Teacher Town

What a teacher survey in Memphis’ ‘priority schools’ reveals about the obstacles facing ‘Teacher Town’

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
New teachers undergo training in 2014 through the Memphis Teacher Residency.

The question of where Memphis should find the hundreds of new teachers it needs every year has long fueled debate over efforts to improve the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Some — including Memphis’ current education leaders — have argued that the city needs to look far and wide for students in struggling schools to have a shot at having the teachers they need. Others have argued that local schools are best served by teachers who understand what it’s like to live and learn in Memphis.

That debate got new information Tuesday with the release of Teach901’s annual survey of educators working in “priority schools,” or those where test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent statewide in 2013.

Teach901, which has gone from building buzz about Memphis to recruiting teachers on its own, surveyed nearly 1,200 teachers at 40 priority schools that have undergone changes aimed at dramatically boosting test scores. Here’s what the survey found:

1. New teachers are moving to “Teacher Town,” but most aren’t traveling far. When leaders of Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which includes only low-performing schools undergoing overhauls, pledged two years ago to turn Memphis into “Teacher Town,” they said the city would need to recruit teachers from afar as well as developing them closer to home.

That appears to be happening: About 150 teachers who responded to the survey said they had moved to Memphis in the last year, with the greatest numbers coming from elsewhere in Tennessee and from nearby states, including 34 from Mississippi. An outlier was California, which sent 14 new teachers to Memphis this year, according to the survey.

2. Priority schools are increasingly recruiting and hiring teachers who look like their students. Two thirds of the teachers who responded were black, up slightly since last year and substantially since the survey’s first year, when teachers at only 12 schools participated. The shift reflects a growing understanding that students and teachers both benefit when they have a shared background, according to Emily Cupples, Teach901’s coordinator.

When efforts to overhaul low-performing schools began in Memphis, “we didn’t realize as a city how intentional we should be in thinking through how teachers should be able to empathize and identify with the student,” Cupples said. Now, she said schools and charter operators are thinking about race when recruiting teachers.

3. Memphis’ teacher recruitment challenge isn’t abating any time soon. A third of teachers in priority schools say they plan to stop teaching within five years. That pace of attrition is common among schools serving high-needs students — nationally, estimates of how many teachers leave within five years range from less than 20 percent to as high as 50 percent — and suggests that Memphis’ efforts to improve struggling schools are unlikely to escape forces that have kept improvements from being sustained elsewhere.

What’s more, the report concludes, the city isn’t yet in a position to head off mass teacher departures. “Without actual attrition data … it is difficult to know the severity of this potential threat,” it says before recommending that local groups work with schools to track what happens to teachers who leave.

4. Where to find the teachers Memphis needs isn’t clear. Three quarters of new recruits answered that “the opportunity to be part of an education reform movement that is garnering national attention” was important or very important in their decision to move to the city — but they were also more likely to say that they planned to move away and to leave the teaching profession. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of teachers who graduated from the University of Memphis, the largest supplier of teachers to schools in the city, said they planned to stay in the classroom for more than five years, but they gave their preparation a below-average rating.

Teach901’s conclusions reflect an ambivalence about whether to recruit new teacher talent from afar or look closer to home. The report recommends that the city “evaluate the return on investment of attracting outside teacher talent to Memphis,” while also suggesting that it “continue to invest time and resources to brand Memphis as the place to be for those who want to be a part of the ‘mission’ of urban school reform.” Memphis Teacher Residency, an intensive training program that has increasingly worked to sell recruits on the city as well as prepare them for the classroom, best splits the difference, according to the report.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”