Cameron Stephenson, left, leads an administration meeting with Assistant Principal Lena Van Haren and Principal Richard Curci. Photo by Kate Elston.

Everett Middle School Principal Richard Curci likes to compare his staff to an orchestra. But for the role of conductor — the person who makes sure everyone knows their role and plays to the same beat — he names Cameron Stephenson rather than himself.

Stephenson isn’t a San Francisco Unified School District employee. She’s a guest conductor, one of five consultants working at the Mission schools the state has designated as underperforming. They each receive part of a three-year, citywide School Improvement Grant (SIG) of $45 million, which averages out to $1.6 million per school per year.

The five consultants are from Partners in School Innovation, a 19-year-old nonprofit based in San Francisco. So far the group has received the largest grant from SIG funding — nearly $1.87 million — to consult at Bryant, Carver, Cesar Chavez, Muir, Revere, Buena Vista Horace Mann and Everett for two school years.

While Everett’s principal, Curci, is pleased with the consultants, some teachers and outsiders wonder: are they worth the nearly $130,000 a year per school the district is spending for them?

Because Partners is the largest grantee, according to school board agendas, Mission Loc@l decided to take a look at exactly what the group does.

Partners does not provide services directly to students, but instead consults with school faculty and administration, and in some cases with other consultants. It employs five of its “school innovation partners,” as the consultants are called, to work a day and a half at each school. Since most of the partners work at more than one school, they spend approximately three and half days in the field and one and a half days working at the organization’s offices toward larger objectives, said Linda Ponce de Leon, Partners’ senior district partnership director.

Their services are aimed at implementing “sustainable practices,” said chief program officer Malika Starr. The logic is that these practices will improve administration and teaching, to the overall benefit of students.

“Sure, you can [hire] tutors, but how are they going to know what to tutor, what needs to assess and analyze?” said Curci.

But Mark Sanchez, the former principal of Horace Mann, said that consulting can be a waste of money. “To have all these people not interacting with kids at all — that’s wrong,” said Sanchez, who also served on the school board for eight years and is now the principal at Cleveland Elementary School in the Excelsior.

Sanchez worked with Partners in School Innovation at Horace Mann last school year, but the organization’s relationship with that school was different. For example, Sanchez used the consultant provided by Partners to take over a classroom where the teacher was ineffective. He used other grant dollars, not Partners, to aid in the classroom.

The other consultant from Partners, he said, came in about once a month to offer consultation. It was expensive advice. Horace Mann still had to pay the same amount that other schools were using from their SIG budget.

“There was so much money rolling over,” Sanchez said of the grant.

Stephenson agreed that “there have to be people working with kids.” But, she added, “the changes we’re helping them put in are going to be long-lasting. And that money is supporting the kids in the long term.”

To get a better sense of how Partners works with the schools, Mission Loc@l focused on Everett Middle School, talking to the principal, faculty and other outsiders to understand what the money is buying. Everett has 347 students; 24.2 percent are advanced or proficient in English language arts and 18 percent in math, according to its 2011 test scores. The school’s scores have risen nearly six points in both language arts and math since Partners started working there in August 2010.

Stephenson — who began working at Everett in the fall of 2010 — said that in the day and a half she spends there per week, she has made the teachers’ common planning time more effective, become a sounding board for teachers, offered presentations on how to read school testing data, improved staff management and helped plan a midyear retreat. She’s even helped Curci manage his email inbox.

Stephenson restructured the teachers’ common planning time — the period teachers use to plan lessons and discuss what has worked — so that in addition to other meetings, English teachers meet by subject and grade level twice a week. So, for example, teachers from different subjects for one particular grade meet on Mondays and Wednesdays to discuss grade-level concerns such as behavior, and on Fridays, the nine English teachers meet by department. But now, in addition to that, the three English teachers from each grade meet separately on Tuesdays and Thursdays to focus on curriculum and common standards.

