UC Santa Cruz New Teacher Center expands partnership with East Palo Alto school district

The once-troubled Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto is on the upswing.

Four years ago, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, teachers and staff rolled up their sleeves and partnered with the UC Santa Cruz New Teacher Center to halt the district's decline. Now their work is paying off: Student test scores are up, attendance is improving, and teachers who used to flee the district en masse after a single year are coming back each fall, eager to build on their newfound success.

A new $3.8 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation ensures that the "full-court press" will continue for two more years, said New Teacher Center Director Ellen Moir. "This level of financial support allows us to not only provide intensive support to new teachers but to help change the culture of the entire school district," said Moir.

Administrators of the 3,000-student district have welcomed NTC staff with open arms. The center's mentoring program has provided much-needed support for everyone in the system, from new teachers all the way up to the superintendent.

The district has been under a court-ordered consent decree since 2000 because of deficiencies in its special education program. In 2003, the Hewlett Foundation funded a $350,000 project so NTC could provide mentoring support to novice teachers in two schools where the annual teacher turnover rate was about 75 percent. The NTC's philosophy is based on evidence that the best way to improve student performance is to improve the quality of instruction.

That initial collaboration soon blossomed into broader support after a third school asked to join the project. Now all seven schools in the district participate in NTC mentoring and professional development programs. The collaboration was the subject of a recent lengthy article in Education Week.

"Ravenswood has historically been involved in a lot of controversy and conflict and lawsuits, and turmoil at the top," Superintendent Maria Meza-De La Vega told Education Week. "The high turnover of teachers was a huge impediment to us moving forward."

With the Hewlett funding, Ravenswood is one of a handful of districts where the NTC is working toward "systemic school change." In addition to providing coaches for new teachers, the superintendent, principals, and assistant principals, NTC supports veteran teachers with grade-level teams and bolsters after-school academic support programs.

Kitty Dixon, director of school/district support and innovation for the NTC, is the project director, serving as a link between the schools and district offices. She and Miakje Kamstra, director of mentor development for the NTC, are "on the ground" in the district, attending meetings, providing one-on-one support to teachers and administrators, and keeping an eye out for what is working and what isn't.

"Our strategy at the school and district level is to identify the needs of teachers and principals that directly relate to improving instruction and working conditions," said Dixon, underscoring that the high-level of support wouldn't be possible without the Hewlett Foundation funding. "We then align professional development and mentoring with meeting those needs. The professional development feeds their soul and is having a direct impact on student achievement."

"As we gradually increase the capacity of teachers and build leadership at every level, we will work ourselves out of a job by design," said Dixon.

During the center's work with the initial three schools, new teacher turnover dropped from 73 percent in 2003-04 to only 16 percent the following year. In 2005-06, all but 13 percent of new teachers returned in the fall. As those trends continue, Dixon and her colleagues are able to introduce other changes.

"Stabilizing the workforce is the first step in addressing the needs of teachers and their students," said Dixon. "It's the foundation on which we build the rest of the structure. Teachers have really responded to what's happening in the district. They want to be here."