Like other principals of low-scoring schools with many needy students, Sean Licata faces the twin challenges of holding onto his best teachers and wooing skilled new hires.

But because his Bronx middle school is part of the city’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools, he had a secret weapon this summer: $27,500 for raises for top teachers willing to take on leadership roles. The promise of the extra money helped him convince a veteran educator to join his staff and provided a new way to recognize the hard work of his strongest teachers, whom he encouraged to apply for the raises.

“You could see a little more pep in their step,” said Licata, principal of School of Diplomacy.

The raises are part of a new, $4.9 million teacher-leadership program that some Renewal school leaders say is helping them hold onto top staff members, though it has limitations. Several principals said it has not been much help as they try to recruit teachers from other schools, but it has provided a considerable reward for their best existing educators.

The stakes are high for New York City’s bottom-ranked schools, which are receiving an infusion of funding and support as they try to rapidly improve student performance. But the high-profile effort has also focused greater scrutiny on those working in the schools, which could face state takeover or closure unless they quickly improve. All that has raised the prospect that the already hard-to-staff schools could see an exodus of teachers whose replacements might be tough to recruit.

Looking to prevent that, the city has retooled the teacher-leader roles embedded in last year’s teachers contract into incentives to help Renewal schools keep and attract strong educators. This year, each Renewal school has received funding for up to three teacher-leaders, whose pay increases will range from $7,500 to $20,000.

At the same time, the program offers schools a way to get more staffers invested in the improvement process, said Paul Asjes, a math teacher at a Bronx Renewal school who will take on one of the leadership roles this fall.

“There’s so much work that needs to be done, and a small group of administrators can’t do it on their own,” said Asjes, who teaches at the School of Performing Arts. The position, he added, helped convince him to remain at his school.

The threat of high teacher turnover loomed this year over many Renewal schools, where some teachers were subjected to a steady stream of official observations and asked to work an extra period each day. At the two Renewal schools where all staffers were forced to reapply for their jobs, the majority of teachers did not return.

An education department spokesman said turnover rates at the other Renewal schools for last year were not immediately available. But a survey of five Renewal schools found some variation: three saw more teachers retire or switch schools than in past years, while the others had average turnover. Serapha Cruz, principal of the Bronx School of Young Leaders, said nine teachers left at the end of the school year — up from the usual three.

“It was way worse than it’s ever been since I’ve been principal,” she said.

At the same time, it took more salesmanship than usual to attract new hires. “It’s hard for people to believe that this school could be well run if you’re on the list” of Renewal schools, Cruz said.

To help principals fill those openings, the city organized Renewal-only recruitment fairs and sent them lists of top candidates. In the end, according to principals and people who work at Renewal schools, many teachers applied for jobs at those schools, likely a reflection of New York’s competitive teaching market.

Haven’t I heard of this before?

    The city has tried offering higher-paid teacher-leader roles to match troubled schools with strong teachers in the past.
    In a 2010 pilot program under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “master” and “turnaround” teachers who committed to work for three years at certain low-performing schools earned extra pay in exchange for supporting their colleagues. The city abruptly ended the program two years later after it lost federal school-improvement funds due to a legal battle with the teachers union.
    In 2014, the teachers union negotiated with the de Blasio administration to get the latest version of the leadership program into the new teachers contract.

“The challenge was not in getting people to apply for the positions,” one Renewal high school principal said, “but finding people who were suitable.”

The city is deploying the teacher-leader program to help solve that problem, too. Only highly rated teachers were eligible to apply, and those who did sat for interviews before a joint city-union panel that reviewed lesson plans and student work. The city sent a list of any teachers who made it through the vetting process to Renewal school principals in mid-July.

But Renewal principals had trouble using the program to hire vetted teachers from other schools, according to several people who work in those schools.

Some said that many candidates had already accepted positions elsewhere by the time the Renewal principals received the teacher-leader list this summer. Others noted that Renewal schools had to compete with higher-performing schools for the same relatively small pool of vetted teachers. Licata, the School of Diplomacy principal, said his one approved teacher fielded job offers from several schools, since all principals had access to the same candidate list.

“A lot of principals reached out to her about accepting a new position,” he said, adding that the teacher was “a hot commodity.”

Still other principals said they hesitated to hire outside teachers for a position that would have them coaching colleagues and running demonstration classrooms in a school where they had just arrived.

“I’m very wary of hiring someone to do a leadership position when they don’t understand the school,” said Cruz, the Bronx School of Young Leaders principal.

The leadership program has showed more promise as a tool to retain strong teachers, principals said. Research has shown that higher pay alone is often not enough to keep teachers from leaving, but offering extra authority and more collaboration with colleagues can be strong incentives to stay.

The “model teacher” role, which comes with a $7,500 raise, requires teachers to open up their classrooms for others to observe their lessons. The “peer collaborative teacher” role, which brings a $12,000 pay hike and replaces the “lead teacher” position that existed for a decade, has teachers coach their colleagues and lead school-wide trainings. They get at least one period off from teaching each day to do that work. (A “master teacher” role, which the city said will be available for only a few teachers, comes with a $20,000 raise.)

The education department spokesman would not provide the number of teachers who were approved for the leadership roles, and said that hiring for those positions is ongoing.

In addition to Renewal schools, the city is also helping fund these positions at more than 140 schools in the Learning Partners and Learning Partners Plus programs, in which educators visit partner schools. Other schools that chose to hire teachers for the leadership roles had to use their own money.