The two schools are located in the same district but have vastly different environments. Shenandoah Elementary is situated in a suburban area with well-maintained houses and a nearby country club. The school boasts accolades such as a trophy for achieving 100 percent parent membership and being named the "best performing" school in the region. On the other hand, Greenville Elementary is located in a less affluent neighborhood, surrounded by worn-out commercial establishments and a mix of dilapidated and well-kept houses with no curbs or sidewalks. The school has struggled to attract parent engagement, with fewer than six parents attending open house events. It is also on Louisiana’s watch list for potential state intervention.
Greenville Principal, Mona Collins, states that it is not surprising that over a quarter of her teachers are new to the profession this year, and more than half are new to the school building. In contrast, Shenandoah has no first-year teachers. Collins believes that once people join a school like Shenandoah, they tend to stay due to the challenging nature of inner-city schools. She also highlights the disadvantage that students from disadvantaged backgrounds face, as they often enter kindergarten already behind in their development.
Greenville Elementary is just one example of the staffing challenges faced by urban schools across the country. These schools struggle to attract and retain qualified teachers compared to schools in more affluent areas. Superintendent Clayton M. Wilcox describes the difficulty of finding educators who willingly choose to work in challenging schools. Many applicants drive up to the school for an interview but fail to show up.
East Baton Rouge Parish, where these schools are located, showcases stark disparities. The parish accommodates a diverse population and is home to casinos, a prestigious university, and multiple oil refineries. However, white flight and ongoing desegregation issues have led to growing poverty in close-in neighborhoods. The local school system, facing financial constraints, has become a target for other districts to poach teachers. Transferring to neighboring parishes or nearby Texas districts can result in higher salaries. The superintendent acknowledges the constant need to hire teachers throughout the year.
The inequities within East Baton Rouge can’t solely be explained by wages. Shenandoah Elementary pays its teachers on the same scale as the rest of the district, yet the principal receives numerous resumes from teachers wanting to work there. Poverty levels significantly influence teacher turnover rates. Data from the district shows that schools with low poverty concentrations have experienced a lower percentage of teachers with less than four years’ experience. Conversely, impoverished schools have a higher percentage of new teachers.
The challenges of working in disadvantaged schools go beyond just tough working conditions. Misconceptions and myths about teaching in these schools also contribute to the difficulty in recruiting and retaining good teachers. Educators in high-need schools emphasize that while it is not the nightmare that some may perceive, the concentration of poverty does present real challenges that need to be addressed.
"In college, they taught us to get a child’s attention by clapping once, and to get more attention, clap twice," shares Stephanie Cola, a second-year teacher at Delmont. "But they never taught us what to do when a child becomes so upset that they throw a fit, or when one student stabs another with a pencil."
Principals acknowledge that high turnover rates make it difficult to build a cohesive team that capitalizes on each teacher’s strengths. A stable staff has allowed Shenandoah Elementary to establish a committee that promotes consistent approaches to study habits and discipline throughout the school. Furthermore, schools with experienced staff members can ensure that each grade has at least one skilled veteran who can support other teachers in teaching the same material. Unfortunately, at Greenville, all of the 3rd grade teachers are new this year.
While we have some resources that other schools lack, it is the human resources that truly matter."
– Antoinette Bienemy
Additionally, teachers in these schools have limited time to learn from their colleagues. The system does not provide "duty-free" lunches, which means that elementary teachers must supervise their students during lunchtime. For the most part, teachers only have a 45-minute weekly meeting to discuss with other teachers in their grade level. Principal Collins believes that this is not sufficient time for collaboration.
Efforts have been made to improve the working conditions in such schools. As part of a desegregation consent decree, urban schools in East Baton Rouge Parish receive funding for classroom computers and additional staff members like counselors and parent liaisons. Delmont’s principal, Antoinette Bienemy, acknowledges that they have some resources that other schools don’t, but emphasizes that it is the human resources that truly matter. Bienemy believes that smaller class sizes would be the most effective way to attract and support teachers in high-need schools. In her ideal world, no teacher would have to start their career in a high-need school, and class sizes would not exceed 18 students. However, at Delmont, there is a new teacher with 28 students in her class.
Superintendent Wilcox admits that his options are limited. The previous year, the system underwent budget cuts and may face further reductions. Some community leaders are advocating for bonuses for teachers in inner-city schools, but Wilcox is skeptical about the availability of funds. He also questions whether compensation alone addresses the core issues. Wilcox’s system has taken a different approach based on perceptions of the work being asked of teachers. For the past 12 years, East Baton Rouge has partnered with Teach For America to recruit non-education majors from selective colleges, provide them with intensive summer training, and place them in teaching positions at disadvantaged schools for at least two years. Recently, the district has also contracted with Teach For America’s consulting arm, the New Teacher Project, to establish Teach Baton Rouge. This program recruits local individuals who want to switch careers to become teachers. Out of the 500 teachers hired by the district in the recent fall, 75 came from one of these two programs. The idea is simple: if traditional teacher preparation programs are not producing enough graduates willing to work in high-need schools, then the field should be opened up to those who do. However, the extent to which this is a solution remains uncertain. The fast-track programs for teacher preparation still leave many schools with high-needs students with inexperienced teachers. Additionally, 60% of Teach For America recruits leave the profession after their two-year commitment, which perpetuates the revolving door phenomenon. Nevertheless, administrators at many high-need schools believe that these recruits are an improvement compared to the past when they had to hire applicants without even an initial teaching credential. Vera Dunbar, the principal at Eden Park Elementary School, near Greenville Elementary, acknowledges that Teach For America and Teach Baton Rouge have brought positive changes. She commends their dedication and willingness to learn. Some new teachers, like Josh Gerber, a Teach For America recruit teaching 5th grade at Greenville, understand the dilemma. While Gerber wouldn’t want to work at a more affluent school, he recognizes the downsides of the situation. As an idealistic 2002 graduate from Colby College in Maine, he sees both the benefits and challenges of teaching in high-need schools.
In all honesty, I find it regrettable that these students are assigned the most inexperienced educators. Allocating the newest teachers to disadvantaged schools inadvertently disadvantages the children," remarks Gerber, his dark bangs revealing a few strands of gray hair. "Although I aspire to become a capable teacher, I acknowledge that I still have room for growth before reaching that point."