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Principal Betlach leads a staff meeting at Elmhurst Community Prep.

As schools struggle with turnover, an East Oakland middle school keeps its teachers

on September 26, 2018

Teachers leave Oakland schools every year feeling unsupported and undervalued. According to an Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) survey conducted in April, when teachers leave, the most common reason they cite is missing a “sense of feeling valued, trusted and respected.” From 2006-2017, the district’s teacher attrition rate averaged at about 18.5 percent—higher than the national average of other urban districts (15 percent). Schools recruit a constant flow of inexperienced teachers to replace the teachers who leave.

But not at Elmhurst Community Prep. Elmhurst has seen steady improvement in retention since 2014, and for the first time began this school year with a full team of teachers with at least one year of teaching experience.While Elmhurst isn’t the only school in the district that has succeeded in keeping its staff, for a middle school (the type of school with the highest turnover in the district) in East Oakland (the region with the highest turnover), its retention is exceptional.

At a September 6 meeting discussing the teacher turnover problem, Sarah Glasband, the district’s manager of retention, pointed out that the district might be able to learn from schools like Elmhurst and its principal, Kilian Betlach.

“He doesn’t have any first-year teachers at his school this year,” Glasband said with admiration. “What is he doing?”

If you ask Betlach what he does to keep teachers at Elmhurst, he reframes the question. “Teachers keep themselves here,” Betlach says. “Not in the sense that we don’t do anything, but at the end of the day, it’s on them.”

While that answer might seem like a modest evasion, in his seven years as the school’s principal, Betlach has worked to help teachers want to stay on at the school by organizing teaching teams, investing in instructional coaches who observe teachers in the classroom and advise them on ways to improve, and fostering a culture of collaboration so that teachers feel supported.

Elmhurst hasn’t always had a perfect retention record. In fact, during some years like 2011 and 2014, the majority of the staff left. Betlach says that during those years, the problem of making Elmhurst a place where teachers want to stay literally kept him up at night. “We cannot run a successful school if we’re replacing nine teachers every year. It’s just not possible,” Betlach says. “You’re not going to hire your way to a veteran and experienced staff.”

Betlach, who sits at a desk with a placard given to him by one of his teachers declaring him the “WORLD’S OKAYEST BOSS,” grew up as one of the few white students bussed into a predominantly African American, Latinx and Caribbean high school in South Florida. After college, he joined Teach For America at Lee Mathson Middle School in East San Jose, where he stayed for six years until trying a stint as the assistant director of policy and data with The Education Trust-West, a policy organization. One day on that job, he found himself sitting in a ballroom during a long meeting discussing longitudinal data systems and realized that he needed to get back to a school campus.

In 2009, Betlach found an assistant principal job at Elmhurst, stepping up to be the principal of the school when his boss left in 2012. At first, the return to a school setting was challenging for Betlach. “In some ways it was starting it over, because when you work at a school for a minute, you build relationships and rapport and you connect with kids and you start to build a reputation. And then I came here, and a kid told me ‘No’ on the first day,” Betlach says. “I was like, ‘I haven’t been told no since 2003. This is shocking.’”

Now, Betlach is in his element at Elmhurst. At a Wednesday afternoon staff meeting, Betlach is gushing with teachers over crazy Oreo flavors (“I’m tempted to buy them all the time,” Betlach says), conspiracy theories (Betlach is partial to ones about the JFK assassination, which he calls “the original lie at the heart of our broken political system”) and science jokes. (“Did you hear about the date that oxygen and magnesium went on?” one science teacher asks. “O Mg.”)

Along with discussion of an upcoming OUSD audit to ensure the school has its required books, two teachers give “PechaKuchas”—Japanese for “chit-chat,” or short PowerPoint presentations—sharing their life stories in 20 slides. During guidance counselor Louise Brewster’s PechaKucha, she stops at one slide showing her in a Halloween costume wearing ashen makeup: She’s the old Taylor Swift who can’t come to the in phone in her song “Look What You Made Me Do” … because she’s dead.

“The kids didn’t really get that, because they don’t listen to Taylor Swift,” Brewster admits.

When Betlach calls out various departments, they respond with their nicknames: The science team is “Sparkles,” the math team is “Magic,” English is “Unicorns,” and the history team is boycotting nicknames. (“That’s so history,” groans a science teacher.)

The teams divide up to have their department meetings, with Betlach joining Sparkles to discuss how they’ll plan their peer observations. These are regular opportunities for the teachers to have a substitute take over one of their class periods, while they observe another teacher on their team to see new ideas in action and offer feedback to their colleagues.

This kind of cooperation and shared knowledge is central to why many Elmhurst teachers say they like working at the school. “You know what really helped me? Having experienced teachers on my team, who welcomed me,” says Darielle Vigay, an 8th grade history teacher who grew up in Oakland. Vigay previously ran after-school programs at the school and started teaching last year.

