Sunday, September 09, 2007

New Sacramento Teachers

New teachers, extra hard task

Rookies plunge in at lagging schools

By Kim Minugh - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, September 8, 2007

Four days into her first year of teaching, Karina Figueroa assigned herself some homework: Figure out the campus phone system. Organize her filing system. Decide on a software program to use for grades.

In between the administrative duties, she has some tougher to-dos: Call the family of a student who missed class Friday after -- according to other students -- being arrested the day before. Figure out whom to call if one of her overdue students goes into labor in class. Ask about her legal and ethical obligations when she suspects, or a student admits to, an illegal activity.

"I have a lot of work to do this weekend," Figueroa said Friday with a weary smile.

Figueroa, a history teacher at Luther Burbank High School, is one of several dozen new teachers added to Sacramento County school rosters this year thanks to $2.7 billion in statewide Quality Education Investment Act funding.

This is the first of seven years the money will be distributed to select low-performing schools in California. State education officials hope the money will boost student achievement by helping schools lower class sizes, hire more counselors and provide more training for teachers.

But the money will create an additional challenge -- grooming inexperienced teachers to produce tangible results in some of the most demanding environments.

"(New teachers) bring energy, ideas, enthusiasm, idealism, sometimes new practices that help invigorate the school," said Ted Appel, principal at Burbank High. "The downside is they're not as good now as they're going to be in five years."

Appel hired 10 new teachers and two counselors with his share of the QEIA funding. He also created flexible schedules so teachers can teach classes together or focus on individual students.

Nearly 500 schools statewide will be making similar hires with the funds, part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and the California Teachers Association against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Department of Finance.

The dispute stemmed from the governor's alleged failure in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 budget years to fully fund California's schools under terms laid out in Proposition 98, which guarantees a minimal level of funding for schools.

Across Sacramento County, 19 schools in six districts will receive funds. Sacramento City Unified gets the most -- $48 million -- to hire teachers and counselors at Burbank High, Hiram Johnson High, Rosa Parks Middle School and nine elementary schools. One school in Yolo County and another in El Dorado County also will receive some of the money.

At Burbank, Appel and his staff are looking for innovative ways to support their new educators who will need nurturing and guidance as they learn to manage students and tailor lessons for individual kids.

At schools like Burbank, that also means learning how to deal with poverty, racial differences, language barriers and students who move a lot.

"We have to make sure teachers have an understanding of how all these things affect student learning," Appel said.

But what new teachers lack in experience, they make up for in passion, Appel said. Strategies can be taught; dedication cannot.

If passion and commitment are signs of teacher success, then Figueroa and B. Russell Mills-Campisi, a new chemistry and biology teacher at Burbank, look as if they're going to make it.

Running on a few hours of sleep and pudding snacks between classes, Mills-Campisi breezed through his first week with confidence and enthusiasm -- and a few comedic gaffes.

When a student came by the room to pick up an attendance sheet, Mills-Campisi stuck out his hand for a shake. "I'm Russell," he said, then shook his head. "I mean, Mr. Mills-Campisi."

On Wednesday, his second day of teaching, he raced around the classroom in a flurry. When he finally sat down with students, he struggled to remember names.

"Are you feeling a little bit lost today?" one teen asked him.

Mills-Campisi paused, and laughed. "I'm feeling a little tired."

"Me, too," the student said sympathetically. "I'm feeling a little lost and tired."

The fatigue only worsened as the week wore on, but Mills-Campisi finished Friday feeling satisfied and encouraged about the year ahead.

"It went really, really, really well, like staggeringly well," said Mills-Campisi, 24, as he caught his breath during his prep period Friday. "I think I have a good prediction of how this year's going to go."

And his interactions with students and teachers only cemented his commitment to his school and profession.

"I'm in love with this school," Mills-Campisi gushed.

Reflecting on her week, Figueroa said Friday she wished she had planned better. She had expected one assignment -- she had asked students to write a biographical poem she hoped would help her get to know them better -- to take one period; instead, it took almost two.

She said she still thinks it was a good assignment.

One student allowed Figueroa to read her poem out loud. She wrote of growing up in Oakland, where she had to fight for respect and where the neighborhood ice cream truck sold hair weaves.

Other students were less forthcoming. Figueroa figured that some students might have been resisting her efforts to relate to them one-on-one.

Others shared more than she expected.

When she asked students to write two truths and a lie about themselves, a student gave her these choices: he was an "ex-con," he was trustworthy, and he had eight tattoos.

The last one was the lie, Figueroa said. "I think he only has like six."

Friday, even taking roll was eye-opening.

One of the absent students had been arrested the day before, the class told her. ("Really!" they insisted, "His car is still in the parking lot.") Figeuroa was speechless.

"I thought, 'You guys are messing with me,' " she said later. "I'm thinking, 'What do I do? What do I say?' "

The daughter of migrant farmworkers, Figueroa said she wanted to teach at a school where she could relate to students.

Teens at Kennedy High School, where Figueroa did her student teaching last year, had warned her about Burbank's reputation as a "bad school." To her, the warnings sounded more like invitations. After her first week, she said she's glad she accepted.

"I've heard about Burbank -- and it sounded like the kind of place I wanted to be," she said. "It's challenging ... but I'm totally down."
Karina is a graduate of the Bilingual/Multicultural Education program at CSU-Sacramento
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