A training ground for new teachers

Study finds big potential in local charter school’s residency program

by Kevin Forestieri – Staff Writer, Mountain View Voice

Jacklyn Kaiser, an associate teacher, helps a student with a reading assignment at Bullis Charter School. The school’s associate teacher program aims to improve teacher training and retention by offering new educators a supportive co-teaching program for their first year in the classroom.

When it comes to teaching, there are no training wheels. Newly certified teachers fresh out of school often go through a trial by fire, learning to manage a classroom of 30 or more kids, communicate with parents and line up a state-standardized curriculum spanning a 10-month school year.

The steep learning curve is blamed for a whole host of ills, from high teacher turnover rates to acting as a deterrent to entering the profession, leading some schools to create programs to help nascent teachers get a handle on their first year in the field. But a new study released last month found that California schools could take it one step further, allowing new teachers an entire year-long “residency” alongside experienced staff, learning the ropes.

The study, released last month by the Bank Street College of Education, took a close look at Bullis Charter School’s Associate Teacher program, which provides already-certified teachers with a full year of experience co-teaching in a classroom — sort of like a teacher aide with much greater responsibilities. The study found that the residency was not only effective at giving teachers the hands-on experience sorely missing from most teacher credential programs, it was entirely possible to replicate in schools and districts without breaking the bank.

Financial feasibility tends to be the biggest problem, said Brigid Fallon, a program analyst for Bank Street College. She said there are countless examples of residency-style programs for teacher undergraduates and certificated teachers out there, but the trouble is schools and districts rarely bake it into the annual budget as a years-long commitment. Most of them are funded as pilot programs or through short-term grants, and they simply disappear once the cash runs out.

“They are really successful, quality programs, and when those grant dollars die, they don’t know how to continue to support the model,” she said.

The study focusing on Bullis Charter School — part of a larger body of work dubbed the “Sustainable Funding Project” — uses the charter school’s Associate Teacher as a sort of proof of concept, that schools can pull off a long-term teacher training bridge that can act as both a pipeline for teacher hiring as well as a staffing boost in the classroom, meaning more one-on-one student support and lessons better tailored for diverse classrooms.

Sara Fernandez, a fifth-grade teacher at Bullis, called her year as an associate teacher an “amazing” opportunity full of direct teaching experience and immediate feedback from teachers across all three fifth-grade classrooms. There’s a whole different world of teaching that you aren’t prepared for when you come out of a teacher training program, she said.

“A lot of the time you throw in a teacher and it’s either sink or swim,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much it would help me until I was in it.”

After going through the Associate Teacher program, Fernandez said she directly transitioned to a homeroom teacher job at Bullis with great ease because she was already acclimatized to the school’s culture, families and classroom norms. Knowing which teachers to go for advice and the “ins and outs” of each school system has its own learning curve as well, she said, so she was able to direct 100 percent of her attention on students and teaching.

Jessica Morgan, an eighth-grade teacher at Bullis Charter School, says the associate teacher program effectively bridged the gap between getting her teaching credentials and joining the workforce.

Bullis teacher Jessica Morgan kicked off her tenure at the school nine years ago, serving a shorter six-month stint as an associate teacher before jumping into a full-time position. She said each grade level shares an associate teacher, and she has made it a priority to use those valuable two hours of bonus staffing as strategically as possible. Often times that meant breaking math lessons out into several groups, making sure students are understanding the material and not falling behind.

“We tag-team on supporting the kids in ways that really meet them where they’re at as individual students,” she said.

Back when she was an associate teacher, Morgan said the program was a little more experimental and looked different from one classroom to the next — the Associate Teacher program is more formally structured and has a designated “mentor” teacher — but she nevertheless found it an effective bridge between getting her credentials and joining the workforce as a classroom teacher.

“I will always tell everyone that, no matter how confident I felt leaving the credential program, I did not have the skills yet that I gained through our Associate Teacher program,” she said.

The downside to residency programs is that it can be pretty expensive, and often times its the aspiring teachers who are stuck carrying the burden. A 2016 study from the Sustainable Funding Project found that residency programs pay little to nothing, forcing the training teachers to seek out loans, extra jobs or rely on friends and relatives for support. The financial disincentives make residency programs a hard sell, making it difficult to justify and otherwise useful experience before full-time teaching.

