Earlier this year, the West Contra Costa Unified School District attempted to answer a tough question: What would it take to
turn around a struggling school like Stege Elementary in Richmond?
Now nearly two months into the new school year, the principal, while still hopeful, says she’s frustrated that the school lacks a clear plan and change hasn’t come fast enough.
“We haven’t gotten all the resources we were promised,” said Stege Principal Nicole Ruiz who is in her second year of leading the school.
The school, located north of the San Francisco Bay, has existed since 1943. But in recent years, the school has struggled with low academic performance, poor attendance, high suspension rates, too many inexperienced teachers and high instructor turnover rates.
Recent results on the 2019 Smarter Balanced exam show some improvement for the 2018-19 school year. But students remain well below state averages for third through sixth grades. The percentage of students who met or exceeded the standard on the English language arts test increased by 3.1 percentage points to 10.85 percent. In math, the number of students who met or exceeded the standard on the math exam increased by 4.64 percentage points to 7.69 percent.
School district officials described this year as one focused on planning the redesign that will fundamentally improve the K-6 school.
The district and the community want this school year to be the start of something different. Over the summer, the district put a focus on hiring more experienced teachers and giving the school more resources.
And while some of these reforms have taken place, many of the people who work in the school or have familiarity with the daily operations say not enough is being done to turn the school around.
West Contra Costa Schools Superintendent Matthew Duffy said this school year is more about planning and seeing what is starting to work, or not, for the school.
“It is a very ambitious plan with a pretty tight turnaround,” Duffy said. “We aim to put a lot of resources in place at Stege and really thought of this year as strengthening and stabilizing the school.”
One example of what Ruiz calls the school’s missing resources is an academic coach. The school had that position to help teachers with the curriculum mostly because so many teachers before this year were inexperienced, said Ruiz.
“This year, I don’t have a coach,” Ruiz said. “However, our school has a newly adopted curriculum.”
Ruiz concedes that one reason the school doesn’t have an academic coach is that a couple of teachers hired this year are experts in the new reading and writing curriculum known as the Readers-Writers Workshop, in addition to their regular duties. Now, Ruiz would like to give them some relief.
Another element missing this year — a vice principal.
West Contra Costa assigns vice principals to schools based on enrollment size and some special populations, such as low-income or foster students. Stege Elementary, which has perennially suffered from low enrollment, currently has about 270 students — not enough to employ a vice principal. The district could fund a part-time vice principal if 96 percent of the school’s students classified as one of those special populations. Only 95.3 percent of Stege’s population satisfies that requirement, Ruiz said.
She said there is some movement to bring in another administrator to assist her and work with teachers, but it will take time to get the position filled.
Duffy said the decision was made to put money into hiring teachers instead of a vice principal. He acknowledges that the launch of the redesign hasn’t been perfect.
“If there was any struggle, it was getting everyone staffed from day one,” he said. “A number of those support positions took longer than we expected.”
Demetrio Gonzalez, president of United Teachers of Richmond, which represents the teachers, said schools across the region have had trouble replacing teachers when needed.
“With any large change there are going to be hiccups and we knew there was going to be hiccups,” Gonzalez said. “It became a challenge to fill positions a month, two months in.”
From the first week of school, the school was down one of the experienced teachers it was promised. That meant a technology specialist teacher shifted to cover a fifth-grade classroom. And the in-house substitute spent the first months of the school year covering the technology class. The school also contended with a teacher retiring early. That position was filled two weeks ago.
The school has historically suffered, in part, because of teacher absences and high teacher turnover. It also faced days where there weren’t enough teachers, requiring that students be dispersed to other classes.
Some of these challenges, like filling teacher positions, are typical for any public school, Gonzalez said, referring to the state’s continuing teacher shortage. But the school has special needs, he added. “I do think they need more support,” he said.
Nevertheless, it creates a difficult workload for teachers who are already working with a high population of students who are experiencing trauma such as poverty or homelessness. And there was a commitment made this year that every student would receive daily technology or art classes.
Those traumas students experience sometimes lead to “extreme behaviors,” such as violence against other students and teachers and that compounds some of the problems the school experiences, Ruiz said.
As the principal, she describes being pulled in many directions. Too often, Ruiz is defusing conflicts with students. That means she’s not assisting teachers in their classrooms and the well-behaved students rarely see her, which she doesn’t like.
“I have a lot of restorative conversations with students, and they’re not quick, cut and dry,” Ruiz said. “Something else could happen in the 15 to 20 minutes I’m with one student mediating conflict and that sometimes takes me away.”
The school also lacks a counselor that families in the community have asked for.
The school has undergone other redesigns in the past.
“I’d be interested to know what type of planning went into other redesigns because I don’t feel like the planning that went into this reinvention was sufficient enough,” Ruiz said. “It wasn’t as thought through. A lot of things we’re finding out about after the fact that if we had taken a step back and thought through, we wouldn’t have questions.”
Ruiz, for example, points to the effort that went into making sure teachers received more pay for their additional professional development days.
“No one took into consideration our office staff and how changes to our schedule would affect office staff,” she said. “It wasn’t thought through with our families and how additional days would affect them and the odd days their student is not in school.”
“I am concerned that we do not have the resources and ability to pull this thing off.”
— Mister Phillips, school board trustee
Part of the redesign includes giving teachers 10 additional professional development days, of which five are embedded into the academic year and cost the district about $55,300. Those extra days mean extending the school’s calendar by about a week. Every teacher is receiving a $10,000 incentive because the school is considered “hard-to-staff.”
“With this whole redesign the main thing we wanted to create for teachers was not just more time to prepare the day and classes, but collaboration and more professional development,” Gonzalez said. “But with a lack of staff, that collaboration hasn’t happened as much as we were hoping.”
West Contra Costa school board trustee Mister Phillips agrees that the design process for improving Stege hasn’t been clearly laid out.
“There are some changes going on at the school, but there has not been a vision or a plan for what Stege is going to look like and how we’ll get there,” Phillips said. “And that’s what is causing the confusion.”
In a general sense, everyone wants the school to improve and be better for the students and the community, Phillips said. Still, he’s less sure that even changes like increasing teacher salaries and offering a financial incentive will persist beyond this year.
“I am concerned that we do not have the resources and ability to pull this thing off, whatever this thing is because it has not been clear,” Phillips said.
Not to mention the district has a $48 million budget deficit it needs to solve over the next two years, he said.
Duffy said the district’s most significant successes this year was hiring more experienced teachers who had “successful urban experience.” More enrichment teachers, an in-house substitute teacher and more support for community outreach also were added, he said.
Gonzalez said the primary difference with staff is “these people truly want to be there and they purposely applied to be at Stege.”
In the “second phase” of redesigning the school, all of the staff will go through an interview process to determine if they match the vision produced by the redesign team, Duffy said.
The district will “look at whether these teachers were that successful and what do we need to bring in even better or stronger teachers next year, and that would go with leadership as well,” Duffy said, adding that by leadership he is including the principal.
But there is also some confusion over what the district is evaluating as it figures out what works or doesn’t work for a new and improved school, Ruiz said.
“Right now, we’re evaluating apples to oranges,” Ruiz said. “We’re making improvements to the school, but we’re taking away sources of support, and some support hasn’t been given, so when should we start evaluating?”
Duffy said there are goals that the school is expected to meet.
“We’re looking for successes in academics in terms of how students are achieving and also looking at the success in socio-emotional growth,” he said. “The key for us is learning from this year and learning which of those resources were not the right resources and what is right.”
School Board President Tom Panas agreed and said the community can expect a final redesign plan and all staff hired by the end of the school year.