Alice Bresnan recalls her panic on her first day as a newly minted kindergarten teacher at Green Oaks Elementary School in East Palo Alto’s troubled Ravenswood School District. There before her were twenty wriggling and bright-eyed five-year-olds and not a teaching resource in sight: no little plastic letters of the alphabet, no colorful bins of crayons, nothing to teach math. Nothing, period. What to do?

“I went out and bought dried pasta in different shapes with my own money,” Bresnan says. “We glued them on paper to spell their names; we counted them into empty egg cartons-it’s surprising how many things you can do with them.”

Still, Bresnan was lucky. The fledgling teacher’s arrival at the Ravenswood district coincided with that of the staff of the New Teacher Center of the University of California, Santa Cruz, to which the Hewlett Foundation had given a $350,000 grant in 2003 to see if it could turn the school district around. For Bresnan, now twenty-seven, support was there from the start.

A turnaround would be no small task. The absence of classroom materials was symptomatic of all that didn’t work in the poor, 3,000-student district. Supplies went unordered, new teachers went without orientation, and faculty collegiality was anemic at best. When Miakje Kamstra, the New Teacher Center’s project director for Ravenswood arrived, there were no formal assessments to determine whether students actually were learning. Books for independent student reading-taken for granted in wealthier districts-were rare.

The Greenest Teachers in the Poorest Schools

It’s a typical story. Those with the least get the least. Throughout the country, the least experienced teachers often are placed in the most difficult classes in the neediest schools, and Ravenswood was no exception. At Bresnan’s school last year, for example, 35 percent of teachers had only one or two years’ experience-triple the state average-and only 11 percent of the students were reading and writing at grade level, compared to an average of 44 percent statewide.

East Palo Alto is a town where one former superintendent was indicted and later acquitted of conflict of interest, and where crime is a chronic problem. Since January alone, there have been two murders after dark on the little road leading to Green Oaks. Complicating matters further, the district remains under a court-ordered desegregation plan that lets parents opt out to neighboring districts, making the task harder for those who stay.

When Bresnan and Kamstra arrived, three-quarters of the teachers didn’t return for a second year, compared to an only slightly less worrisome retention rate of about 50 percent nationwide. Even superintendents didn’t stay. There have been four of them in the past four years. How can a school hope to build a community of teachers and learners when its revolving door is turning that fast?

“It was a phenomenal staff, just going above and beyond for the students at every step,” Kitty Dixon, Kamstra’s colleague who works with the administrators at Ravenswood, says of the Green Oaks faculty who were there when she arrived. “But all that turnover meant the systems didn’t work. The structural part of the school wasn’t there. They didn’t have resources. They were working hard and not getting much for it.”

After listening to everyone they could buttonhole, Dixon and Kamstra began on all fronts at once. Starting in two of the district’s seven schools that first year, they carefully built relationships with everyone from principals to janitors, learning what they needed to make things work.  

One early ally in their efforts was then-acting superintendent Maria de la Vega.

“We were already analyzing what we needed to do when [Dixon and Kamstra] arrived, and we knew we needed to do more to support staff and involve the community,” de la Vega recalls. “And one early focus was low staff retention. It made it difficult to do anything to develop the faculty.”

Dixon and Kamstra started the mentoring program for beginning teachers that the New Teacher Center has created through trial and error over nearly two decades. At Ravenswood, with the Foundation’s help, they decreased the typical ratio of one mentor for about fifteen novice teachers to one for every nine. The mentor and an individual teacher meet weekly, but the informal exchanges are more frequent than that. Twice a month, the mentors get together for a few hours and discuss districtwide issues.

Success One Step at a Time

“It’s not about big major steps, it’s about little steps,” Dixon says. “What next step can you take that will be successful?”

Exactly right, says Bresnan.

“You can hear great ideas, but then you go back into your class and you’re swamped. But then, if Miakje comes in and teaches for an hour, you watch and say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’  

“Mentoring used to be someone coming in on a Wednesday and giving a lecture,” Bresnan continues. “That was a model where one person was the expert imparting knowledge. The Center engages the teachers and their peers in developing the knowledge themselves. This way validates the competence of the teachers.”