But the study argues that there’s really no excuse — schools in California have the financial means to pay teacher residents if they so choose. Researchers created two hypothetical schools, one with students from high-income families like Bullis as well as a majority low-income school, and crunched the numbers using California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) to see if it would be financially feasible to support one teacher resident per grade level at a school. The results found that in both cases, 1 percent or less of discretionary funding would need to be committed to the program.

Those modest figures may not pan out here in the Bay Area, however, because the study assumes teacher residents are paid an annual stipend of $15,000, roughly on par with annual income of employees making federal minimum wage. Fallon said the stipend represents a “midpoint” based on existing programs across the country, which range from no pay at all to just under a starting teacher salary, and that local schools and districts need to tailor their compensation based on the area’s cost of living. In the case of Bullis Charter School, associate teachers make anywhere from $36,750 to $47,300.

The study contends that having extra support staff through teacher residents can help to reduce costs elsewhere in the budget, making residency programs more feasible. Three-fourths of teacher absences are filled by associate teachers at Bullis, minimizing costs for substitute teachers, and the teacher residents often fill the role normally carried out by instructional aides in the classroom, meaning fewer classified staffers are needed in day-to-day classroom operations.

The other benefit is that teacher residents are far more likely to stay at the school once they get hired as full-time teachers, driving down teacher turnover and reducing the costs of hiring new staff each year. The costs of separation, recruitment, training and professional development can cost districts $18,000 or more per resignation, according to estimates from the Learning Policy Institute. The Mountain View Whisman School District, for example, has seen an annual exodus of more than 50 teachers in recent years, putting costs near an estimated $1 million.

“These are dollars that can be saved in better preparation upfront,” Fallon said.

The hope, Fallon said, is that the Sustainable Funding Project will get more schools and school districts to seriously consider investing in residencies — whether it’s modeled on Bullis or not — and that public schools in California have the means to support an in-house teacher training program.

“The hesitancy you most commonly see is the question of feasibility and affordability, and we think the money is available to move us in the right direction,” she said.

Charter school board OKs housing allowance for teachers

Extra pay for cost of living scales up with each year of teaching

by Kevin Forestieri – Staff Writer, Mountain View Voice

Calling it much-needed relief for teachers struggling with the high cost of living in the Bay Area, Bullis Charter School’s board of directors agreed to give its 50 or so teachers a big pay boost.

The board approved two initiatives at its June 5 board meeting that aim to help offset the explosive increase in housing costs over the last 10 years, something that’s forced teachers to make longer commutes or leave the area entirely. The first is a $1,000 annual stipend that increases by an additional $1,000 each year, and the second is a pay increase — referred to as a “housing allowance” — that’s rolled directly into teacher salaries and is calculated as a percentage of the teacher’s base salary. The housing allowance automatically increases by 0.5 percent of the salary each year.

Bullis Charter School, like many school districts on the Peninsula, is searching for ways to hire and retain its teaching staff at a time when the high cost of housing and long commutes are pushing teachers out of the state or out of the profession altogether. Wanny Hersey, the school’s superintendent, said it wasn’t too long ago that teachers were able to live fairly close to Bullis, and could afford either a rental unit or a small house within a short drive of its two locations in Los Altos.

But now teachers are paying more and living further away, with some Bullis teachers traveling in from places like Walnut Creek, Santa Cruz and Watsonville each day, Hersey said. It’s reached a point where three of the school’s teachers are leaving Bullis and moving out of the state.

“It’s sad to lose excellent teachers,” Hersey said. “They leave not because they don’t want to work at Bullis, but they simply can’t afford to live here.”

Starting salaries at Bullis range from about $53,000 all the way to $118,000 for elementary school teachers, with a slightly higher pay scale for its middle school staff. Unlike contracts brokered between school districts and teachers unions — which include a rigid “step and column” formula for salaries based on tenure and education level — Bullis teachers are paid based on a performance-based model. The school reviews teachers’ salaries each year based on their “expertise and growth in areas such as pedagogical expertise, data analysis, project-based learning instruction, leadership, and global education integration,” according to a press release by the school.

The salary increases will be partially paid for by money from Measure GG, a $223 parcel tax that Los Altos School District voters passed in November last year, Hersey said. The parcel tax was meant to replace the $193 Measure E parcel tax, but the $30 hike was added so that Bullis Charter School could share in the proceeds. The measure is expected to generate about $300,000 in revenue for the charter school.

Bullis board chair John Phelps told the Voice in an email that while the high cost of living was a big factor in approving the pay bump, he said the charter school’s teachers also deserve to be rewarded for their top-tier performance.

