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Lifetime of learning
AISD pairs teachers to best utilize experienceBy Brenda Bernet
Palo Duro High School educator Elaine Loughlin defies national trends.
Nationwide, schools in impoverished neighborhoods tend to employ the least-experienced teachers.
But Loughlin is a 37-year veteran at a school where a majority of students come from low-income families. The English teacher has two master's degrees and trains educators for the district.
"I can't leave this place," she said. "We really have the best kids in town. They really want to be successful."
Amarillo Independent School District teachers averaged 12.2 years of experience in 2006-07, compared to the state average of 11.
At Amarillo ISD campuses, teacher experience ranged from 7.7 years at Horace Mann Middle School to 18.8 years at Belmar Elementary School.
Veteran teachers are more likely to work at schools in more affluent neighborhoods, but some schools in low-income neighborhoods also have experienced staffs, including Glenwood and Alice Landergin elementary schools.
High-performing schools tend have to a mix of new teachers, mid-career teachers and veterans with more than 20 years of experience, said Ed Fuller, a research associate in education at the University of Texas in Austin.
Teachers receive good training in college, but need experienced mentors, Fuller said. Veteran teachers know how to find supplies and deal with problems, but they benefit from the enthusiasm and new ideas of younger teachers.
In Amarillo ISD, new teachers must go through a two-year induction program, said Daniel Coward, assistant superintendent for personnel. Each new teacher also works with an experienced mentor.
Palo Duro senior Manny Sandoval, 18, is in one of Loughlin's English classes. He said classes taught by new teachers are tougher than classes lead by experienced educators.
"She understands how students are," Sandoval said of Loughlin. "These are the ones I make the best grades in. I know they're not going to take excuses."
The convenience factor
Amarillo campuses don't face the same staffing problems schools in large inner-city metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Denver or Miami have, said Superintendent Rod Schroder said.
Convenience is a big factor for teachers here, he said.
"Most of our teachers live in the southwest part of the city," Schroder said. "If you can choose a site closer to home, why wouldn't you?"
About 30 to 50 teachers transfer each year, Coward said.
That doesn't mean campuses in low-income neighborhoods lack quality teachers.
Juliana Nichols, a teacher at Mesa Verde Elementary School, was named the Region 16 Elementary Teacher of the Year.
Gayle Eudey, a teacher at Humphrey's Highland Elementary School, was the district's 2007 Elementary Teacher of the Year. This year's winner was Lana Velasquez, a teacher at Pleasant Valley Elementary School.
In the last three years, two teachers from Caprock High School were named district secondary teacher of the year: Chad McPhail in 2006 and Linda Terry this year.
"We have wonderful teachers who are working in high-poverty campuses," Schroder said. "They love it and do a wonderful job."
Many factors affect the average years of experience for schools, Coward said.
Newer campuses tend to have younger teachers.
Recent graduates are also frequently hired to fill positions created by campus growth. District policy does not require principals to consider years of experience to fill vacancies, Coward said.
Principals, mentors influence retention
Teachers are more likely to stay when they feel supported by administrators, said Larry Comer, spokesman for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
They need to know principals will back them with parents and students, Comer said. Teachers also need the freedom to try new ideas.
For Loughlin, flexibility and humor are important aspects of teaching. She said administrators gave her the freedom to be creative with her students and to try new strategies.
"I think teachers with experience are invaluable," Loughlin said.
Warren Whittington has taught at Eastridge Elementary School, a high-poverty school in northeast Amarillo, since 1970.
He will retire at the end of the school year and said the support he received from campus principals kept him in the classroom for 45 years.
"If I wanted to try something new, if I saw something that needed to be done, the principal would say go for it," Whittington said.
But ample administrative support won't compensate for the desire to teach.
"Teachers teach because they love kids," Comer said.
Educators at schools in impoverished communities accept the challenges and enjoy seeing children grasp what they have taught, Comer said. Some of the children will eat no more than the two meals they eat at school.
"They spend the bulk of their careers in such schools," Comer said.
Celebrate Education is a yearlong community project to encourage lifelong learning and help raise the education level in the Texas Panhandle.
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