for a long time.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series on the challenges facing Stege Elementary in the East Bay as it embarks on a plan to transform itself by the fall of 2020. A new school year is bringing changes and fresh hope for the school’s future. Please share your story about Stege Elementary with us.

Story originally published by EdSource.