“BCS teachers are true professionals who are at the cutting edge of their craft,” Phelps wrote. “We feel that should be rewarded and encouraged, and this is one way for us to recognize and honor the hard work that our teachers do every day.”

On top of housing costs, school are competing for a shrinking pool of teachers. Reports from Stanford University’s Learning Policy Institute last year shows that there was a national shortage of about 64,000 teachers in 2015, and by 2020 there will be an estimated 300,000 teachers needed to fill all the available positions. At the same time, fewer people are entering teacher training programs, and there’s a shrinking number of incoming college students who show an interest in teaching as a profession.

In order to attract and keep teachers in an increasingly competitive market, school districts are finding ways to sweeten the deal, including better health benefits and big salary increases. Last year, the Mountain View Whisman School District agreed to an 8 percent pay raise for its entire teaching staff. Late last year, the Santa Clara Unified School District agreed to a 9.5 percent salary increase for its more than 800 teachers.

Data from the California Department of Education shows the average salary paid out to elementary school teachers in Santa Clara County in the 2015-16 school year was $80,461 which is considered “very low income” for a family of four. Unified school district teachers didn’t fare much better, with the average salary amounting to $82,720.

Bullis pulls ahead with top test scores

Average test scores put Los Altos charter school at No. 1 in the state

by Kevin Forestieri / Mountain View Voice

For many charter schools in Santa Clara County, the results of the first Common Core-aligned standardized tests were a wake-up call as many students fell behind their public school peers.

But Bullis Charter School in Los Altos appears to be bucking the trend in a big way. One analysis of the test scores indicates that the charter school is not only outperforming nearby schools it’s now the top school in the state.

The school ranking website Schooldigger looked at over 5,500 schools in California and ranked the schools based on average test scores, rather than the percentage of students proficient in English language arts and math. The results show Bullis Charter School had the top average score in the state, followed closely by William Faria Elementary in Cupertino. Almost all of the top 10 school were located in the Bay Area.

Wanny Hersey, principal of Bullis Charter School, said the school embraced a curriculum where students explain their answers and solve problems using different methodologies long before such practices became hallmarks of Common Core. In math, for example, Hersey said it’s not uncommon for students to solve problems without actually knowing how or why they ended up with the answer — something the school has worked hard to overcome

“Kids can get the average (number), but they don’t (normally) know what an average is,” she said.

Despite the top-tier performance, Hersey insisted that Bullis does not teach to the test. The school has spent years developing its “focused learning goals” program, a holistic approach to tracking student performance that has space for personal, or “passion” goals that the student hopes to achieve in a given school year.

Rather than lug around a filing cabinet of individual student goals to track progress year to year, teachers at the school adopted a new program this year called FreshGrade, which has digital profiles of all students and their grades on assignments and tests.

Charter schools performed slightly better overall compared to public schools in California, according to the California Charter School Association. Charter school students outperformed their public school peers by 4.4 percent in English language arts and 1.3 percent in math, according to the association’s website.

Emily Bertelli, a spokeswoman for the association, said charter schools have an edge in adopting the new Common Core curriculum because they have more freedom and flexibility than public schools to change academic standards on the fly.

“The added flexibility means charter schools are able to be more nimble in adopting new academic programs to meet the individualized needs of their students,” Bertelli told the VOice via email.

But other charter schools in Santa Clara County, for the most part, didn’t see the same level of success. A majority of the charter schools, many of them located in San Jose, saw student proficiency in both subjects fall short of the county-wide average, including many of the Rocketship Education charter schools that teach mostly low-income students. At Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep School in San Jose, for example, only 35 percent of students met the state standards for English language arts, compared to the county-wide average of 58 percent. For many of the Rocketship schools, those numbers remain below the average even when specifically looking at the scores of low-income and minority students.

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Summit charter schools performed slightly better, but many of the schools also had proficiency levels below the county-wide average.

Charter schools remains a hot issue in the Bay Area, as Rocketship Education and other organizations seek to expand the number of charter schools in Santa Clara County. Rocketship’s recent plans to open another 20 charter schools, which was approved by the Santa Clara County Board of Education, suffered setbacks this year when it had to pare back the list to just seven. The withdrawal came after four school districts in the South County filed lawsuits against the board of education for unilaterally accepting the proposed schools.