 The New Teacher Center program is rigorous in evaluating what works to develop successful teachers, but Dixon also talks more poetically about “developing a teacher’s voice” and “feeding their souls around teaching,” by which she means cultivating a professional community where members have the confidence to share ideas and techniques and feel trusted enough to act upon their understanding without being supervised.

“Pay rises slowly; the recognition isn’t always there,” Dixon says. “What keeps you in a school is a professional community.”

The Center’s goal is to have the Ravenswood community internalize the process and develop its own mentors, a process already underway with the training of teacher facilitators and the creation of demonstration classrooms in every school in the district. Bresnan herself will lead a literacy center at Green Oaks next fall.

On Wednesdays, veteran and novice teachers meet by grade levels in “learning teams” and, with the support of a mentor, conduct what the Center calls a “cycle of inquiry,” during which teachers discuss a lesson plan or review student performance data and then test what they learned in their classrooms.

“They might examine how they can improve writing or use math manipulatives,” says Kamstra. “They see what works. It’s those inquiries that drive our next step.”

To address the faculty’s need for continued development over the medium- and long-term, the district, with Dixon’s help, has formed a professional development committee of teachers, administrators, and outside experts that meets monthly.

A Turnaround With the Faculty

Today, after four years of the Center’s efforts-and a total of $7.5 million in support from Hewlett-the benefits are evident. Now, instead of three-quarters of Ravenswood teachers leaving after their first year, 87 percent of them stay in the schools working with the Center. Last year a third school joined the project, and this year the Center has expanded its work districtwide. Currently there are sixteen mentors, some of them part-time, working districtwide. In addition, mentoring now is offered to administrators as well.

“It’s been an incredible culture shift,” says Allison Briceno, another young Ravenswood teacher who is training to be a mentor. “It made my first year a very successful, fun year, which is very unusual.” Only a bit in jest she notes, “I only went home crying once in a while.”

Adds Bresnan, “Instead of going in their offices and closing the doors, teachers have started working together, sharing ideas and asking each other what’s worked.” Superintendent de la Vega sees it, too. “In the past it was very negative environment,” the superintendent says. “The staff didn’t believe it could make a difference. Now there’s a feeling that good things are happening, and people want to be a part of it.”

Of course, the point is not just for teachers to know how to teach, but for the students to learn, and on this score, too, the work at Ravenswood seems to be paying off.

Thanks in part to a teaching approach that places literacy at the center, and helps children achieve it through individualized work, Green Oaks students gained more than 100 points in the California’s system for measuring student performance, the Academic Performance Index. It was the highest gain of any elementary school in San Mateo County. At Cesar Chavez Academy, the other Ravenswood school where the Center started, the percentage of students reading below basic competence dropped from 62 to 48 over two years. There have been similar gains in math.

On a recent day in teacher Jeanette Martinez’s class at Green Oaks, the scene easily resembled a classroom in neighboring, affluent Palo Alto. Martinez, a first-year teacher who has been mentored from her first day, is using a whiteboard in her lap to give the kids a spelling lesson: she shows them right and wrong spellings of the word “took” and asks them to decide which is correct based on what they know about the sounds letters make.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s vote,” she tells the clutch of kindergartners and first graders sitting intently before her on the floor. She gets no votes for “tuk,” lots for “took.”

“No, give us a harder one,” one of the kids shouts.

Measuring the Progress

The gains at Ravenswood have been real and measurable, but assessing the implications of that success for other schools is more complicated. Jane David is an educational consultant that the Hewlett Foundation has hired to evaluate the Center’s work a Ravenswood. She acknowledges that most school districts won’t have a Hewlett Foundation investing millions of dollars to turn them around.

David says, she doubts the foundation is working on the assumption that other schools can expect an angel in the form of a foundation.

“But if districts and the state are serious about school reform, it does cost to build capacity,” David says. “I don’t think there is any way around that.
“But I think even if money doesn’t increase, what’s happening in Ravenswood has important lessons for other districts. The New Teacher Center has already shown the gains you can make with intensive mentoring. Now it’s broadening that to include administrators and other staff.”
David says the work also marks a shift in how professional development is viewed, moving the action from the district level to that of individual schools.
Meanwhile, Bresnan, who is confident that the gains fostered by the New Teacher Center can be sustained long after its mentors depart five years from now, has had a revelation of her own.
“I started to apply for jobs elsewhere,” says Bresnan. “But then I realized how much I really love it here.”