When newly minted teacher David Squires applied for a job with Norfolk, the division hired him for one of its worst-performing, highest-poverty schools, Lafayette-Winona Middle School.
Squires noticed another distinction after he got there. "At Lafayette, there seemed to be a lot of brand-new teachers in the two years I was there," he said.
Virginia's Teacher Equity Plan says students who are poor or members of minority groups shouldn't be taught by inexperienced teachers more than other children are, but that's exactly what happens at many of Norfolk's schools.
While the division has struggled to lift student scores and raise school accreditation ratings, it has assigned high proportions of inexperienced teachers to some of the least successful schools, including Lafayette-Winona, which has been denied accreditation by the state.
In 2009-10, for example, 28 percent of Lafayette-Winona teachers had two years' experience or less in teaching, according to a nationwide survey by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Lindenwood Elementary was tops in the division, with 41 percent of its teaching staff inexperienced; the school has not been fully accredited for at least the past four years.
The federal department collected school-by-school data to examine whether states or localities discriminated by age, race or gender. ProPublica, a public-interest journalism nonprofit, released the database.
The data show that Norfolk's most successful schools had the lowest percentage of inexperienced teachers, including 3 percent at Larchmont Elementary and 5 percent at Calcott Elementary.
The schools with low rates of inexperience often had lower rates of student poverty and lower enrollment of black children.
Statewide, in 2010-11, teachers with three years' experience or less accounted for about 23 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools, but 16 percent of teachers at low-poverty schools.
Similarly, inexperienced teachers represented about 23 percent of teachers in high-minority schools, compared with 15 percent in low-minority schools, the state Department of Education reported.
In Norfolk, principals interview candidates for vacancies at their respective schools, but the division's human resources department ultimately decides where teachers are assigned, said Thomas Calhoun, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers.
Norfolk has not been monitoring where inexperienced teachers are assigned but will start to gather that data, Linda Sevigny, the division's deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, said in December.
"We are at the very beginning of looking at that because it is something the federal government is looking at," she said.
Putting inexperienced teachers in the lowest-performing schools doesn't make sense, said Karin Chenoweth, a researcher at The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization. Chenoweth was invited to speak in Norfolk last month about how districts elsewhere have turned around low-achieving schools.
Traditionally, "the higher-status teachers kind of take the kids they want, not always but often, and then the newbies get stuck with the kids nobody wants, which just perpetuates the dysfunction," she said. "It just leads to the lowest-performing kids never getting out of that category."
Chenoweth said the reverse should be true.
"The highest-performing kids, the most motivated kids, they just need good teachers. They don't need great teachers in the same way that if we only have a few great teachers, the lowest-performing kids need them," she said.
Yet Norfolk has provided "weak and insufficient incentives" for teachers to work in low-performing schools, according to a 2012 review of the division by the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools.
"Teachers taking the incentives sometimes worked in the low-performing school only for a year and then would return to their original schools," the review stated.
The review also said Norfolk has a "significant number" of new teachers, who often have a greater need for written guidance to understand the division's standards. New teachers also need a deeper understanding of what to look for in student work and how to customize instruction to meet individual students' needs, "including for those students who are struggling," the report said.
At Lafayette-Winona, teachers fresh out of college struggled in particular with student discipline, said Squires, a former journalist who entered teaching via Old Dominion University's education career-switcher program.
"I saw more trouble with brand-new, wet-behind-the-ears people who never had a real job in their life," said Squires, who left Norfolk to live closer to ailing relatives in North Carolina. "That first year is going to be hell."
Inexperienced teachers might be less equipped than veteran educators to deal with classroom management, Calhoun said.
"When you're taking teaching courses, that's not hit on," Calhoun said. "The first time you walk into a classroom and tell a child to sit and they say no, what do you do then?" He said low-performing schools typically have a higher incidence of student misbehavior.
Squires, who last taught in Norfolk in 2010-11, said inexperienced teachers should be broken in by being assigned first to schools with fewer disciplinary problems and struggling students.
Angel Barnhill, president of the Lafayette-Winona Middle School PTA, said inexperienced teachers might bring fresh idealism to the classroom, while seasoned teachers bring tried-and-true methods of instruction and mentoring for new hires.
But both groups should be spread evenly across the division, she said. "I think it should be more of a balance."
Barrett Hicks of Tidewater Connection, a Campostella-area advocacy group, agreed.
"The best of the best, no question, should be going to those schools where the greatest need is," he said. "There should at least be a balance, and not heavily weighed where new teachers go to minority communities. It's unfair to the teachers, and unquestionably for the student."
The division already has the power to transfer teachers from one school to another, even if the teachers haven't volunteered to move. According to School Board policy, the superintendent can reassign any employee to any school or facility as long as the change doesn't affect the worker's salary for that school year.
The division's power to transfer staff was highlighted in the fall, when the administration reassigned two Taylor Elementary teachers to different schools to reach the required teacher/pupil ratio at those locations.
At Taylor, which is fully accredited, black students are in the minority compared with whites, and lower-income students represent about a third of total enrollment. In comparison, the division overall is 65 percent lower-income and about 62 percent black.
Additionally, just 9 percent of teachers at Taylor were inexperienced as of 2009-10.
The involuntary transfers, which occurred several weeks after the school year began, were strongly denounced by several Taylor school parents.
Why? One reason was that it was the first time any Taylor teacher had been involuntarily transferred, Superintendent Samuel King told the board at its retreat this month.
"This was a school that was protected in the past" from involuntary teacher transfers, King said,.
That statement was no surprise to Calhoun, who said the division's unwritten practice has been to shield its most successful and prestigious schools from involuntary teacher transfers.
The ideal, he said, would be for each school to have a more equitable mix of inexperienced and seasoned teachers so that experienced staff could mentor the newer educators.
But, "to institute it, you're going to step on some toes and they're going to holler," he said of teachers and parents.
Board member Rodney Jordan agreed that "a child's zip code should not be the primary determinant of how many experienced teachers he or she encounters."
But Jordan said reducing concentrations of poverty in schools and improving education may be a better strategy than reassigning teachers within the division. He said research shows that high-poverty schools have more difficulty attracting experienced teachers.
"We need to grow the pie of mixed-income schools with learning environments attractive to parents, students, and teachers," he said. "The issue is not as simple as, do we take away from Taylor to give to Campostella. To me, it is: What are the formulae or conditions we need in order to have a successful district for all students?"
King said last week that some inexperienced hires prove to be excellent teachers, just as some long-time teachers might not necessarily be top educators.
Nonetheless, he said, the disparate levels of inexperienced teachers in individual schools "is something we know we have to watch, something we have to monitor."
King said his goal is to hire teaching applicants whose background - as a student teacher or even in another profession - demonstrates a good fit with the conditions found in schools with staff vacancies.
Holding job fairs for specific, hard-to-staff schools is one option the division is considering. Recruiting at colleges known for exposing student teachers to a mix of school environments is another.
"Let's say we have an opening in a school that has 60 percent poverty - what kind of experience did you have in pre-service" or student teaching, in comparable schools, King said.
Recruitment and screening like this is crucial, he said.
"If you don't do that and just send candidates out and don't look at what the needs are in the school, you're going to have problems."
Steven G. Vegh, 757-446-2417, email@example.com