The other 8th grade teachers helped make sure that her transition into teaching was smooth. “We started having lunches together,” Vigay says, emphasizing how the conversations at these lunches were a safe haven that helped her stay grounded over the course of a difficult school day. “Oh, your day was tough too? So, it’s not just me. It’s not just that I’m a new teacher. It was actually a tough day.”

Betlach says teacher culture is an important part of what makes Elmhurst special. “People get along. They like each other. They know each other. The work is buttressed with a lot of humor, and that’s not true everywhere, particularly when you’re doing hard work,” Betlach says.

And the work is hard. According to Betlach, the average student comes to Elmhurst four years behind grade level and is often living in circumstances that make succeeding in the classroom difficult. “You’re better off as an 11-year-old if you don’t hear gunshots at night. You’re better off as an 11-year-old if your parents are working a living wage job—that is, like a 9-to-5 job. That they’re home when you’re doing your homework,” Betlach says. “You’re better off as a young person if you never have to worry about the power going off, the water turned off, or coming home to your house boarded up and everything you own on the street, because you got evicted.” At Elmhurst, 94 percent of students qualify for Title I federal assistance, a program to support students living below the poverty line and in other disadvantaged circumstances.

For teachers, leading classrooms of students whose families are struggling with poverty makes the job harder. “Teachers are often ill-prepared for being in a classroom that doesn’t look like their own educational experiences, especially if they’re not from the area,” says Glasband, OUSD’s retention manager.

And if the district can’t find a way to help support teachers as they learn to work in these environments, the teachers are more likely to leave. Finding replacements costs the district—Glasband estimates that the district spends $8.4 million to process teacher exits and then recruit, hire and train new teachers. Glasband says that if teachers feel valued and respected, they’re more likely to stay, saving the district money and creating a more consistent environment for students.

At the Wednesday staff meeting, as Betlach discusses the particularities of the peer observations, he’s deferential to the teachers’ preferences for when they do them and what their focus should be. The teachers are specific about what they want, saying they would prefer to do a peer observation every marking period and for the observations to focus on how they teach students cognitive skills. Betlach calls this approach “distributed leadership,” and says it’s important for him to value what his teachers say. “It’s arrogant and unproductive for me to think that I’ve got all the answers, because I don’t,” Betlach says. “My title doesn’t clue me into any secret magic sauce.”

Once the kinks of the peer observations have been worked out, Betlach suggests filling the extra time with “Song Roulette,” in which the team would go around in a circle picking a song to play off their computers. Alyssa Pandolfi, a 7th grade science teacher, shoots down the idea, putting on a mock air of teacherly diplomacy. “Thank you for sharing. What a great idea for another time,” she says. 

Some Elmhurst teachers say they haven’t had room to disagree with their principals and supervisors at other schools. Last year Aimee Du Quette, who taught at Elmhurst for six years, left Oakland to save money on rent, finding a job at a school in Visalia, where housing costs half as much. She found a very different approach to leadership there. “There was a grade level person in charge,” Du Quette said. “They pretty much dominated the meeting.”

She says the school also punished students in a way that was inconsistent with her values—the year before Du Quette arrived, the school had suspended ten times the number of students that Elmhurst had. And the culture amongst teachers felt unwelcoming to Du Quette, who was the only out gay member of the staff. “I didn’t have a lot of teacher friends. Like, a lot of people didn’t interact with me,” Du Quette said. “I was told by a teacher that is still teaching there right now and has taught there for a really long time that if I were to wear a dress, the kids would respect me more.”

Du Quette decided she was done with that school after her colleague’s homophobic comment about her clothing went unaddressed. “I did file a district grievance, met with the head of HR. Nothing happened,” Du Quette said. Her former colleagues at Elmhurst urged her to return. “I sent Mr. Betlach an email being like, ‘I hate it here.’ And he’s like, ‘We have positions. You should come back,’” Du Quette recalled.

Now that Du Quette is back, she says she’d rather pay Oakland rents to work at a place like Elmhurst. “I like coming to work here. I’m accepted for being a gay educator here,” Duquette says. “Everybody seems to share the same passion here at [Elmhurst] where we care about the whole student and not just the grade-level content. Having come back and all of my same teacher colleagues are here is also very comforting.”

Betlach’s attempts to build a strong teacher culture begins before teachers are even hired at the school; prospective teachers don’t just meet with the principal, they interview with panels of their potential future teammates. “These are going to be your colleagues, you’re going to be working on teams with them. Go find a great colleague, don’t wait for me to do it,” says Betlach.

The collaborative hiring process made a positive impression on Priyanka Mehta, an 8th grade math teacher. “I thought it was cool that everyone takes so much time out of their day to interview just a prospective,” Mehta remembers.

When she started at the school, she quickly found that working as a first-year teacher was extremely challenging. She didn’t have experience managing a classroom and needed to respond to rowdy middle schoolers. One class period after lunch was especially difficult, Mehta recalls. “I had this student who kept saying really inappropriate things to me. And at the same time I had this student who kept asking me if my eyebrows were fake. And at the same time I had this student who was like, ‘Why are we not learning in this class? This class is a mess. This is like the worst class I’ve been in.’”

