Columbia Public Schools teachers moving to accommodate grade realignment

Ninth-grade teacher Jill Villasana talks to her government class

COLUMBIA — Jill Villasana has spent 14 years at Jefferson Junior High School. As a student in the early 1990s, she attended grades seven, eight and nine there. This is her 11th year teaching ninth grade.

In the fall of 2013, however, her years at the school will come to an end as Columbia Public Schools goes through a grade realignment in which junior highs and middle schools become history. Ninth-graders will move to high schools, and grades six, seven and eight will go to intermediate schools.

The intermediate schools might end up being called middle schools, but the Columbia School Board has not officially addressed that yet, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.

Villasana thinks it's wonderful that ninth-graders will have the opportunity to be freshmen in a high school setting and to understand high school as a four-year experience. The change will benefit students, she said.

But it also will mean a lot of shifting around for many of the district's 700 or so secondary-level teachers, and that strikes a different chord in Villasana.

"I don't want to leave," she said. "I love working with ninth-graders, but I always envisioned myself retiring from Jeff Junior. I love this building, and I love the people in the building, the adults and the students."

The school district is in the middle of the months-long process of reassigning the district's teachers. Although teachers will ultimately be placed according to school needs and where they fit best, the district has put a lot of work into getting teacher input, sending out a survey about their preferences and encouraging conversations between teachers and principals.

The district is hoping to have teachers notified about their 2013-14 assignments in August 2012 at the latest, said Dana Clippard, assistant superintendent for human resources.

Developing the reassignment process

The reassignment process involves administrators as well as the Personnel Subcommittee — 14 members from around the district, including a representative from every secondary school building and specialty programs, Clippard said.

Representatives came from core class areas but also from specialty programs such as fine arts, foreign language, special education, English Language Learners and the Career Center. The district is also consulting with an attorney to make sure employment laws are being followed.

The first big step the group faced was creating surveys that were distributed to teachers, support staff and other people involved in the secondary transition. In the survey, teachers were asked to rank their top three choices of schools and to indicate the subjects they were interested in teaching and whether it was more important to them to be assigned to their preferred school or preferred subject.

Teachers also were asked which activities or sports they were interested in being involved in, and it included a section for comments. Questions were tailored according to whether the teacher expressed interest in the high school or intermediate school level.

Before sending the survey out, the committee took it through several iterations as it gathered input and made design changes. When members thought the survey was ready, they sent it to representatives in the schools and had them test it to make sure it was user-friendly.

About 733 teachers responded to the survey, which opened Jan. 9 and closed Jan. 20.

Principals were then given lists of teachers who ranked their school as their first, second or third choice, as well as basic information about each of those teachers. Because the district wants to keep the reassignment process as confidential as possible, principals could see only the names of teachers who requested their school.

Principals now are meeting with those teachers. The committee created something of a basic format for the conversations so they would be standard across the district, suggesting talking points, questions and a length of 20 to 30 minutes. Principals hope to have those completed by spring break next week.

Where the teachers ultimately go will be decided by a combination of the principals, the district's human resources department and the assistant superintendent for secondary education, Clippard said.

They will begin by looking at student need, then at teacher requests and principal preferences as well as certification and highly qualified teacher requirements, experience, leadership and a variety of other factors.

Kory Kaufman, a ninth-grade teacher at West Junior High School and a member of the Personnel Subcommittee, said he thinks the district has dealt with the moves in a professional way, involving teachers while still pointing out that not everyone will end up being happy and that some will not end up in their first-choice schools.

People in charge of the move, including principals and district human resources staff, have said they are keeping what teachers want in mind, but will work to make each school the best it can be, placing teachers where they will best be able to serve the district.

"Change isn't easy, but that's where I think it's important for all of us to step back and really keep our focus on the prize, and that's the students of Columbia Public Schools," Hickman High School Principal Tracey Conrad said.

A motto of the school district is "One team, one goal, one mission," Conrad said, and people in the district have to think globally in terms of the community, not just about their own schools.

Getting to know teachers and schools

As of that interview earlier this month, Conrad had met with about 30 teachers who put Hickman down as one of their preferences. She said meeting with those teachers has given her reassurance that no matter what happens after the realignment, everything will be OK.

"There are good teachers out there, and we're going to reorganize, but we're going to end up with great faculties," she said.

"I always tell people my goal is to hire rock stars," Conrad said. It has been exciting for her to visit with teachers from other schools and to think of the possibilities of combining them and their ideas, she said.

Greg Caine, principal at Jefferson, had talked with about 15 interested teachers at the point he was interviewed earlier this month. He said that it's clear there are a lot of great teachers across the district and that regardless of who gets assigned where, the district will continue to have strong secondary schools because of the staff it has now.

Because the teachers are already employed by the district, the conversations are more casual than interviews, Caine said. He said he uses the conversations to try to get to know teachers and see if they're a good fit for the school, asking about how they work in collaborative settings, how they communicate with parents, what their type of classroom is and other such topics.

