More turnover, few tenured teachers for Title 1 schools on the lower end of the income scale
When Tracy LeFebre began looking for a new teaching job a year ago, she intentionally avoided job openings at Title I schools.
It wasn’t a dig at the low-income students that mostly populate Title I schools, which get extra federal funding to compensate for the academic and social challenges often associated with having more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. LeFebre worked with that population before, as a teacher at Title I school Chipeta Elementary from 2008 through 2013, and said she would go back if she had to.
But LeFebre wanted more flexibility with instruction, something she said she couldn’t have at Chipeta because Title I schools tend to stick to a strict lesson schedule so students who move between schools more frequently than their non-Title peers don’t fall behind. And after starting a teaching career in her 50s, LeFebre said she was ready to go somewhere that required less stamina to tackle behavior issues. She just wrapped her first year teaching fifth grade at Orchard Avenue Elementary.
“I have had really challenging (student behavior) issues at Orchard, but they’re more isolated cases,” LeFebre said. “I hate to generalize, but the impression I’ve gotten from other teachers in Title I schools, too, is there tends to be less parental support and more behavior issues as a result” in Title I schools.
LeFebre isn’t alone. School District 51 employment data in recent years show a clear trend of more teachers leaving Title I schools than non-Title I schools. Nearly a quarter of teaching staffs at District 51’s 10 Title I elementary schools turned over last year, according to the district. Despite having more teachers as a whole to lose, the district’s 14 non-Title I elementary schools had a turnover rate of 18 percent going into the 2013-14 school year.
That trend is nothing new. Local Title I schools employ 47 percent of all elementary teachers in District 51, but an average of 55 percent of District 51 elementary school teaching vacancies in each of the last three academic years were at Title I schools.
Even though Title I schools on average have more teachers on staff to lose than other elementary schools, they’re hemorrhaging a greater percentage of their faculty compared to other schools — four of the six District 51 elementary schools that turned over more than 30 percent of their staff in 2013-14 were Title I schools.
‘YOUNG AND WILLING’
Out-of-town moves, maternity leave, and career changes can take any teacher away from a school. But why are Title I schools losing teachers in greater numbers than peer institutions?
Every school has students with social and emotional needs, but Curry Newton, principal of Title I school Nisley Elementary, said Title I schools usually have a greater concentration of students with those needs, which means more work for teachers. Sometimes the extra work and compassion that go into teaching low-income students is an exciting challenge for beginning teachers. But after a while the work can become draining.
“New teachers have so much gusto, by nature they put in 200 percent,” Newton said. “Sometimes they burn out because they’ve given and given and don’t know how to moderate that yet. It’s a marathon not a sprint. A lot of new teachers tend to sprint the marathon.”
Newton said the typical Title I school hires “the young and the willing” while other schools have a better chance at hiring a mix of candidates. Across all of its schools, District 51 hired 159 new teachers for the 2013-14 school year, with 100 of those teachers brand new to the profession when they started last fall. Nisley and fellow Title I school Clifton Elementary had the most brand-new teachers at the elementary level in 2013-14 with five apiece, while non-Title I schools Broadway, Loma, Rim Rock and Scenic had none, as did Title I school Dos Rios.
Teachers do switch from non-Title I schools to Title I schools, but the swap is more often made in the opposite direction, which naturally leads to Title I schools reaching out to newer teachers to fill vacancies. After gaining a few years of experience, Newton said those teachers who started their careers at Title I schools often have the chance to go to a non-Title 1 school where they are more likely to have smaller classes and “less impacted students” for the same pay.
Title I schools are much more likely than other schools to lose tenured teachers and replace them with less experienced personnel. Years of lopsided turnover have left local Title I schools with 80 of the district’s 126 probationary level elementary school teachers as of 2013-14 staffing. Probationary teachers are those with less than three years of experience teaching in the district.
Roughly two tenured teachers, a general term meaning they’ve earned non-probationary status after three years as a district teacher, left Title I schools in the district for every one tenured teacher hired at a Title I school in 2011-12. The ratio was closer to 5:1 in both 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Meanwhile, the ratio of tenured teachers leaving versus coming to non-Title I schools in the district varied from a near-even replacement of tenured teachers in 2011-12 to three times as many tenured teachers leaving versus coming into non-Title schools in 2012-13, and about three tenured teachers getting hired at non-Title schools in 2013-14 for every four leaving.
