Professional Educators

Where Educators Lead Reform, Achievement Gaps are Closing

Julie Palacios didn’t want to be a teacher. In college, she first studied to be a dentist. But she always enjoyed her class work in human development and she knew she was good with kids…

“I guess I had to explore other avenues before I admitted to myself what I always knew I should do – be a teacher!”

Now, Palacios is a second-grade bilingual teacher at New Highland Academy, an Oakland, California, elementary school that has pioneered education reform through the state’s Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), a $3 billion investment that brought smaller classes and additional school counselors.

With those resources – and their own commitment and hard work — Palacios and her colleagues have turned New Highland into “a place that’s safe and welcoming for our students. For some, it’s the only place they feel safe,” she said.

It’s also a place where achievement isn’t unusual. With the individual attention that educators like Palacios can provide through the additional QEIA-provided resources, kids are thriving.

“I’ve been in other schools, where it was like the principal would come in to your classroom and we’d all have to be on the same page at the same time,” Palacios said. “They tried to make cookie-cutters out of us. You’re not teaching to the child – it’s like a show.”

What is QEIA?
The Quality Education Investment Act was the direct result of a funding lawsuit filed by the California Teachers Association lawsuit against then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the landmark legislation, which CTA sponsored, the state pledged $3 billion over eight years to spend on extra resources at 499 schools. Currently, it serves about 500,000 students, the majority of whom are poor and Latino.

And it serves them well.

Even as schools and districts across the country continue to struggle with persistent achievement gaps between minority and White students, or between poor and wealthier children, these QEIA schools have proven that well-funded, teacher-led reforms supported by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign actually can make a difference.

“What teachers said about the value of the CTA-sponsored Quality Education Investment Act three years ago is coming true today,” said CTA President David A. Sanchez. “Proven reforms work, and the increased achievement gains by students in QEIA schools is a testament to the value of funding proven reforms.”

What the law has provided is this:

  • A maximum of 20 students in K-3 classrooms and an average of 25 students in grades 4 through 12.
  • A credentialed school counselor for every 300 students in high schools.
  • The state’s first “teacher quality index,” which ensures that the average teaching experience at QEIA schools is equal to or exceeds the district average.
  • And high-quality professional development training for all instructional staff and administrators (often provided by skilled CTA trainers.)


And those are the things that matter, QEIA has proved. Last year, a report entitled “Lessons from the Classroom: Initial Success for At-Risk Students,” found that QEIA schools have demonstrated greater growth in API (the California Academic Performance Index) than similar, non-QEIA schools.

On average, in 2009-2010, QEIA schools improved 21.1 points — or 47 percent better than their non-QEIA counterparts. Additionally, the data show that QEIA schools are making greater gains in API with Black and Hispanic students, English Language Learners, and low-income students than similar, non-QEIA schools.

“It’s made a huge difference,” said Miraloma Elementary fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Stewart to the California Educator. “When you have a smaller class size, children get more attention from the teacher. Studies show kids work better in small groups. With 23 students we actually have enough space to move around, to have diverse instruction… I have a little bit more time with each child.”

Classroom Superheroes
Because of QEIA, Palacios said, “She sees change happening in a positive way.”

And she knows a lot about less-positive change, as well.

Since 2000, Palacios has worked at three Oakland schools: the first two were shut down for poor performance, one later re-opened illegally as a charter. “Throughout the whole process of opening and closing, opening and closing, I thought, despite everything, ‘I am a good teacher!’”

She began her career in Head Start, working closely with the poorest kids and their parents. She might have stayed there forever, she says, “if they had paid a living wage,” but she continues to believe strongly in the value of parent involvement.

In an essay for Education Votes, Palacios, the daughter of immigrants, wrote: “When I meet with parents, they recognize I’m one of them and not just because we speak the same language but because I believe in their kids.”

But now, with California poised to cut its education budget and lay off thousands of teachers, Palacios worries it all could be at risk. “I see change happening in a positive way here because of QEIA, but now with all the cuts… It’s scary. We’ve made so much progress, the kids are doing well, but more than half of our staff could be laid off. We’re cutting everything – including our counselors, which is the biggest mistake.”

Palacios grew up in Oakland. And, after getting pink-slipped a few years ago, she entertained offers from five or six neighboring, better-paying districts. She decided to stay in her own community – even though she’ll pay for that choice when she retires. “I made my choice. I know it’s a sacrifice. But I’m a fighter and I’m going to keep fighting so that we’re compensated for the work we do around here.”

Recently, Palacios was nominated as a “Classroom Superhero” on the NEA-sponsored website that recognizes the everyday heroics that teachers and support professionals constantly perform. In turn, Palacios nominated her co-workers at New Highlands and her colleagues in the Oakland Educators Association.

“We’re all Clark Kent’s,” she said.

To nominate your colleagues or create a profile yourself, visit

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Classroom Superheroes

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PSC Superhero Keith G. Pemberton

Keith G. Pemberton is a social worker at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, N.C., where he has built a strong and steady pipeline for parental involvement, specifically among fathers and male mentors. Check out his Classroom Superhero profile and leave some words of encouragement.

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