It took half a year to figure out, but Everett now has an effective structure for how to run the meetings, said Stephenson, who was a teacher and assistant principal for 11 years.

“Two years ago, they weren’t reflecting back on student achievement,” she said. “Every teacher was doing their own thing in their own class with no alignment across grade levels.”

Stephenson is trying to help teachers develop a mindset that allows them to “know what’s going to help them, by looking back and forward and planning and adjusting.”

It’s working, said Alex Algones, an eighth-grade English and social studies teacher.

Students in the same grade used to complain and ask why their friends were working on different projects than they were. Now there’s consistency, Algones said. “If I’m doing a project, the other teachers are doing the same.”

Meeting by grade and subject level also means less time is wasted, Algones said; he doesn’t have to sit through meetings that are irrelevant to his teaching. The common planning time is focused. Teachers know what to expect; there’s an agenda.

Before the consultants arrived, he said, there was no sense of camaraderie among the teachers; instead, they were competitive. Partners encourages teachers to express their ideas and lesson plans. Now, he said, most teachers are open-minded about other teaching strategies.

“In general, as a staff we’re closer,” he said. “It just feels better going into school knowing I’m supported by the eighth-grade team.”

But the better rapport may also be related to the fact that half the teachers at Everett are new, which was a stipulation for receiving the grant.

Ultimately, Stephenson said, the goal is for common planning time to be owned by teachers and for them to manage themselves. But the teachers did this without Partners’ help, according to Algones and others.

“We did things on our own and we liked autonomy,” said Algones, who sees other benefits from Stephenson’s work. “We felt we were more creative and went about our own strategies.”

Although Stephenson often attends the common planning sessions, she doesn’t lead them. In the English department that’s the job of the school’s instructional literacy coach, Shipley Salewski.

Salewski is paid with SIG funds and is one of 17 coaches who work at the Mission’s struggling schools either part- or full-time.

Stephenson, in effect, coaches the coach, who in turn is coaching the teachers. Stephenson offers Salewski support and suggestions for how to be effective with teachers.

Salewski started working at Everett this school year. In the beginning, Stephenson conducted classroom observations with her, making suggestions about what to observe and how to give feedback to teachers. With Stephenson’s guidance, Salewski initiated a system in which she would observe teachers from one grade level per week on a rotating basis.

Algones, who has been at Everett for seven years, said that the roles of the consultant and coach are similar, but Stephenson is more of an outsider who provides perspective, while the instructional coaches, although recently hired, work for the school district.

Stephenson has made him more accountable, Algones said, helping him identify new teaching strategies when students do poorly on a test.

“Some teachers feel like, ‘I can do this on my own and I don’t need help and it’s condescending,’” he said. “There’s got to be a certain degree of humility and you don’t have that until an outside source comes in.”

Kathleen Florita, an eighth-grade English teacher in her first year at Everett, agreed that some teachers have been resistant to the coaches. Stephenson, she said, has eased tensions between coaches and teachers, urging coaches to serve the needs of the teacher.

Having an observer in a class makes for better teachers, Florita said, because someone is holding them completely accountable. “It’s having another adult there, not to evaluate you or judge you, but someone to say, ‘This is what I see; this is an area we need to improve on.’”

But why do the schools need two people — a coach and an outside consultant, who both help with common planning time and give advice to teachers — to do nearly the same thing?

The two are in a complete partnership, said Curci, so of course there is overlap.

Stephenson is the accountability part of the partnership, making sure that teachers follow through on suggestions from the coach, Curci said.

In the last school year, Partners received nearly $1.1 million to do its job at the seven elementary and middle schools. This year it received $794,000. The reason for the difference is that each year the organization pulls back and tries to make the schools less reliant on its services.

“We know that at certain schools — Everett is one of them — less time needs to be spent there. And with the time that is spent there, what are the most strategic things we can do?” said Stephenson, who works at two other schools, Buena Vista Horace Mann and John Muir Elementary.

