Poorer schools in Prince William County have more teachers with less experience

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, InsideNoVa.com, and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

When she was growing up, Ashley Dunnaway, a first-grade teacher at Minnieville Elementary School, said her teachers inspired her and made learning fun and engaging.

She was recognized for passing on that encouragement as the Prince William County Public Schools’ Outstanding New Teacher of the Year in 2017-18, a year after she graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a master’s degree in teaching.

“Everyone is a team, like a family,” she said. “We are all responsible for a kid who succeeds. At the end of the day, we’re trying to make sure all kids succeed, not just my class versus your class.”

Minnieville is one of 26 elementary schools in Prince William that receive federal Title 1 funding because it has a high percentage of students from low-income families. Three county middle schools and one high school also receive this funding.

However, on average, the county’s Title 1 schools have more teachers with five years or less experience than schools not receiving federal assistance, according to an InsideNoVa analysis.

Research shows that as teachers gain experience, their students perform better academically. This year, Prince William schools employs more than 6,200 teachers who teach more than 90,000 students at 100 schools, making it the second-largest school division in Virginia.

About 39% of teachers at county elementary schools that receive Title 1 funding have five years or less experience, compared to 28% of teachers who have five years or less of experience at other elementary schools.

Elementary schools have 3% to 59% percent of teachers with five years or less experience, but four out of the five elementary schools with the highest percentage of these new teachers receive Title 1 funding.

Those four schools — Belmont, Kilby, Jenkins and Ellis elementary schools — report at least 50% of their teachers have been on the job for five years or less. All of them are Title 1 schools.

Collectively, about 36% of teachers at the two middle schools that receive Title 1 funding have five years or less experience, compared to 32% at other middle schools. Only one middle school reports that more than half of its teachers have five years or less of experience: Lake Ridge Middle School. It is not a Title 1 school.

The county has one high school that receives Title 1 funding: Freedom High School. Unlike the elementary and middle schools, Freedom has fewer teachers with five years or less experience, with only 26% new teachers, compared to 30% at other high schools in the county.

Teacher experience levels vary by school for several reasons. School principals work with the division’s human resources department to hire teachers for each school, said Donna Eagle, the division’s human resource director. While younger teachers may be new to the profession, more teachers are earning their master’s degree before they start their first year of teaching, which makes them better prepared, Eagle said.

Also, principals may be looking for specific skills, such as technology or language skills, for their school, said Michele Salzano. supervisor of Elementary Schools & Special Education Employment.

“Our children have different backgrounds, so you want the staff to reflect that,” she said.

New teachers may want to teach at a Title 1 school to help students. Teachers who work at Title 1 schools are often promoted as instructional coaches or administrators, which creates a vacancy at the school, Eagle said. She added that the Virginia Department of Education offers grants for schools that are difficult to staff that pays a yearly bonus to teachers for one to three years.

New teachers can also receive student loan forgiveness for teaching at a Title 1 school, Salzano said.

Christie Dugan Taylor, the division’s director of the office of professional learning, said Title 1 schools also have instructional coaches who support new teachers.

The school division hires teachers from other countries who are often bilingual, but they can only stay for up to five years, Eagle said, adding that can mean more vacancies once those teachers leave. This year, the division has about 90 teachers from another country.

Supporting new teachers

The school division tracks the number of new teachers at each school to ensure there is enough support for them, Taylor said. This school year, the division has about 1,000 teachers who are either new to the profession or from another division.

All new teachers receive a mentor who offers training multiple times a year, Taylor said. A mentor can work with teachers individually to help identify areas of strength and areas that need improvement.

As a new teacher, Dunnaway attended professional development the summer before she started. She also attended reading strategy classes to better prepare to teach reading.

Dunnaway’s mentor taught at a classroom next to hers, so she could bounce ideas off her mentor or ask her for help. In addition to her mentor observing her classroom, Dunnaway observed her mentor’s classroom, and her mentor helped Dunnaway visit classrooms at Montclair Elementary, she said.

“When you collaborate, you’re bringing ideas from all over that can really help you grow,” Dunnaway said.

The division’s goal is to retain teachers, because of the division’s investment in them and due to a national shortage of teachers, Taylor said. The division retained 89.4% of its teachers in the 2018-19 school year.

Teachers also have access to an online tool called Torsh, where they can share lesson plans and give feedback to each other with the assistance of a school division staff member, Taylor said.

Riley O’Casey, the president of the Prince William Education Association, said teachers feel pressure to help students pass Standards of Learning exams.

Parents are doing the best they can to provide for their children, O’Casey said. “But when outside needs are not met, it’s going to be difficult to learn. You have a village to ensure that these kids are successful.”

O’Casey said the mentor program in the division is helpful, but could be expanded. If a mentor and teacher don’t have the same planning period, they may have to meet outside of school hours, she said. Currently, teachers receive a mentor for their first year and the mentors check in with them for their second and third years teaching. O’Casey said she thinks the mentorship program should continue in full for at least three years.

While she considers herself a lifelong learner, she said after about five years teachers understand and meet their educational standards and are comfortable in their roles.

Having a mix of veteran teachers with teachers who have less than five years experience is important, because veteran teachers can share knowledge with the less experienced teachers, O’Casey said.

“The more you do it, the better you get,” she said about teaching.

Dunnaway said she became more familiar with planning lessons and managing her classroom in her first year of teaching.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help, because there are resources and professional development,” she said. “As long as you have support, you’ll be fine.”

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