The Pasco School District’s efforts to recruit skilled, biliterate teachers were cited as a stellar example by educators Wednesday at a state board meeting.
But those efforts were all driven by local leaders using local cash, the educators said. Now, it’s time for the state to better support equal access to quality teachers.
The comments were made to the Washington State Board of Education, which is meeting this week in Pasco.
State officials are considering how to tackle the issue at the urging of the federal government. States like Washington are required to explain how they plan to make skilled, experienced teachers more available to low-income students and students of color. An updated plan is due June 1.
That’s an added challenge because the state already is dealing with a shortage of teachers, in part because baby boomer teachers are retiring.
Jose Cruz, a Pasco bilingual third-grade teacher, said he was lucky enough to start teaching at Virgie Robinson Elementary School after working there as a student teacher from Washington State University.
He credits his Pasco teachers for encouraging him to consider teaching as a career. It especially helped seeing Latinos serve in professional roles, he said.
While working with his mentor, fifth-grade teacher Mark Arreola, Cruz was impressed at how many of Arreola’s students see him as a father figure, cry as school comes to an end and come back to visit, he said.
Cruz decided to come back to Pasco as a teacher to be a role model like Arreola and the teachers who taught him, he said.
He said he feels he can help his students because he personally knows what it is like to grow up in poverty — raised by a single mother — in an area with a lot of gang activity.
Pasco looks for teachers who want to work with students who truly need them, said Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill. But it’s a challenge to find enough K-8 teachers who are fully biliterate, not just bilingual.
That’s critical because Pasco uses a late-exit bilingual program to help transition its many Spanish-speaking students to using English as an academic language. As a student moves up each grade level, the amount of Spanish instruction goes down and English instruction grows.
Pasco has tried to recruit teachers who have a passion to serve children with perceived barriers and actively recruits both in and out of the state to find the right ones, said Michelle Whitney, Pasco’s future superintendent and current director of teaching and learning.
Pasco works with local universities to interview student teaching candidates and partner them with a master teacher, Whitney said. The goal is to keep them working in the school district.
It takes time to prepare new teachers and it has been almost impossible to keep up, Hill said. An added challenge has been paying for efforts locally.
Statewide, low-income students and students of color are more likely to be taught by teachers with five years or less experience, who are not highly qualified or who are teaching out of their subject area, said Julia Suliman, lead research analyst working on the state teacher equity plan.
The school district has hired an average of 100 new teachers each year for the past 15 years. That means that about half of the district’s 1,100 teachers have been hired in the past five years, Hill said.
The federal government considers a teacher to be excellent based on years of experience, a bachelor’s degree, a certificate, being highly qualified and teaching within their field, Suliman said.
However, the state team working on the plan has suggested adding content area expertise, engagement in professional development, student growth and success, and other measures to determine which teachers are excellent.
Hill said she challenges the federal definition of a highly qualified teacher because it doesn’t really mean that teacher is highly qualified. Some who have the highly qualified stamp from the feds aren’t, and some who don’t have it are.
Pasco and Kennewick make the list of state school districts with the most high-poverty schools. In Pasco, 13 of 19 schools fit that definition, while 11 of Kennewick’s 28 schools do, according to 2011-12 state data.
Pasco had more than 6 percent of its teachers in their first year, more than the state average of almost 3 percent. Kennewick was slightly lower than the average at 2.2 percent.
Pasco and Kennewick also had nearly all of their classes in those schools taught by highly qualified teachers. That was above the state average.
The biggest suggested fix is an overall compensation reform so that all teachers are paid a fair wage and there is less disparity among school districts, said Maria Flores, a Title II director with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The state also lacks systemic professional development for teachers, and state-funded mentoring programs for new teachers, Flores said.
But Hill said misguided state and federal policies that only serve to bash teachers at high-need schools are a significant problem in finding and retaining staff.
Having high-need schools and the staff who work there labeled as failing, then requiring them to jump through hoops to beat the designation, makes it difficult to find principals and teachers willing to work there, Hill said. It’s no surprise that students in a school where most are still learning English aren’t able to pass state assessments given to them in English.
Students at Virgie Robinson show the growth teachers want to inspire, Cruz said. But the school of 900, which has about 97 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, and 81 percent considered English language learners, doesn’t show high scores on the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessments.