Part two of a three-part series.

Jeff Merzbacher left Knox Preparatory School after a single aggravating year, tired of being insulted by middle schoolers who called him a redneck, tired of trying to teach gym on a vacant field with no gym or locker rooms.

“I just lost all my steam,” he said. “I always wanted to be positive. But it was just a nightmare.”

He jumped at the chance to leave, pushed away by the inadequate fields, indifferent coworkers and lax student supervision. The teachers who took his spot left even quicker. Knox cycled through eight gym teachers in September and October alone this year. Some stayed for just a few days before quitting.

The Lincoln Park school was supposed to be one of the lucky ones when it comes to staffing. Under a new California law, it was freed from the rigid and sometimes dysfunctional hiring system that other schools lament. That was supposed to allow principals to choose the right teachers for their schools.

But if schools are unable to lure or keep teachers, that freedom does them little good. The reason is simple: Many struggling schools have few applicants to choose from because of bad reputations, shabby facilities or dismal working conditions. And they regularly lose the teachers they do get.

Yet the puzzle can be solved. The proof is in Balboa Elementary.

Balboa used to suffer from the same revolving door that plagues most disadvantaged schools. Most of its students are poor, some so poor that teachers take their laundry home to wash for them. Nearly 40 percent of its teachers transferred out in 2005, when the school replaced most of its staff to meet No Child Left Behind rules. Even before then, teacher churn was a constant frustration.

But in recent years, its teachers have been fighting to stay. Turnover has dropped. When San Diego Unified decided to boost class sizes — a move that would have forced Balboa to send teachers elsewhere — its teachers protested and got to stay.

“I would love to work here for another six years,” kindergarten teacher Trina Nouvong said. “We’re like a family.”

Balboa is one of a handful of schools that have cracked the code, keeping their teachers through seemingly small but powerful measures such as providing day care for their children and bringing teachers into school decisions. It has defied the stereotype that teachers always flee poor schools.

It teaches an important lesson: How teachers are treated is just as critical to getting the right teachers in the right schools as the elaborate rules that can get in the way of good matches.

The tales of two San Diego schools, one that overcame the problem, one that is trying to do so, reveal how those big challenges and subtle differences drive turnover in schools.

Where the Door Spins Fastest

Few schools have seen the revolving door spin faster than Mann Middle in City Heights, an immigrant neighborhood dotted with nail salons, corner groceries with names from Somalia and Cambodia and shops promising payday loans.

One mother, Patricia Fumagalli, pulled her younger son out of Mann after he had four math teachers in a single year. “It was a horrendous year,” she said.

Mann has had one of the highest exit rates in San Diego Unified: The equivalent of more than half of its teachers left for other San Diego schools between 2004 and 2008. That doesn’t include the teachers who retired or left for other school districts.

Principal Esther Omogbehin tries to be honest with job applicants about the challenges of teaching at Mann, where most children qualify for free lunches, nearly half are learning English, and many are refugees still adjusting to the United States.

“We don’t want anyone to walk into a hornets’ nest,” said Omogbehin, who speaks Yoruba, Hausa, Creole and English and is trying to learn Spanish. She shows off its new band room and classes in Mandarin and engineering. But, she cautions potential teachers, “Here you have to work four times harder than anyone else.”

Interactive Map of Teacher TransfersIt isn’t surprising that disadvantaged schools are more likely to lose teachers than more successful ones. But a analysis of all 2,966 transfers between 2004 and 2008, done with the help of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, revealed just how severe the phenomenon is.

And the analysis also showed that against the odds, some schools have dodged the problem and kept their teachers over time.

Disadvantaged schools are less likely to get lots of candidates for a simple reason: On average, teachers tend to move gradually from poorer schools with lower scores to wealthier schools with better ones.

Between 2004 and 2008, 48 percent of teachers who transferred went to schools with higher scores, 21 percent went to schools with similar scores and 31 percent bucked the trend and went to schools with lower scores. The data reveal similar but weaker patterns for school poverty levels.

Because of that flow of teachers, the poorest schools in San Diego Unified — those where 90 percent or more of students qualified for free lunches — were more than twice as likely to lose teachers to other schools, on average, as the wealthiest schools where 39 percent or fewer got free lunch.

Yet looking closer at the data, it is clear that poverty alone is not the reason for turnover. If it were, Balboa Elementary never could have changed.

What Sets Balboa Apart

The things that keep teachers at Balboa are seemingly small. But they’ve had a powerful impact.

Teachers can put their own children into a daycare on campus stocked with sippy cups and caterpillar toys. Many schools have preschools on site, but usually teachers earn too much to put their own children into those public programs.

Providing an affordable daycare for teachers is one of many ways the school and its principal, Fabiola Bagula, cater to teachers, from welcoming a national union to refurbish its teachers’ lounge to planning a gym for teachers on campus. And those are just the tangible things. Teachers rave about feeling respected and included in reforms.

They worked together to create common assessments to check if children understand their lessons. They set common rules for each classroom. And they devised new ways to talk about math to better prepare students for algebra.

“We all get along. No one sits back and does the bare minimum,” said teacher Laurie Bergener. “You can walk into any third grade classroom and we’re all doing the same thing.”

Balboa still doesn’t get a ton of applicants when jobs open up, Bagula said. But because the school keeps its teachers and hires less frequently, it is less likely to be forced to take teachers it doesn’t want.

It isn’t alone. Other disadvantaged schools such as Central Elementary, Linda Vista Elementary and Wilson Middle in City Heights, not far from Mann, have also bucked the trend and kept their teachers.

That begs the question of why teachers were so likely to leave Mann. Teachers said they didn’t leave just because Mann was poor and struggling. They left because they felt powerless to change it.

They left when reformers split Mann into three schools. They left when it merged back into one school. And they left after clashing with principals as the school changed leaders over and over. Omogbehin is only the latest in a long line of principals as Mann underwent each change.

Just as principals fault the flawed system that forces them to accept teachers they don’t choose, teachers are driven from schools that don’t involve them in decisions and have heavy churn at the top.

“At Mann, it’s always that the next principal has the answer. The next consultant has the answer. The new program is the answer,” said Daniel Swierczynski, who taught there for four years.

One parent said she wasn’t always sad to see them leave. “They weren’t going to meet the needs of our kids,” Leann Kunkee said. “A lot of them don’t have any clue what they have to deal with.”

‘No Great Call to Do Anything About It’

Broader studies of teacher turnover square with the lessons from Balboa and Mann: How teachers are treated matters.

Researchers have blamed the teacher exodus from poor schools to wealthier ones on big classes, unsupportive administrators and teachers being left out of decisions. Data from San Diego also show that getting a new principal can trigger teacher turnover.

Their research boils down to this: While teachers are generally more likely to leave disadvantaged schools than wealthy ones, that gap may not be a result of poverty itself, but the working conditions and constant leadership changes at poorer schools.

The question is how to fix that. And the answers aren’t quick or simple.

President Obama has backed the idea of paying teachers more to work in tougher schools. The idea is to change the incentives so that a teacher might think twice about transferring out to a more successful, less taxing school. Teachers unions strongly oppose that, countering that school systems should fix the deeper problems in poor schools, not pay teachers to deal with them.

They point to schools that have clamped down on turnover. But there is no single, foolproof magic bullet to make more schools like Balboa and Central. It hinges on school culture, a slippery thing.

Solving that puzzle is one of the hottest topics in education reform right now and one of its most elusive problems.

But in San Diego, it is rarely broached. Budget cuts have hijacked the debate. The California law that freed Knox, Balboa and other disadvantaged schools to hire anyone was the last major stab at reforming staffing. The school system has no larger strategy to change it.

The problems are so ingrained that principals, parents and even many teachers are resigned to them.

“There’s no great call to do anything about it,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. “We place all these expectations on schools. We give them all this money. But we don’t necessarily give them the people they need to make that change.”

TUESDAY: New York City overhauled its teacher transfer system, allowing principals to choose whoever they wanted. Its successes and stumbles serve as a test case for San Diego.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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