Steve Phelps, who came to SI in 1972, accepted the first sabbatical the school ever offered in 1994. He taught halftime and spent the remaining time visiting high schools around the country looking for examples of programs and practices that would support the SI faculty in meeting the needs of a new generation of students.
He discovered a rich depository of literature and coursework in the area of professional development, and he brought back to SI the idea of starting a professional development office. In 1995 Steve Nejasmich asked him to do just that and continue to teach two psychology classes to seniors.
“We weren’t a school in crisis,” said Phelps. “We were an excellent school that could be better.” He first determined what sorts of credentials and degrees the faculty had, and he then encouraged young teachers to earn credentials and advanced degrees that would deepen their expertise in curriculum and instruction. He worked with USF and San Francisco State University to offer a number of credential and Master’s classes at SI, and many teachers — from SI and other Catholic high schools — enrolled and went on to earn advanced degrees thanks to those evening and Saturday classes.
He also set up workshops to train SI faculty in the best ways to use technology in their classrooms, and, along with Charlie Dullea, Kate Kodros and Fr. Ed Fassett, SJ, he helped develop the Excellence in Teaching program. He organized Skillful Teacher classes and, with the Board of Regents, established a summer grant program for teachers working collaboratively to develop new and relevant curriculum.
In 1999 he and Kodros helped Charlie Dullea put into place the Five to Four program, lessening the teaching load by asking faculty to teach four, rather than five, classes, and to use their time for continually improving curriculum and instruction and for collaborative and interdepartmental projects. Because of the cost to the school, that program was phased in over four years, beginning with the English and Language departments.
He also worked with representatives from the Jesuit Secondary Education Association to bring leadership training seminars and academies to SI, and he has arranged for dozens of professional workshops for teachers to attend both on and off campus. In short, he has supported the SI teachers in their quest to learn more about their craft and to excel. And it has worked.
“All of this has contributed to a culture at SI where people are eager to learn, from the president to the youngest teacher,” said Phelps. “In years past, some teachers may have thought they knew it all. Now we’re learning so much that we don’t even question the process. It’s part of the culture. The process has both improved our relationship with other schools and given SI a national reputation for excellence. Administrators from all over the country come here because we have become a school that seeks both to learn from others and to share freely.”
It did not take long for those efforts to bear fruit. In 1998–99, SAT scores climbed to record highs, with students scoring, on average, 602 on the verbal section and 592 on math, for a total of 1194, up 14 points from the previous year. In contrast, the average among all Jesuit schools that year was 1174, and the national and state averages were 1016 and 1005 respectively. In 2004, those numbers climbed to 1207 for SI students, nearly 200 points higher than the national (1026) and state (1020) averages.
Steve Phelps likes these numbers, but he tests their accuracy by conducting a simple poll. Each year he walks down the halls of SI and asks students how many of their teachers are excellent. To qualify, he explains, teachers must know their subject well and be gifted at teaching that information. “On average, students tell me that four of their six teachers are excellent. Some say all six. I ask that question to students in other schools, and I’ll hear from zero to four. Simply put, we have superb teachers at SI because we work hard to support and reward excellence.”
Those rewards come in all shapes and sizes, from a reduced workload and fair pay to help with housing. At SI, a first-year teacher with 30 units beyond a Bachelor’s degree earned more than $50,000 in the 2004–2005 school year. A teacher with 60 units beyond a Bachelor’s degree and 13 years’ experience earned nearly $84,000 that year. In comparison, the average salary for high school teachers in California during the 2002–2003 school year was $55,000.
Phelps also has been rewarded for his efforts. Today’s Catholic Teacher magazine named SI as one of 12 schools nationwide honored for excellence and innovation in education. The magazine praised SI for “embarking on a unique approach to forming a school that learns,” for “rooting professional growth in every aspect of school culture,” and for “learning from the best models available, both locally and nationally.” Phelps was also individually honored by the National Catholic Educational Association, which gave him its Secondary School Department Award, citing his “significant contribution to American Catholic secondary education.”