New state testing standards that place less pressure on “teaching to the test,” climate meetings with the district and potential pay raises could mean working condition improvements for teachers in the Redwood City Elementary School District.
Things have been tense in the district since the economy was in turmoil and teachers had to sacrifice geography, social studies, art, health and other lessons to focus on the Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, tests established in 1998, said Redwood City Teachers’ Association President Bret Baird. But with the new Common Core Standards, going into effect during the 2014-15 school year, there is going to be a shift to more team collaborative learning and technology in classrooms. Under the old system, students had to spend too much time prepping for the spring tests, said Garfield and Clifford elementary school teacher Sarah Morgan.
“Kids are reduced to numbers,” Morgan said. “Teachers are cramming all the knowledge in. I haven’t seen kids get smarter. They get better at taking a test.”
A move away from activities like individual silent reading time for students was one of the negatives of the STAR system. Math and language arts have been cut back because of the old system, Morgan and Baird said.
“We hope to go back to silent reading,” Morgan said. “We had so many teachers who prided themselves on getting kids to enjoy reading. … With the new curriculum we can return to novels, not just reading short stories with questions at the end. They’ll be asked to think more and defend their reasoning with proof.”
Meanwhile, Trustee Alisa MacAvoy said there’s been a lot of challenges the last few years with budget cuts, including asking teachers to do a lot the last years at same time budget cuts with the switch to Common Core. There has been high stakes testing and an expectation, and a lot of pressure, from the community for high scores, MacAvoy said. There will be less teaching to bubble tests, she said, since there are fewer stands that are deeper and richer though.
“The exciting thing with Common Core is being able to bring back the creativity in teaching and learning,” she said. “Part of the climate up and down the state has been California was not invested so long in education and it’s started to reinvest, so that’s super exciting. … Ultimately, the bottom line is I really want to work with teachers to provide the best climate for them and any dialogue they want to have with us is great.”
Teachers in the district haven’t received a cost-of-living adjustment or across the board salary increase since the 2007-08 school year, Baird said. In November 2013, both sides reached an impasse after they failed to come to an agreement over a new contract after the union requested a 7 percent pay increase that could be spread out over two years. The district countered with a 2 percent raise beginning on July 1. The district’s offer included a one-time payment this year equal to 1 percent of salaries, according to the district. For the 2013-14 school year, the district offered a one-time 2.6 percent salary increase. This would be comprised of a 1 percent off-schedule bonus and a reduction of three workdays equivalent to a 1.6 percent salary increase, according to the district. The union is in the midst of negotiations with the district over these contracts.
The state’s new Local Control Funding Formula sends $2.1 billion more to school districts that have high numbers of students from lower-income families, who have limited English proficiency or are foster children. The district receives $141 per pupil with the new formula, receiving $1.3 million total from the state incrementally, board Vice President Dennis McBride said previously. There is still a $2.5 million deficit, he said. McBride said the district absolutely wants to give teachers, staff and administrators a raise, but it just doesn’t have the wherewithal. Currently, certified, credentialed teachers make from $45,495 to $84,938 annually.
“Some people left the district because of it (low pay),” Baird said. “We lose a lot to Los Alamitos and Palo Alto.”
Turnover has been high in the district as a result of unhealthy working conditions, said Baird. He cited the fact that about 22 teachers have left John Gill Elementary School in the last four years and took pay cuts to get out of the school. It says something about climate when people are leaving for even lower paying districts, he said.
“We’re a poor district surrounded by wealthy districts and we’re supposed to compete in the high school district; it’s a unique situation to be in and as a result we have high turnover,” he said. “That’s never good when you’re trying to build community.”
In fact, turnover isn’t very high in the district overall, said Superintendent Jan Christensen said. Assistant Superintendent Jane Yuster shared information at the Jan. 22 board meeting that there were 416 resignations/retirements/non-reelects over the last seven years; 86 retirements, 191 resignations, 19 non-reelects, 101 temporary employees released and 19 miscellaneous non-returning employees. That adds up to a loss of about 5.8 percent per year, compared to 16.8 percent nationwide, according to the district. The situation at John Gill is attributed to nixing the multi-age program that had students grouped in grade K-2 and grade 3-5 learning communities. In the program, students were placed with the same teacher for three years and learned in a differentiated environment that is tailored to meet student needs.
“John Gill was going through significant changes in program,” Christensen said. “We could not support the K-2 program and some [teachers] chose to leave and go to another district. I am so supportive of our teachers and of what we have all gone through. I’m really proud we did not have to have our teachers take furlough days during this horrible downturn.”
Christensen did agree that the district students are at a disadvantage compared to other students in the area and recently wrote a blog post for School Administrator Magazine about it. Many of its students get less monetary support at home and need more at school, yet much less is spent on their education, she wrote.
“When students from my K-8 district get to high school, they sit next to students in algebra or biology or English who had $50,000 to $100,000 more invested in their K-8 public school education, not to mention additional opportunities provided by their parents: private tutoring, travel, music lessons and more access to technology at home,” she wrote. “Redwood City is the lowest funded of eight elementary districts that feed into our local high school district. The highest spends more than $17,000 per student per year; we spend less than $9,000 — and that includes all federal and state money earmarked to meet the greater personal needs of students learning English and living in poverty.”
Baird noted that many administrators have had personality changes when they’re under pressure to get test scores up and are threatened by not getting funded. But, Christensen said the expectation is to teach California standards.
“I think we have amazing teachers in our district,” she said. “It’s been a really challenging last five years with a severe decrease in revenue. Common Core curriculum is a different way to approach testing. It is a shift, but we’re still expected to teach California standards in the curriculum.”
In addition to the changing standards, the superintendent, a board member and other district officials will begin to have official climate meetings with the teachers’ union April 7, which will occur about once a month. Having begun planning for the April meeting in November, it’s an encouraging sign to finally have a date, said board President Maria Diaz-Slocum. The results from this year’s climate survey are still being collected and will be presented to the public in April or early May.
“We do take school climate very seriously,” Christensen said.
The school district will next meet with the teachers association for labor negotiations March 31.
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