Many local students are still acclimating to their new school, new classrooms, new lockers, new faces, new procedures — but so are many of the teachers.
At Stuart Academy, three in every five teachers are new to the school — or even new to teaching. That turnover rate is about three times the average for middle schools in Jefferson County Public Schools.
The school, in the South End, 4603 Valley Station Road, teaches seventh and eighth grades. Principal Laura Dalton told Insider that her biggest challenge is “hiring, recruiting and keeping staff longer than one, two years.”
Two days before classes began this school year, Dalton and JCPS Acting Superintendent Marty Pollio walked through the school’s hallways, ducking into some classrooms where experienced teachers introduced their new colleagues to everything from the school schedule to its organizational system, lockers and dress code.
Dalton has led the school since 2016. In November of 2015, the state, after a “diagnostic review,” had recommended that her predecessor, Renee Bledsoe, be removed. The review was a result of the school’s poor academic performance (bottom 5 percent), which had prompted the state to identify Stuart as a “priority school,” in 2011, which made it eligible for additional support including support staff. Stuart is one of 18 priority schools in the district, which includes 157 schools that serve about 100,000 students.
School and district officials said that the high teacher turnover rate at Stuart is a result, at least in part, of the school’s challenging — though, teachers say, rewarding — environment.
Stuart last year had about 4.6 percent of the district’s seventh- and eighth-grade population, but accounted for about 19 percent of middle school level disciplinary referrals. Only four of the district’s schools had a higher referral rate.
Pollio told Insider that schools that are being redesigned under new leadership can experience higher-than-average turnover, because some people are going to buy into the new approach — and others are not.
Stuart’s turnover rate should decline in the coming years, he said.
Dalton said teachers at Stuart have to have “a special set of skills to meet the needs of our diverse population.”
Tough to learn when you’re hungry
In 2015-16, the share of Stuart’s students with special education needs was 18 percent, or 50 percent higher than the district average, according to the Kentucky Department of Education. About 6.5 percent were classified as homeless, higher than both the district and state averages. About 4.4 percent were classified as gifted and talented, compared with about 15 percent in the district and 16 percent statewide.
In 2015-16, 8.7 percent of Stuart students scored proficient or distinguished in language mechanics, compared with 32.1 percent in the district, and 41.2 percent in the state. In math, a quarter of Stuart’s students produced a proficient or distinguished score, compared with about half of all district students, and nearly 60 percent statewide.
The district in 2015-16 spent about $9,756 per Stuart student, or about $2,500 less than the district average.
A high share of Stuart’s students come from low-income families or are dealing with abuse or abandonment issues, which add barriers to their ability and willingness to learn, school officials said. Nearly 90 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, compared with 66 percent in the district and 60 percent statewide.
Dalton said that it’s difficult to get students motivated to learn math or English when they’re hungry or worry about where they’re going to sleep that night.
Some just come to school to escape troubles in their home, she said.
“It’s a challenging environment,” Dalton said. Teachers and administrators “have to be fearless.”
Many new teachers come to Stuart from outside the district, some even from outside the profession, who move into teaching through an alternate route, Dalton said. Some teachers join Stuart from other districts primarily as a springboard to get into JCPS — and to jump to the next JCPS school as soon as possible.
Three of the school’s teachers said that they love the job, in part because of the challenges. They say that helping struggling kids who doubt their abilities achieve successes can produce big rewards.
Joe Patzelt, a second-year special education teacher, said he decided to stay at Stuart because he enjoys a challenge, and because he doesn’t want to be another adult who gives up on the students.
Many of Stuart’s students, he said, come to school with a fixed mind-set: They believe they are what they are and are powerless to change their situation. Getting them to be willing to learn requires that they adopt a growth mind-set, that they believe they’re intelligent and capable of changing themselves and their surroundings.
Patzelt said that in his first year, one of his students was very quiet, but enjoyed drawing, so the teacher said he celebrated that skill by hanging the drawings on the wall.
“We have to reach a little further to pull them on board,” he said. “If you truly have a passion for kids, this is the place.”
Hank Rothrock, an eighth-grade language arts teacher, agreed.
“You’ve got to praise the smallest victory,” he said.
Routine early-school-year exercises, such as asking the kids what they did over the summer, can backfire. Many of the students don’t have the money to go anywhere over the summer, which means if you ask them what they did, they may not have much to talk about. Instead, Rothrock said he might ask them to create a narrative about what they might have done if they had gone to Florida. Students might be engaged even more if you tell them to make the story scary. That can lead to discussions about clichés in horror stories. Once teachers find an approach that engages the kids, the learning comes all by itself, Rothrock said.
The fifth-year teacher also serves as an instructional coach and helps equip new teachers with skills that help them avoid looking like rookies — because the students will test the teachers.
Carlos Rowlett, an emotional behavior disorder teacher, said that new teachers might struggle more with finding the right balance between being firm and consistent with the students, while letting them know that the teacher cares about them, even when they make a mistake.
The students know that many teachers stay at Stuart for only a short while, and they will test the instructors, to see what kind of behavior they will tolerate.
Once they see that their behavior cannot drive the teacher away and cannot keep him from caring about them, the students start to open up, Rowlett said. With such a relationship as a foundation, students can start focusing on academic achievements.
Rowlett said that he, too, got frustrated in his early years with the high turnover rate among teachers — and administrators. He said he got tired of investing time and energy getting to know and helping new teachers — only to see them leave months later. However, now that he’s more experienced, he said he realizes that the approach was counterproductive. Teachers stay at the school in part because of the relationships they build with their coworkers, he said. Now he tries to reach out to new colleagues and check in with them to provide support.
“Even if I’m the only reason they want to stay, then the job is done,” he said.
New approach to behavior problems
This school year, Stuart is tackling its disciplinary problems with a new approach that focuses on teaching the students the impact of their actions on other students, teachers, administrators and the community at large.
Called Restorative Practice, the approach replaces traditional punishment models with a focus on helping the students empathize with whomever they have wronged, to take responsibility for their actions, to repair the damage and to take steps to make sure the don’t repeat their mistakes, Dalton said.
The school applied for a grant with the district, which paid for training of everyone from bus drivers and custodians to teachers.
The goal, Dalton said, is to cut the number of disciplinary referrals at Stuart in half.
Rothrock said turning around the school’s student performance, behavior challenges — and reputation in the community — is challenging and will take time, but it takes dedicated teachers, administrators and staff to achieve those goals.
He said that he grew up with some trauma, which allows him to relate to the kids. Plus, he said with a chuckle, he’s somewhat attracted to “controlled chaos.”
“I love these kids,” Rothrock said. “I can’t imagine teaching somewhere else.”