Andrea Walley has worked at Cesar Chavez Academy Intermediate since 2006, when she started out as a fifth-grade teacher.
Walley, now the principal, is not alone in her commitment to the school.
Judging by the number of teachers who stay, it is among the most stable schools in Detroit.
Most teachers have been with the school for years, including one who has taught some of her former students’ children. The school’s 94% teacher retention rate over the last three years is among the highest in Detroit.
Students tend to stick around, too. The number of students who leave the school unexpectedly each year is under 5%, well below the city average.
Stability can be hard to come by for schools like this one, where 98% of students are classified as economically disadvantaged and 74% are English language learners. Across Detroit and the state, students who attend schools with similar demographics tend to face a revolving cast of teachers, including uncertified long-term substitutes.
Research makes clear that instability at school hurts student learning in the long run. At Cesar Chavez, student growth scores have been just below the state average in recent years — and well above the scores of schools with similar demographics. About 25% of students at Cesar Chavez passed state exams last year, well below the state average of 42%.
The school expects to be virtually unaffected by Michigan’s new “read or flunk” law, which is expected to affect the 3rd-graders who struggle most to read.
We spoke with Walley to learn more about how the school works, touching on the role of academic interventions, unions, and support from the community.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What makes your school stable?
It would be one of two things. One is that we have excellent teachers that feel comfortable here and are happy here and want to stay. The other is that we have a good reputation with parents and families. So parents that have gone to CCA are bringing their kids back to CCA because they like the school. And they know it’s a good place to learn.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
It’s tough because we have a lot of families that are struggling with some serious problems, and we cannot help. That’s the hardest thing. You know, we have deportations on a regular basis, which causes a lot of trauma for our students. A lot of my students that have just come from other countries, they’ve usually had a very arduous journey.
A lot of people in Michigan are talking about the third-grade reading law, which goes into effect this year. How are you thinking about that issue?
More often than not, research shows that retention has a negative impact on education. Now, that’s not to say that retention doesn’t have its place. And I think it’s extremely important that students are able to read and the older they get, the harder that becomes. So I’m not saying something doesn’t need to be done. But what I can say about the third-grade reading law is that the [thresholds below which students are held back] are very reasonable. So overall, for our last M-STEP testing in 2019, we only had six students that [would have qualified for retention]. And of those students, most of them are students with special needs.
What’s an area where your school is really struggling?
We have struggled the most with getting the students to understand science concepts. We are really focusing on how we can improve the ways our students think about science. We have all these new science standards, so we’ve been looking at hands-on activities for science, and how can we really make science this amazing thing where we create lifelong learners that are able to look at things scientifically?
Your student growth scores are some of the best in the city. How do you pull that off?
Part of why our growth is so high is because we have a very strong intervention program here. It’s something we developed in 2013. We have specific times just for intervention. So if a student is struggling in reading, they’re not going to miss their core instruction because they’re in reading interventions. Instead, we have a separate time for reading interventions where they’re pulled out. And we’re very, very careful with how we look at the data, what interventions we use, and we’re constantly meeting about that.
The school’s teacher retention rate is also great.
I have teachers for whom this is their 19th year. It’s a big deal. For me to be able to keep my teachers here, it’s something I’m really proud of. I work hard on relationships. I work hard to make sure they get the coaching and support that they need. Because it’s a really tough job. And yeah, we have excellent teacher retention and it has a huge impact on our ability to help students.
Cesar Chavez is one of only a few charter networks in Detroit whose teachers are unionized. Do you think that plays a role?
I think that it does give teachers a sense of feeling protected. I honestly think that a lot of why they stay is because they feel that we care about them, and that we’re here for them, and we listen to them. And we want teachers to have a voice.