Villasana has had a few conversations with principals already, and she said they have been fun.

"All the high school teachers in our district are incredible people," she said.

The principals were energetic about their schools and positive about taking in ninth-grade teachers, Villasana said. They made her feel comfortable and welcome. Principals wanted to know about her experience, how she works with colleagues and similar ideas, but they also wanted to share information about what their schools can do, she said.

General trends in the survey results showed most teachers putting their current school as a choice, often their first one, Clippard said. However, after having conversations with principals, many teachers are saying that they would be comfortable in the schools they listed as their second or third choices or that they have a new first choice, she said.

Leaving behind a family

Tim Baker, an assistant principal at Jefferson, thinks the biggest challenge that will come out of the realignment will be changes in school culture and climate. At the junior high level, not a single student will be returning, and he guessed that half the staff would be new, too.

Jefferson has been a junior high school since 1927, Baker said; for many years it was the only junior high in town. In two years, it will be completely different, he said.

Matthew Ross, a ninth-grade teacher at Jefferson, said the school has always had a mantra that the staff is like a family. They get together outside of the school day, occasionally attending sport events such as Cardinals games, and enjoy each other’s company. For Ross, the hardest thing about leaving Jefferson is leaving those relationships.

"It makes me sad that I will lose my school family," said Susie Adams, an eighth-grade teacher at Jefferson and member of the Personnel Subcommittee. She has taught at the school for 19 years.

Adams said she and other Jefferson teachers have talked about possibly having a Jefferson reunion. The building's street number is 713, so they might meet every July 13, she said. They have talked about what they need to do this year to celebrate their history and family while also meeting their new school families, she said.

Ninth-grade teacher Michael McGinty said the transition is "equal parts exciting and terrifying." He said the transition is going to provide a lot of opportunity, but he also will be leaving behind relationships that he, as a fourth-year teacher at Jefferson, is just seeing come into fruition.

Villasana said she and several of her closest colleagues have talked about how fun it would be to move to a new school together. She knows she will meet new people and schools that will make her feel comfortable, but to a certain extent she wants to be with the interdisciplinary support network she has developed. There are teachers in many departments whom she learns from every day, talking about students and student learning.

"It's going to be so sad to leave that, and I would really hope that I would get to move with some of my closest colleagues," she said.

Because they have so much in common, Villasana and her closest colleagues listed some of the same choices on the survey, some even in the same order. However, the survey did not have an option to say, "I don't mind if I get my first or second preference, as long as I'm with my colleagues that I like to work with," she said.

The "exciting consolation prize" of having to leave Jefferson, for her, is the opportunity to develop new relationships with teachers across the district whom she knows from her work on district committees, as well as her time as a student and student teacher.

Benefits for students and teachers

Despite the sadness the separation of teachers will bring, Villasana said the teachers she has talked to are excited about what the grade realignment will mean for the district and its students.

They see the fewer transitions as positive for students and parents because it will allow them to get more engaged in school culture, she said. By the time students get to ninth grade, Villasana said, they are already mentally in high school. They already see themselves as Rock Bridge Bruins or Hickman Kewpies and already play on high school sports teams — which are wonderful opportunities, she said, but take them away from their junior high schools.

Having ninth-graders in high school will also allow intermediate schools to develop more of a culture, with students going there for three years, Villasana said. Parents will feel more comfortable at the schools because they will be there longer.

Ninth-grade teachers are excited to have the opportunity to see their students through to graduation, she said. Now, they see the beginning of students' high school experiences but then miss out on what comes next — the maturation that comes in high school and where the students go after they graduate, she said. It will be exciting to have the opportunity to see what students end up doing with what they learn through classes, sports, clubs, interpersonal relationships and everything else they do in high school, she said.

Kaufman said he is excited about moving ninth-graders into the high school building because teaching them in junior highs has been an issue for the district.

Some students have a hard time understanding that even though they are in the junior high building, they are high school students and the credits they take count toward their high school experience, he said. Moving into a high school will eliminate that problem, and it will also give students freedoms they don’t have in junior high schools.

Preparing for the transition

For the 2012-13 school year, many teachers will have to prepare for the next year's move to a new school while still focusing on teaching in the current one.

Ross is not worried about impending moves being a distraction to teaching. The focus will always be on the students, he said, and if he can continue to focus on them, he will have an enjoyable experience, just as he has in the previous 11 years he has taught.

"I think they should be the focus of all teachers, and everything else will work itself out, and so that’s going to be my philosophy in the 2012-2013 school year, and I think most teachers will probably say the same thing," Ross said.

There are early plans in place to introduce teachers to their new schools, including professional development days in the new schools in fall 2012.

Clippard said work generates at the building level.

"How you build community is different in each building," she said.

"What schools are very skilled in doing is creating communities," Clippard said. "Communities of learners, communities of professional practice, of creating welcoming, inviting, productive cultures. So you can be assured that every teacher and every administrator is going to be fully engaged in that process."

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