Educator Francie Brooks has seen a huge amount of staff turnover at her school, one of only two schools in Nashville that is part of the state’s Achievement School District.
Brooks is starting her third year at Neely’s Bend Middle School with LEAD Public Schools, but this year, she said that things are different. The school saw another year of solid academic growth, and it retained 75% of its teaching staff, compared to 50% the year before.
“Watching a community go through big changes at their school is hard,” said Brooks, who coordinates the middle school’s English Language Learners program. “The consistency piece and getting teachers to come back, that creates trust. This year, kids are so excited to see teachers from before. It sets us up for even more growth.”
LEAD has significantly changed the way it runs its Achievement School District schools over the last two years. The organization is now offering $5,000 teacher retention bonuses, has reshuffled its school leaders, and restructured to build more support around its low-performing schools.
Part of LEAD CEO Dwayne Tucker’s motive for the changes is to grow the charter organization – he said he would be open to taking on more schools as part of the Achievement School District and even explore expanding to Memphis, where the district runs 28 schools.
But the future of the district, and whether or not such growth would be possible, is in the hands of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, who came on board in February. Schwinn had warned that major changes are likely coming to the turnaround district, and that no new schools will enter this year. The district’s fourth leader in seven years left in June.
LEAD also took over Brick Church Middle School under the Achievement School District, which retained 68% of its teachers compared to 52% the year prior. The district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by handing them over to charter school organizations, who have more independence to make decisions than district principals. Though the district promised to raise the state’s lowest-performing schools into the top quarter academically within five years, it’s struggled to retain teachers — half are new to their schools each year — and its overall academics remain very low.
Retention of effective teachers is critical for the district, which is struggling to better the academics of students that are the most behind. Research is clear that effective teachers are an important factor contributing to student achievement.
Fewer than 15% of students in LEAD’s state-run schools — like most in the achievement district — scored on grade level on the latest state tests. But while the achievement district averaged the lowest score possible in student growth, LEAD’s two schools both scored a 5, the highest level of student growth.
Tucker said the two main factors leading to that growth was retaining teachers and moving high-performing principals into LEAD’s achievement schools. The Nashville-based charter organization also runs four schools under Metro Nashville Public Schools. Tucker became the organization’s leader in 2017 after LEAD’s founder resigned.
“We had to make strategic changes in how we run our charter network because we weren’t getting the results we wanted to see in our ASD schools,” Tucker said. “What was inhibiting our ability to be successful there? We weren’t putting our best people in those schools. We almost started over every year instead of having a core group of teachers come back.”
This school year, LEAD began offering $5,000 bonuses for teachers who have stayed at their school for at least two years. Eight teachers at LEAD qualified for the bonuses.
For educators like Brooks, this was a big deal. But she added that higher pay alone won’t keep teachers.
“Everyone is really excited about this,” Brooks said. “There’s a sense of valuing our hard work, but there’s also an understanding that people have lives outside of school. You hear teachers all the time say, ‘I don’t have a life.’ I think here, that culture is improving.”
The organization also uses a merit-based pay scale that offers its highest-performing teachers up to 10% raise. This year, LEAD created an “advanced teacher” band, which starts at $65,000 and puts teachers on the same pay scale as school administrators. The annual salary for a teacher starting out in Metro Nashville Public Schools is $43,363, and the school district recently announced its own $5,000 bonuses for teachers in low-performing schools.
“We saw our higher-performing teachers want to make more money, and so they would become teacher coaches or join school administration,” said Chris Elliott, LEAD’s head of academics. “But we need to keep our best teachers in the classroom if we’re going to see sustained gains.”
Tucker said that he not only wants to maintain higher teacher pay and retention bonuses, but he wants to create a system where his charter organization runs solely on state dollars and not with help from outside philanthropy.
“If we can challenge ourselves to be sustainable, and create a repeatable process, then taking on additional schools is just a matter of how fast you want to do it,” Tucker said. “The challenge is to take a look at how we operate and figure out how to optimize processes and costs.”
Tucker’s background is in business; he was formerly in corporate leadership positions with Northwest Airlines and Alliance Data. He said he has tried to run schools more like a traditional business – where there is always money that could be spent more efficiently.
For example, he moved some schools to staggered start times, reducing the number of buses needed and saving the organization $400,000 in transportation costs annually. Tucker said $200,000 of those savings went into teacher salaries.
Beyond teacher pay, Tucker also has restructured the organization. The two principals at the organization’s state-run schools now report to a head of schools in charge of coaching them and aiding with operational tasks.
One of those principals is Tait Danhausen, who became principal of Neely’s Bend two years ago. He was formerly the founding principal at LEAD’s Cameron Middle School. Cameron isn’t a part of the Achievement School District, as it was converted before the district even existed, but it is considered Tennessee’s first turnaround charter school. Cameron saw sustained academic growth under Danhausen, and Tucker said he hopes he can do the same thing at Neely’s Bend.
Danhausen said that when he first came to Neely’s Bend, there was a 50% turnover in his staff. He credits this year’s higher retention to getting the right people in place and building up the school’s culture.
Elliott, the organization’s head of academics, said he wasn’t surprised to see sustained academic growth last year in LEAD’s achievement schools considering the retention of school leaders and staff. But he also acknowledged that student growth and student achievement are two different things.
On average, 10% of LEAD students in its two state-run schools were proficient in math, while 12% were proficient in English. This is slightly above district averages, but far below the state average of 41% proficiency in math and 34% in English.
“I’ve been rethinking this piece of turnaround work,” Elliott said. “We know we can do growth. We’ve had to redistribute resources, but we’re there. The achievement piece, that’s taking longer because our kids are so behind. I’m not leery now to say that this can be done in short stints.