POSTED ON AUGUST 8, 2012:
Consequences of Change
Tulsa Public Schools must adapt to challenges when students, staff leave unexpectedly
When it comes to having a strong learning environment, there isn't anything much worse than what happened last year to some students at McClure Elementary School, said Jay Pendrak.
"There is nothing more damaging than having a teacher quit in the middle of the school year," said Pendrak, who works at the school through a position funded by B'nai Emunah, a local synagogue which has an "adopt-a-school" relationship with McClure.
When the teacher left suddenly, students "essentially had substitute teachers, very inconsistent teaching and teaching that was lacking content," Pendrak said.
Researchers have long described the challenges faced by educators when students move from school to school. The effect of staff and even administrator turnover can also take its toll on students, however.
McClure Elementary School will have its third principal in three years starting this fall, Pendrak said.
"I think that the big thing I would say the principal has an influence on in the school is just the culture of the school, the vision of the school, really what that environment kind of looks like," Pendrak said.
When there is constant change, "a culture of achievement, it doesn't really get a chance to grow," Pendrak said, though he praised the preparation efforts of incoming principal Kirby Oldham getting ready for the upcoming school year.
According to statistics published by the district, the principal retention rate dipped to 64.1 percent in the 2010-2011 school year.
Pendrak said changes in leadership can also contribute to high teacher turnover.
"If it feels like a cohesive team, I think that is where teachers really like to stay on for the long haul," said Pendrak, a former program coordinator for Teach For America in Tulsa.
The district still has yet to hire a replacement for outgoing superintendent Keith Ballard, who is set to retire in 2013.
But the district has established a new leadership development program designed to cultivate talent for leadership positions, according to a state-required report related to certain No Child Left Behind federal requirements. The report is part of documentation required after the state requested a waiver from some of the federal requirements.
According to the district documents, the program in the most recent school year included assistant principal internships and more support for principals with less than three years of experience.
The program is modeled after the New Leaders/New Schools Aspiring Principals program. The nonprofit New Leaders program, founded in 2000, "develops transformational school leaders and designs effective leadership policies and practices for school systems across the country."
Being principal is a hard job, said Cindi Hemm, principal of Eugene Field Elementary for nine years -- part of a roughly 30-year career in education - before retiring this summer to work as an educational consultant.
"It is a 60-hour work week, a 70-hour work week. How long can you do that?" Hemm said, describing how the job could eat away from time with her own family. Perhaps it's no coincidence that, according to Hemm, most principals with Tulsa Public Schols tend to be in their late 30s or early 40s.
Her own story took a twist that she wasn't sure about at first. Hemm said she went to Eugene Field against her will after serving as principal at Park Elementary School, another school within the district.
But Hemm has no regrets. She won numerous awards related to her work there and has even written a book outlining her successes at the school once being considered for closure.
Over the years, top administrators at Tulsa Public Schools have had very different outlooks about assigning principals to schools.
"Many superintendents, they're really not asking, they're telling you where you're going," Hemm said.
Not so with Ballard, whom she praised for taking into consideration the wishes of principals when making assignments.
Still, she conceded that the 64.1 percent retention rate for principals seemed less than ideal. She said principals play a key role in every school. She gave a short example of how a simple change can influence a school's culture.
"We even changed the culture to, instead of 'Stop running,' we would say, 'Please walk.' It was a positive spin on words," Hemm said, describing the change as part of a bigger plan to create a welcoming environment for children and parents in a neighborhood where children often were well-acquainted with poverty and street violence.
Hemm said she has little doubt switching schools hurts children.
"It certainly hurts them academically, and I know it also hurts them socially," Hemm said.
Chris Payne, director of public information for the district, wrote in an email that the district's own research into a specific group of students found that "as students increase the number of elementary schools attended, overall academic performance decreases."
While the district and the state have different ways to calculate how often students switch schools during the school year, the student mobility rate within the district is higher than the state average, according to the state's Education Oversight Board.
Hemm said parents who move have the option to keep their children at the school where they began the school year. They can also apply to have their children continue at the same school even after the school year ends.
However, in Hemm's experience, she said economics often keeps parents from having children stay in the same school.
She said she often met with parents pulling a child out of Eugene Field and would ask if there was any way to keep the child enrolled. "Usually, transportation was a tough nut," Hemm said.
For new students moving into a school, Payne wrote in an email that the district has no formal policy to help them adjust, other than "quickly integrating them into the classroom and making them feel welcome."
In practice, "I would go out and meet each family and talk to each child," Hemm said.
As far as academics, "the good thing about Tulsa public schools is we're all on a pacing calendar," Hemm said, describing how lesson plans are coordinated so that each school should be teaching the same lessons for any given week.
Hemm said that administrators working at a school in a poor neighborhood overall have more challenges.
"Tulsa Public Schools knows very good and well the higher the poverty, the harder it is to run the school," Hemm said.
As far as teachers leaving, Hemm said she "didn't have any problem" getting rid of teachers who were a poor fit.
Similarly, Pendrak said looking at teacher turnover numbers alone doesn't tell the story.
For Pendrak "raising the bar with some of their school leaders ... is a good thing" for the district. But the concern is "if there's not a lot great talent to replace the ones that they're getting rid of."
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