But Mehta wasn’t left with an unruly class for a year: A more experienced member of the administrative team, Sagnithe Salazar, came to the class every day for a week to help her work on her classroom management skills. Salazar focused on specific things Mehta could do better, like waiting for students to raise their hands before calling on them, rather than just letting whoever talked the most dominate the classroom. Mehta says it made a huge difference.

She also had support from the teaching coach in the math department. “My coach pointed out something really helpful, that I was really negative in that class because of all of this,” Mehta says. “I would just be like, ‘I’m really frustrated. Y’all are frustrating me. We’re not getting anything done.’” The coach helped Mehta set up systems to reward good behavior rather than let the culture of her classroom be overrun by misbehaving students. “We set up a system where instead we put who was doing really well and gave them extra credit and that helped me focus on the positives,” Mehta says.

In Elmhurst’s entry hallway, black-and-white photos date back to its founding in 1906. As you follow the school’s history down the hall, the photos become color, and eventually feature the garish word art of the early 2000’s. Elmhurst’s campus was home to one large school for nearly a century, but in 2005, the campus split into two middle schools as a part of Oakland’s “small schools movement,” an initiative to give students more attention by creating smaller, focused teaching environments.

Today, Elmhurst Community Prep occupies one half of the campus while Alliance Academy takes up the other half. The schools share a theater and a library, they both draw on students from the same neighborhood, and they both answer to the same school district. But they’ve had different histories of teacher retention.

Since 2011, Alliance Academy has had about half of its teachers leave each year. This year, Alliance’s principal left the school in the first few days of the school year. Its former assistant principal, Faris Jabbar, is now serving as principal without an assistant principal. (Jabbar declined to be interviewed on the topic of teacher retention.)

An Alliance Academy teacher says that the kind of support offered at Elmhurst would be helpful. Raissa Mbiin, a resource specialist teaching special education at Alliance, says that when she started in 2016 she had no support as a first-year teacher. Even though she technically had a coach, Mbiin didn’t meet her until the end of the year. “This lady came and was like, ‘Oh yes, so how’s your class going? We have to restructure some things. You have to do this and do that.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve been here since August, and you’re showing up in April?’” Mbiin says.  (Oakland North also requested interviews with other teachers at Alliance, but none responded by press time.)

And unlike at Elmhurst, where since the split in 2006 each principal has first served as the previous one’s assistant, Alliance has not had the same administrative stability. A Stanford study pointed out that during the 2008-09 school year, when Alliance Academy allocated money to hire an additional assistant principal, the district denied the school’s request because Elmhurst already had three administrators on the site. District officials said they couldn’t justify adding more administrators on the campus, even though Alliance received no support from its neighbor’s administrators. After that year, Alliance’s teacher turnover retention numbers declined and are now some of the worst in the district.

By contrast, Betlach says he owes some of his success to the continuity of leadership extending back to the school’s founding. “I really had immense respect for the two principals that came before me,” Betlach said. “The things that they had put in place, I was kind of like, ‘I can’t touch that, because these hella smart people with more experience than me, they decided to do that.’”

Next year, as part of a district “right-sizing” to save money, the OUSD has mandated that the two schools will have to re-merge. Betlach has been tapped to serve as principal of the recombined school, but the merger does pose challenges. Betlach is tasked with bringing two different teacher cultures together. “I think managing that adult piece is going to be work, because you can’t get the kid part right if the adults aren’t right together,” Betlach said.

Teachers, administrators, and students from Elmhurst and Alliance have been meeting as part of a “design team” to plan the merger between the two schools. The team is still working out a number of specifics like how big the school will be, and which teachers will be able to stay.

Once the school is merged, Betlach says that maintaining a strong teaching staff at a larger school presents new challenges. “This team that we’ve built has to double in size. We’ve had some really good retention years where we only had to bring in two teachers a year. So if you just kind of scale up, now that’s four. That’s a lot!” he said.

Many teachers at Elmhurst express a mixture of concern and optimism about the change, saying they hope that the merger will result in a school that more efficiently serves students while maintaining the strengths of each school.

History teacher Vigay is on the merger design team, and says the process echoes her experience as an OUSD student when she sat on the design team for her own high school’s split during the small schools era. “As an Oakland parent and as a community member, it’s frustrating as hell to see our district consistently make the same mistakes of like, ‘We’re going to go small and we’re going to break communities,’” Vigay says. She says that some of the splits left longtime Oakland residents unfamiliar with the schools their kids were attending. “Now we’ve had 10 years of folks getting used to it and now we’re like, ‘Oh, actually we’re going to change everything again.’”

Now that she’s part of another big transition for the district, Vigay hopes that she’ll be able to stay on the Elmhurst teaching team. “Is our school going to be big enough to keep all the teachers who are here?” Vigay asks. “From a teacher’s point of view, that’s the scariest part.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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