Before Anna Lucas became a teacher at Del Mar High School in Campbell Union High School District, it didn’t have a great reputation.
“[People told me] ‘It’s the hardest place to work. It’s hard to manage the classrooms there. Students are in trouble all the time. The students are so behind it’s hard to teach,” recalls Lucas.
Del Mar serves a high number of low-income Latino students. Almost half (46%) of all of the low-income Latino students tested in the entire district attend Del Mar, and, historically, the school has had some of the lowest test scores in the district.
But after Lucas joined the staff as a science teacher six years ago, she entered a school environment set on transforming its academic culture. Last year, seven out of ten of low-income Latino students at Del Mar were on grade level in English, compared to three out of ten low-income Latino students across the Bay Area, which qualified them for our Top Schools list this year for the first time.
“Students who previously probably would have tried to get an interdistrict transfer to go elsewhere, or whose parents might have sent them to a private school, they are choosing to come here now,” said Lucas. She herself asked to transfer her own son so he could attend Del Mar as a freshman next year.
What changed? In 2012, Jennifer Baldwin started as principal at the school. She credits much of school’s success to having the freedom to build a team that aligns on the same vision.
Setting a vision and recruiting a team that fulfills it
“I feel one of the key components for the success of Del Mar is that we have been able to hire independently. Which is really the most important part in moving a school,” said Baldwin, “By having autonomy you can actually choose those qualities that you’re looking for and and elevate those to the primary.”
Baldwin was given the opportunity to conduct the first round of interviews with every teacher she hired. This autonomy is rare, as district policies often hinder school leaders from building the kind of team of teachers their students need. In contrast, Baldwin could prioritize the qualities she wanted on her staff when making hiring decisions. Del Mar has 60 full-time teachers, and 42 of them joined since Baldwin became school leader.
According to Baldwin, Del Mar’s “social justice mission” is what drives her hiring decisions. For Baldwin, that means hiring teachers who are passionate about making a difference for the students Del Mar serves.
“It’s basically that all students can learn and achieve at high levels. And really what it boils down to is that we are the ones that are going to take them there.”
When searching for teachers, Baldwin built a strong relationship with the Stanford STEP program, a teacher preparation program that emphasizes equity and meeting the needs of all students. Her deliberate focus on finding teachers who shared this vision has paid off: every teacher we interviewed mentioned the remarkable alignment in purpose among all staff members at the school.
“I feel like we are all on the same path together,” said Lucas. Jeffrey Dong, a math teacher recruited by Baldwin from the Stanford STEP program, said he ultimately chose to work at Del Mar after visiting the school and observing how strongly teachers believed in Baldwin’s vision.
“They shared so much about the mission and how much they love working here,” said Dong. “Even at the other schools that I went to, they didn’t bring that up voluntarily.”
This also leads to greater cohesion across departments and grade levels. Across the whole campus, departments share a common curriculum in every course. All teachers within a department present similar lessons, having similar expectations and assessments.
Empowering the team by letting every teacher lead
But Del Mar’s success didn’t only come from the decisions Baldwin made on her own. Many teachers instead attribute much of the school’s turn-around to her “distributive leadership style” and willingness to let every teacher have ownership over their work.
“She trusts us as professionals that can make decisions in our classrooms. And then, she’s in the background saying ‘If that’s what you need to get the students there, we are going to figure out how to get it.’ You very much feel like anything I need that’s going to help lift my students, we can find a way to get it,” said Lucas.
During her first year as principal, before the school year started, Baldwin met with every teacher over the summer and asked them about their experiences at the school. This not only helped start a relationship with teachers and create buy-in for her vision. It also allowed her to gain the teachers’ perspectives on what actually needed to change, and leverage their strengths when changing it.
“She presents a very unifying vision of what we’re trying to do, but she doesn’t tell us how to do it. She puts trust in us to do it. And she’s also super-honest about there not being one right way to do it. ” said Dong. The school has a variety of leadership groups that teachers can choose to join to give more input. Staff knows it’s a given that these teams will make decisions about their specific area of work or expertise.
Many school district leaders and principals focus on individual accountability. But Baldwin also prioritized building a strong team of teachers and then supporting them to develop their own collective solutions.
Baldwin creates the space and time for her staff to do this. The first Monday of every month, teachers stay an extra hour after student dismissal for a staff meeting.
Through this culture of giving every teacher a voice and opportunity for leadership, Baldwin said staff meetings experienced “a revival.”
“Usually, you have to worry about people on their phones or somehow distracted, but there’s just this hunger to work with each other and feed off each others ideas,” she said. She sees teachers often staying late without being asked, and volunteering to create more time for collaboration.
“This may be super weird, but I actually look forward to staff meetings,” said Dong. “To me, they are not this arduous process that we have to go through. It’s a time for us to really connect.”
Growing and learning together through feedback
When Dong joined Del Mar three years ago, he was surprised to find that even the experienced teachers he admired still constantly asked for feedback on how to improve.
“I feel like most — if not all of us — are not content to just be good. We’re always looking to get better in our craft in some way,” said Dong.
“I have watched teachers willingly be vulnerable and say, ‘Whoa, that lesson just totally crashed and burned. Let’s totally reboot.‘” said Baldwin. “When it’s modeled for some of the younger and newer teachers, then they don’t feel like they have to pretend they’re perfect already. They can make themselves more vulnerable to ask questions and to get help.”
Through their remarkable progress, the staff at Del Mar still understand there is no silver bullet to their success. It comes from the whole team’s commitment to constantly learning – from those who are new teachers to those who have been teaching for decades
“One thing I love here at Del Mar is that none of us have all the answers, but we all have something that we bring to the table,” said Dong. “As a team, we know we are better together than we are as individual parts.”
What Counts — Quick tips from the Del Mar team:
Create strategic partnerships with teacher preparation programs
The school has developed a relationship with Stanford STEP, a teacher preparation program that emphasizes equity and meeting the needs of all students. Del Mar has hired over ten teachers from the program so far. This partnership makes it easier to quickly find teachers who are committed to the school’s vision.
Foster a culture of frequent and meaningful feedback from peers
Once a semester, all teachers participate in “instructional rounds” by spending a prep period observing other teachers in the school. Afterwards, these teachers discuss together what they saw, and analyze how they can implement some of the strategies they saw in their own classroom. Teachers also have “critical friends” who commit to observing their classroom and providing feedback throughout the year.
Build time into the weekly schedule for staff collaboration
Teachers have weekly collaboration time every Wednesday after school for one hour after student dismissal. They also have staff meetings every first Monday of the month.
Build a staff culture of using data to improve
Four times a year, the school hosts Del Mar Forum, a voluntary input meeting where teachers can discuss school-wide issues. Teachers recommend agenda items they want to discuss, and then the principal goes through the agenda, taking in feedback from teachers on each item. Topics can include grading practices, best practices for collaboration, changes for the bell schedule, and more. Recently, they had a meeting about how to support students for the national walkout against gun violence on March 14.
This profile explores one of the six pillars of our World-class Schools Framework. Learn more here.