The U.S. Department of Education, under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has also been trying to expand the use of charter schools throughout the country, spending $3 billion over the last decade through its Charter Schools Program. On Monday, the department announced an additional $157 million to create and expand public charter schools across the nation.

A Summer Boost For Kids

Fighting off the summer brain drain can be tough for families that can’t afford expensive summer camps, but two parents from Bullis Charter School are looking to turn that around with a free summer camp for at-risk elementary school kids in the community.

Bullis Boosters Summer Bridge Camp is a free, week-long day camp for disadvantaged youth in the Mountain View and Los Altos communities. Hosted at the Bullis Charter School campus, it runs through the week of July 28 and has 50 campers going into second, third and fourth grades this year — nearly double last year’s number — including kids from free and reduced lunch programs and families that rely on food assistance from the Community Services Agency.

On Tuesday, dozens of kids donning yellow camp T-shirts crowded around tables full of brown sugar, carrots and eggs for a muffin-making activity.

“This is the first time cooking for some of these kids,” said Martha McClatchie, one of the two camp directors.

Before the campers make muffins, they have an indoor lesson about how to measure ingredients, and the difference between teaspoons, tablespoons and cups. Parents take home the batter and bake the muffins overnight, and kids can see their results the next day. Depending on how things go, kids might get their muffins back a little deflated, or the carrots might be too chunky, but McClatchie said kids are proud to bring their muffins home to show off to their families.

The camp has a broad curriculum that goes well beyond muffin-making, covering math, science and literature. On Monday, volunteers from Explorabox, a nonprofit science education group, came in to teach kids about electricity in a program called “Watt’s up with electricity?” In one activity, the campers rub balloons against a carpeted surface and hold them above their head to watch how static electricity pulls their hair skyward.

The kids were also taught about motors, solar energy, and mechanisms like the Van de Graaff generator — not a light curriculum. McClatchie said her hope is that through these lessons, some of the information will stick.

“They might hear about the Van de Graaff generator and say, ‘Hey, I know what that is,'” she said.

McClatchie, along with Grace Yang, started the camp last year to provide a summer camp option for disadvantaged youth — specifically English language learners — in the community. McClatchie said kids learning English lose a lot of progress during the summer months, especially in homes where English is not commonly spoken. Camp counselors read out loud to groups of students, which McClatchie said helps avoid what she calls the “summer slide” for those students.

She said they coordinated with Craig Goldman, superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District, to reach out to at-risk children who could use the free summer camp the most. She said a number of kids were referred to them from Beyond the Bell — an after-school program that provides help with homework and academic activities. About 70 percent of the campers are from Mountain View.

Teachers from Castro Elementary School and Bullis Charter School donate their time to teach classes at the camp, along with 16 counselors from nearby middle and high schools, according to Yang. The camp also has a number of Spanish translators on-site, specifically when kids are being picked up or dropped off so they can communicate with parents, family members and caregivers.

Local food vendors also donate free lunch and snacks for the camp, including Whole Foods, The Counter, Spot Pizza, ChoiceLunch and Smitten Ice Cream. On Tuesday, the camp took a field trip to Smitten to learn how ice cream can be made very cold using liquid nitrogen.

Along with food vendors, a number of other groups have supported the program through whatever services they can provide. Educacy, a nonprofit education advocacy group, has been a fiscal sponsor and KidzJet, a transportation company, provided the camp with a good deal on vans to transport the campers.

McClatchie said all these groups have come together to help make the camp a fun and meaningful experience for kids who wouldn’t normally have access to summer camps.

“There’s a lot of people who understand that this is an important thing to do.”

Bullis Reaches Milestone

The very first class of students to make its way from first through eighth grade at Bullis Charter School matriculated last week.

“This is a particularly exciting event for us,” Wanny Hersey, superintendent and principal of BCS, said of the milestone, which was commemorated with a June 7 afternoon ceremony. “Not only has it been an extremely successful class, in terms of academic achievement, but the students were also the ones who helped us pioneer our innovative curriculum.”

Six of the 24 graduating students in the eighth­grade class of 2012 started their academic careers at Bullis, winding their way all the way up through the school’s “comprehensive and integrated” program, Hersey said.

Hearing the students speak at the commencement ceremony was vindicating for Hersey, who said it was great to watch “a very full, well­balanced, articulate group of young people who are able to really recognize the benefits of the special program they were involved with.”