Non-Title I schools Loma, Mesa View and Scenic have the lowest numbers of probationary teachers on staff, with just one apiece as of the recently ended school year.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rocky Mountain Elementary, consistently the most impoverished school in the district with more than 80 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, has the highest number of probationary teachers among district elementary schools — 18 — and 20 tenured teachers.
More than half of the teachers who left Rocky Mountain between 2011 and 2013 were tenured. However, all but three of the 31 teachers hired at Rocky Mountain for the 2011-12 through 2013-14 school years were in their first three years of teaching.
Fruitvale Elementary Principal Kathy Hays doesn’t see a problem with having a mix of novice and experienced teachers at her Title I school. The school has the advantage of having more federal funding for teacher development, learning materials and interventions, she said, so teachers of all ages get support and can learn from each other.
“I do think it benefits you to have teachers with a wide range of experiences because they can learn from each other,” Hays said.
Turnover, however, can make it harder for a staff to become a cohesive unit. Rim Rock Elementary Principal Tami Kramer has the district’s largest non-Title I elementary school staff with 31 teachers, but she lost just three teachers last year. She said a lack of turnover has helped the school’s teachers become a cohesive unit.
“Grade-level teams can really get strong when they work together for multiple years,” Kramer said. “From what I’ve heard, it’s more difficult for the Title I schools to recruit high-quality teachers and when they do, sometimes it’s hard to keep them.”
LeFebre agreed turnover can impact a school’s ability to bond a staff.
“Years of experience, knowing how to collaborate — you’re less likely to have that at a school with newer teachers,” she said.
COULD INCENTIVES HELP?
Although she admits it may not be enough to entice her to another Title I school, LeFebre said the district could get a recruitment boost for Title I schools by introducing incentives for teachers to come to and stay at those schools.
“(Title I schools) have some of the most concerned, compassionate teachers. You definitely feel more needed at Title I schools. But it’s a tougher job. That’s where we need some of our best teachers and administrators,” she said.
Darren Cook, president of local teacher representation group Mesa Valley Education Association, said “everybody recognizes that we have an issue” with turnover and experience in Title I schools, something he said may be linked to pressure on schools to perform, a stressor for Title I schools where test scores are often lower than at other schools.
“The grind is enormous in those schools,” he said. “You need young teachers in any school, but you need them balanced with more experienced teachers as well.”
Loan forgiveness programs for teachers who work at Title I schools are helpful but have less impact on more experienced teachers. Cook said the district could look at incentives as well as allowing experienced teachers to move as a block from one school to another.
School Board member Ann Tisue told The Daily Sentinel there are mixed opinions of incentives paid by a three-year grant to teachers who returned each year at Clifton Elementary in 2010-11 through 2012-13. The grant also paid for coaching and classroom assessment development, among other measures. Test scores increased at the school after the start of the grant and retention increased dramatically. The school, however, lost 10 teachers — half of them tenured — last school year. All replacements hired were in their first three years of teaching in the district.
Still, Tisue said some motivating factor may help attract more experienced teachers to Title I schools, which she believes gives kids of all income levels a better chance of success.
“If you go to work at a place where it’s just a lot more difficult but there’s nothing to really keep you there, you can get paid the same somewhere else, then you can understand some incentive might help keep folks there,” she said.
School Board President Greg Mikolai said it’s obvious too many teachers are leaving Title I schools each year, but he’s not sure how to change that fact.
“We’re trying to understand the data as to why a teacher comes in for a year or two and then transfers out” of a Title I school, Mikolai said. “Right now there isn’t a financial benefit to leaving a Title I school. Are they leaving because of the economic factors that impact students, larger class sizes? There are still some things in play we have to figure out.”
School Board member Tom Parrish, a former elementary principal in the district, said the enthusiasm of new teachers is valuable but they don’t have “that level of competence yet” to go with it “because their skills haven’t been put to the test.” He echoed Mikolai’s thoughts, saying he isn’t sure how to change it because he hasn’t heard enough information about why teachers leave, but he believes the perception that Title I students are harder to handle may contribute.
“While kids come with different needs, the bottom line is, they’re still kids,” he added.