The $1.87 million in award money doesn’t directly pay for salaries for people like Stephenson, but goes toward Partners’ larger budget. Stephenson said that as a full-time employee of Partners, she is paid more than a teacher’s salary but slightly less than an assistant principal. Within SFUSD, that can be the difference between a $67,000 and an $86,000 salary for someone with 11 years of teaching and administration experience, although chief officers at Partners, like Starr, make more than $150,000 per year.

On a visit to Everett, a Partners consultant in the math department talked with a teaching coach during their weekly check-in session.

Harini Ara, the math instructional coach, said that coaches create plans for how to help teachers, but also consult with the school innovation partners. Ara, for example, asked Partners consultant Hansa Kaipa, “Should I do research around conceptual math strategies?”

Kaipa said that would be a good idea, because conceptual problem-solving is more difficult to teach than procedural math problems like subtracting X from both sides of an equation.

Teachers in the math department meet with Ara twice a week for their common planning time, said Aurora Sakine, who is in her first year at Everett and teaches sixth-grade math and eighth-grade algebra.

Kaipa, who is on maternity leave now but at the time served as the Partners consultant, would come to the meetings about twice a month, Sakine said. Throughout the school year, she observed Sakine’s class two or three times and gave her constructive feedback. “I’ve never felt like she was judging my classroom,” Sakine said.

Other than those instances, Sakine couldn’t recall specific examples in which Kaipa had worked with her directly.

Kaipa also worked at Bryant Elementary and Buena Vista Horace Mann, and Sakine said that allowed her to bring in an outsider’s point of view — to tell the math teachers what other struggling schools are doing that’s working for them. But Kaipa left in February of this year and might not be back until August. She has no replacement, said senior district partnership director Ponce de Leon, because Ara is capable of taking over the responsibilities.

Ara and Kaipa said that the common planning time encouraged math teachers to decide on their own to review an earlier classroom test as preparation for the California state tests that the students take in the spring.

Beyond working with coaches and setting up the common planning period, the Partners consultants have been sounding boards for teachers and helped to manage the staff.

Stephenson, said Algones, is “sort of like a conduit to administration.” When one teacher, for example, took issue with the number of hours she was working after the principals asked her to take on another class, the teacher spoke first to Stephenson, who then facilitated a conversation between the teacher and Curci.

Then there’s the data analysis. At least every other week, during planning time, Stephenson gathers the three English teachers per grade level to analyze results from quizzes, in-class tests, student projects and more formal preliminary standardized tests, to see what’s working. Sometimes the solution to a problem lies in coaching; sometimes it’s through curriculum adjustments.

Under Stephenson’s guidance, said Algones, English teachers identify four of five students in each class to focus on — usually students on the cusp of attaining the next level of test scores, from far below basic to basic, or from proficient to advanced.

“Based on the results, we have an idea of where other students are and what we need to re-teach or focus on,” Algones said.

Kaipa also compiles data and presents it to teachers to analyze during planning time.

“We have focal African American students, and we see how their scores have progressed through benchmark tests,” said Sakine, the math teacher. Kaipa, she said, arranges the data so that it’s easy to read.

Similarly, Stephenson looks at the English data by grade level to make sure the same standards are being met, said Florita. If students aren’t learning, the teachers must decide if they need to re-teach the whole class or just focus attention on a small group of students.

Administrators also meet weekly with Stephenson. During one meeting, the principal and two assistant principals reviewed an agenda that Stephenson had planned and printed out. They discussed payrolls and teaching schedules, and Stephenson made sure each principal had completed evaluations from recent class observations. Another point of the weekly meetings is to look at data and assess how they’re working with staff.

“It’s all about monitoring adjustment and reflecting what you’re doing on a leadership level,” said Stephenson.

Another initiative Stephenson helped reshape at Everett was an instructional leadership team composed of a teacher from every grade. This team meets monthly and has participated in two walk-throughs, where they sit in on classes to see teaching in action and provide recommendations.