That “special program,” according to the charter school’s mission statement “offers a collaborative, experimental learning environment that emphasizes individual student achievement and inspires children, faculty and staff to reach beyond themselves.” According to Hersey, the school’s faculty and staff aim to create 21st century citizens, ready to excel in a variety of fields ­­ not just one specialized area of expertise. The world today demands that young people entering the workforce be comfortable working on their own or on teams, and understanding right­brained “creatives,” left­brained analytical thinkers, and all types of people in between.

To prepare students to be able to thrive in the modern world, school officials designed a curriculum where all classes ­­ from science to history to art to writing ­­ intersect and overlap. Additionally, students learn from mentors in the fields they are studying. Application developers, biologists, engineers and finance experts all have visited classes at Bullis.

Lynn Steffens, who sent all four of her daughters to Bullis, said the school’s integrated approach clearly made a difference in the development of her children, especially her youngest ­­ the only one to go through her entire primary education at the charter school.

Steffens, who was able to compare her older daughters’ experiences against her youngest, said the integrated program at Bullis took her kids “a lot deeper” than traditional school programs. The overlapping curriculum and size of the school also make for a much more intimate learning experience, where all of the teachers know all of the students, she said.

“When the kids are going through it, over time they really get to know the whole school community,” she said. “It makes a big difference throughout the year. That’s a very hard thing for a traditional school to do regardless of the caliber of the school.”

Perhaps the biggest difference Steffens noted with her youngest child was the positive attitude she had about school. When she asked her older daughters how their day went, all she would get in return was a grunt.

“My youngest gets in the car and says, ‘This is what we’re working on in school and did you know this, mom?'” she said. “She is so engaged in the academics and she is excited to learn more.”

“They just hold themselves to a higher expectation at that school,” Steffens said.

Most of the BCS eighth ­grade graduates will attend high schools in Los Altos, Mountain View or Palo Alto.

Creative Charter School Wins Renewal

Even after it won a 5-2 vote last week from the county Board of Education to renew its charter for five years, Bullis Charter School is still trying to overcome the elitist image stuck on the school when it opened for business about five years ago after a messy divorce from the Los Altos School District.

But after a slow start, the 465-student K-8 school has been able to outperform every other charter school in the state despite receiving $4,000 less per student in public funding than its compatriots in the Los Altos Elementary School District. Parents and the school foundation make up the difference so Bullis ends up with just over $11,000 per student, slightly less that the Los Altos district.

(We should also note that Bullis and the Los Altos district are involved in a lawsuit over whether the buildings provided to Bullis are adequate. An appeals court decision should be made public in about two months.)

Two of the seven county Board of Education members voted against renewing the Bullis charter, citing concerns about the school not working hard enough to recruit students of color from Los Altos and Mountain View, while filling most of its seats from the wealthy Los Altos Hills area. The charges are strongly disputed by Bullis officials, who provided numerous statistics to the contrary in their application for county approval.

For starters, charter schools are expected to reflect the community they serve, said the county board member Anna Song and Los Altos School District board member Tammy Logan. On that score, we believe Bullis hits a home run, with a far lower percentage of white students than the Los Altos district (67.7 to 51.6 percent for Bullis) and equal numbers for African American, Asian, and Native Hawaiians. Students of two or more races attend Bullis in much higher numbers than the district as a whole, (20.6 to 4.4 percent). A slightly lower percentage of Hispanic students were counted than attend district schools (5.2 to 5.6 percent), but that is hardly worth quibbling about.

We also disagree with the charge that recruiters at Bullis do not actively recruit in Mountain View and Los Altos. For the current school year, the school received 680 applications from students at 98 preschools and 133 elementary schools, with six students applying for every available seat. The school hosts a public lottery and randomly selects the incoming students. And in the current year, 30 special education students (6.5 percent) attended Bullis, more than twice the number from two years ago.

Charter schools like Bullis are succeeding in other districts on the Peninsula. Summit Prep, a high school located in Redwood City, faced similar critics when it was launched by a handful of parents from the affluent community of Portola Valley. And after enduring criticism that it was designed as a private “public” school for elite students, Summit’s lottery has muffled that charge and is proud that 100 percent of their graduating seniors are admitted to four-year colleges.

Small charter schools like Bullis can be laboratories of innovation, as well as home to students who might not fit in at more traditional schools. As a charter school, Bullis is able to create a unique and challenging educational experience for its students that could be a model for the Los Altos district to emulate. The county Board of Education made the right decision to give Bullis another five years.