Working the Plan, part 2: Trying to raise the bar for teaching

Monday, November 15, 2010
Deborah Spinner, right, and Meg Yates, left, are involved in the mentor-protege program at Cape Junior High School. Spinner acts as a mentor to Yates, who is in her first year of teaching. (Kristin Eberts)

Lesa Hinton loves her job.

She's a teacher.

Sure, there are the frustrations, like what she and many other educators see as the unrealistic demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The soft-spoken Hinton fires up a touch when talking about the law's mandate that all U.S. students be proficient in math and communications arts by 2014.

"It has been a big frustration," said Hinton, a fifth- and sixth-grade communications arts teacher at Cape Girardeau Central Middle School. "Not every child learns the same and at the same pace, so to expect all children to be at the same level, that is a frustration."

But the veteran educator said she's happy where she works, and her peers are, too.

"We love working here and working with the students on a daily basis as part of a team," she said.

Tapping into the passion to teach and giving teachers the tools to succeed in the ever-changing classroom, administrators say, are the driving forces behind Cape Girardeau School District's mission to recruit and retain a highly qualified staff, the second goal in the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan. The reasoning is simple, experts say: Better teachers produce better students. Administrators say the foundation of great teachers is in place; it's only a matter of improving and enhancing professional development to take educators to the next level. The district, like public school systems everywhere, faces some stiff challenges, however, from funding cuts to teacher frustration, in raising the professional bar.

From the top

Education is no different from any other business when it comes to the search for success, said Jim Welker, superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District. If you want to improve the organization, hire the best people you can find.

"I think we do a pretty good job at that," Welker said.

To hire the best, though, you generally have to compensate competitively, and Welker said Cape Girardeau's public schools don't always compete.

That's particularly true in starting wage, said Hinton, who also is a member of the Community Teachers Association.

New teachers with a bachelor of science degree earn a starting wage of $29,463, according to the district's 2009-2010 salary schedule. Pay goes up with experience and education. The salary schedule is the same in 2010-2011; teacher wages were frozen this year. The starting wage is lower than pay in many school districts in the region, but it's a bit above the state starting wage of $29,281, according to salary tracker Teacher Portal. Missouri teachers on average earn $40,462, making the state 41st in pay. Illinois, by contrast, ranks third in average teacher salary, at $58,686, according to the website.

Teachers in the Cape Girardeau School District also are facing the possibility of double-digit health insurance premium increases, cutting deeper into real earnings, and the rising cost of earning a college degree.

State budget shortfalls have forced cuts in education funding, and the biggest line item in the budget, personnel, is typically the first addressed. Staff reductions are making more work for teachers, many of whom are putting in longer hours to help struggling students hit ever-rising proficiency targets.

Franklin Elementary School lost two teachers this year to the budget ax. Thirteen teachers serve 286 students. Principal Rhonda Dunham said four classrooms have 28 students, with one teacher's assistant floating between two classes.

"That's hard for teachers to deal with," she said, "but that's a budget thing. When you don't have the money, then you can't spend it."

She said the district did respond by hiring two teacher assistants when Franklin's enrollment numbers started to rise.

Morale remains pretty good at the elementary school, Dunham said, with the usual good days and bad days and the "wow weeks." Assistant superintendent Pat Fanger said there is more to the matter than money.

"A lot of teachers want to be in Cape," she said. "They could make more money elsewhere, but they want to be here in a friendly, positive school environment."

Developing excellence

The district's improvement plan demands professional development that addresses curriculum and practices aimed at bolstering student achievement.

Among the more successful development efforts, educators say, is the Mentor-Protege program, as mandated by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. New teachers are paired with experienced educators for two years, learning about everything from classroom management to how to handle discipline in the classroom. This year there are 11 new teachers in the program, a smaller field than in past years.

Barb Randolph, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Cape Girardeau Central Junior High School and program coordinator for secondary educators in the district, said mentoring gives new teachers the confidence they need in what can be an overwhelming job.

"There are so many things involved in teaching these days. You don't just walk in have a lesson and everything goes smoothly," Randolph said. "You have to plan to try to meet the needs of every student, and differentiate lessons for higher achievers, students who are learning disabled and at-risk students."

Randolph said the district has committed to the program through resources and time, giving mentors and proteges opportunities for collaboration and professional development throughout the year.

"You continually improve that way, and I don't think every district in this state has program like that," the teacher said.

The goal to develop highly qualified staff includes performance-based evaluation and more walk-throughs and observations by building administrators. Teachers, too, will track each other's progress through Instructional Practices Inventory, measuring student engagement in the classroom.

But while professional development remains a priority, administrators say, it is not immune to budget cuts. With fewer dollars this year, there are more in-house training sessions and not as many big conferences or big-name speakers, educators say.

In the face of the challenges and higher expectations, administrators say Cape Girardeau teachers will rise to the occasion. Hinton believes the district will, too.

"Our district has never sat with the status quo," she said. "We are working on how we can improve our delivery methods and curriculum.

"We want to educate our students first and foremost above anything else."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

1900 Thilenius St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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