Florita, who’s on the leadership team, says there are other responsibilities, like noting which eighth-graders will graduate and which will need summer school, but that a big part of the job is communicating teachers’ needs to administration and vice versa.

The leadership team acts as liaison, Stephenson said, and provides input on decisions on behalf of the teachers.

For example, when the administrators and coaches wanted to develop end-of-the year projects for students, they presented the idea to the leadership team and asked teachers for their opinions; ultimately, they decided that students across all grades would have to produce research-based projects.

The leadership team existed before Stephenson came to the school, Curci said, but it wasn’t as structured.

But Algones, who has been on the team in the past, said that leadership team members have always acted as teacher representatives. And now that there are extra people — like coaches and department leaders — who also do that job, the current leadership team members spend more time explaining why things need to be done.

Stephenson said she also planned the agenda for the midyear staff retreat, took part in hiring new teachers last year, and helps Curci monitor his email inbox of more than 3,000 unread messages.

Sometimes she sends out a few of the day’s emails for Curci — so that, for example, a message about an upcoming meeting will get to the appropriate teachers on time. It’s one less thing for the busy principal to worry about.

At the end of the day, he’s busy because the ultimate challenge is to turn around one of the city’s poorest-performing schools.

“At Everett, for so long it was all about behavior,” said Stephenson. “They were putting out fires and crazy behaviors, and it’s not like that any more. We give them a place to reflect on quality of instruction, and give them a way to stay focused on what their students are achieving.”

In a report on SIG implementation at Everett that was released in March 2011, after Partners had been at the school for seven months, the State Department of Education found:

Everett Middle School’s need assessment indicated that there was a general lack of rigor in instruction and wide variations in student engagement. Moreover, the analysis indicated that the curriculum was not rigorous across all academic areas, there was little coherence among grade levels about the content to be taught, and teachers rarely evaluated their practice in light of the curriculum. The analysis also highlighted that the lack of instructional leadership contributed to poor choices in the use of materials within the classroom. 

There was a lack of direction with regard to clear goals and data assessment, the report’s authors stated, but in interviews with the district and school staff, they noted indications that the school was starting to analyze data put together by Partners in School Innovation.

The school district takes a multilayered approach to hold Partners accountable, Kevin Rocap, the executive director of the district’s SIG, said in an email. It makes sure the organization is doing its work by conducting site visits and meeting with school supervisors. The district also looks for Partners’ impact on school practices and student success by directly observing whether a teacher who didn’t know how to read data before now uses it to revise and improve his or her teaching; by seeing if schools actually use documents created by Partners that outline reform efforts; and by looking at the minutes of common planning time meetings to make sure Partners staff are attending and facilitating them.

Ultimately, however, the goal is improved student learning, and the district reviews assessments, like standardized test scores, for evidence of progress.

While it’s difficult to attribute success to one aspect of school reform, Rocap said, the district has seen signs that teachers who really learn how to use data under Partners’ guidance see achievement gains in their students.

Partners had been at Everett for nearly eight months when students took the state tests in April 2011. During that school year, the number of students scoring as proficient or advanced in English rose more than six percentage points, from 17.9 to 24.2 percent; in math, the percentage of students scoring as proficient or advanced grew from 12.3 to 18.4.

For Curci, part of the challenge is to one day succeed without the help of Partners in School Innovation.

“They’re there to build capacity and structures and overhauls through communication and assessment and planning,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in one year.”

But, he said, “They can’t be around forever.”

Additional reporting by Kate Elston.

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  1. Well done Lisette. Finally I understand what these people do during the day (I guessed they wrote reports). And now that we know what they do, we can ask is this the most efficient way of doing it? Do we need to pay a private company? Or why isn’t the SFUSD doing all of this already. None of what the consultants advise, much less “do”, is all that novel, hardly revolutionary.

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