Setting boundaries

How a Nashville charter group is changing to keep its teachers for the long haul

PHOTO: RePublic Schools
Courtney Lewis, a fifth-grade teacher at Nashville Prep, says policy changes at RePublic Schools allow her to spend more time with her four daughters.

Two years ago, Courtney Lewis backed out of the application process at Nashville Prep so she could work from home to balance job and family life.

This year, she joined the charter school as a fifth-grade teacher.

Her change of heart timed with a change in policies adopted this year by RePublic Schools, the Nashville-based charter network overseeing Nashville Prep. Challenged to retain talented teachers at its six schools, RePublic leaders are seeking to create a more viable work environment, especially for teachers who are parents.

RePublic Schools is known for high test scores from students — and for being a challenging workplace for teachers, with long hours and rigid expectations for students and teachers alike. But that churn-and-burn strategy isn’t sustainable in recruiting and retaining teachers, says Ravi Gupta, the founder and outgoing CEO of RePublic. As one of his parting acts, RePublic has ditched that approach and adopted family-friendly staffing policies that include shorter school days and a child care spending credit. The goal is to reduce burnout and make family life more feasible.

“Our kids deserve the best teachers and teachers who stick with them for the long run, not people cycling out every two years,” explained RePublic spokesman Lee Pedinoff.

Changes at RePublic reflect a nationwide shift in thinking by leaders of charter schools. Not beholden to benefits and protections negotiated by teachers unions in traditional public schools, they’ve increasingly recognized the need to provide workday boundaries, daycare options and other perks that will attract and keep teachers for the long haul.

That’s likely part of the reason that teacher turnover is dropping in charter schools as the movement comes of age. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the rate decreased more than 5 percentage points to 18.5 percent between 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, turnover at traditional schools held steady at about 15.5 percent.

In addition to shortening its school day by more than an hour, RePublic now matches childcare costs up to $5,000, hires associate teachers to fill in for teachers who are sick or have appointments, and designates curriculum designers so teachers are freed up from the chores of gathering resources and building lessons from scratch.

Nashville Prep’s abbreviated school day, which starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m., sealed the deal for Lewis, whose four daughters range in age from 2 to 15. After work, she leaves her campus in time to pick up her youngest daughter at daycare and attend her older daughters’ basketball and volleyball games.

“I have enough time to prepare for my classes and be a pretty hands-on parent,” she said. “We sit down and eat together every night.”

That means time later for doing “homework” together — her daughters work on assignments while Lewis grades papers and plans lessons. Having another team member help with curriculum is key.

“I would not be able to juggle as much as I do without the curriculum assistance and having people I can call and get assistance from pretty immediately,” Lewis said.

The shorter day is an about-face for a charter organization that previously has credited extra instruction time for its academic gains. Now in its sixth year as a charter organization, RePublic leaders have learned how to get results in less time. So they identified areas of inefficiency and shaved off lots of minutes that shortened the school day by more than an hour.

The changes have been in effect for only a few months, but Pedinoff says they’re already producing results at RePublic’s four schools in Nashville and two schools in Jackson, Miss. Though Pedinoff couldn’t provide exact numbers, he estimates that the organization enjoyed a double-digit increase in teacher retention from last school year, when faculty learned of the policy changes. And the cost of some of the new benefits are being offset, he said, by the costs of recruiting and training.

Another payoff is the trust built with parents who see teachers sticking around and building experience in the classroom, as well as teachers who understand the challenges of parenthood.

“I can really say (to parents), ‘I totally understand what you’re going through,’” Lewis said.

Budget forecast

Haslam plans to seek teacher pay boost for third straight year

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Gov. Bill Haslam asks questions of leaders with the State Department of Education during budget hearings on Tuesday.

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that teachers can expect another salary increase next school year as part of his administration’s pledge to make Tennessee the nation’s fastest-improving state when it comes to teacher pay.

Haslam said the increase would be substantial, although not as much as the state could afford with its considerable surplus. That’s because any pay hike must be sustainable in lean years, he said.

“We will continue to invest in education whenever we can, but we would like to be thoughtful,” Haslam told reporters after hearings on the budget for 2017-18.

Over the last two years, the governor has shepherded increases totaling $200 million for teacher pay, although the amount that have made it to educators’ paychecks varies considerably statewide. But in 2014, Haslam walked back from a promise to boost spending on teacher pay by 2 percent after the state’s tax revenue came in under projections.

Education investments have been a hallmark of Haslam’s five-year tenure as governor, even as complaints have intensified that Tennessee isn’t spending enough on its students. Three of the state’s four urban school districts have taken the state to court in the last two years over the state’s funding levels, and those cases are pending.

Earlier in the day, Commissioner Candice McQueen asked for a 1.4 percent increase in education spending next school year, mostly to accommodate a projected 1.8 percent increase in student enrollment statewide, a driving component of the state’s school spending formula, called the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

In addition to wanting $58 million more for the BEP, McQueen asked for an extra $4.4 million for the state’s Read to Be Ready literacy initiative; $379,000 more on educator preparation programs; and $2 million to train teachers on new standards for science and the fine arts. She also is requesting $28.9 million for rural education programs.

This spring, the legislature approved the largest-ever increase in Tennessee education spending unaccompanied by a tax increase. They included boosts for teacher salaries, health insurance, English language learner supports, and technology.

McQueen’s presentation was the first step in a lengthy budget process. Haslam’s will present his formal budget proposal next winter, and the legislature will vote on it next spring.

Educating educators

Tennessee teacher prep programs can do better to ready teachers for Day One, report says

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Emily Fetterman, a corps member of Teach For America, instructs an integrated math class in Nashville. The quality of teacher prep programs in Tennessee is the focus of a new report from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Most Tennessee teacher preparation programs aren’t equipping new teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms, according to a new report from a Nashville-based think tank.

The report, released Tuesday by the State Collaborative of Reforming Education (SCORE), says only a handful of Tennessee’s 40 programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, used  to measure and evaluate teachers.

The report recommends improvement in areas including stronger classroom-based experiences for teacher candidates, greater diversity within the teaching ranks, and closer partnerships between teacher prep programs and the school districts that hire their graduates.

The recommendations were presented Tuesday in SCORE’s Nashville offices, where a panel featuring K-12 educators and representatives from teacher preparation programs spoke about the challenges they face. The report builds off changes to teacher preparation already in the works by the Tennessee Department of Education and State Board of Education, both of which regularly collaborate with SCORE, which was founded in 2009 by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“We want Tennessee students to climb to the top half of the nation for academic achievement,” said SCORE Executive Chairman and CEO Jamie Woodson. “Students need the best teachers we can provide to get there, and new teachers deserve to enter the classroom fully prepared to serve our students well.”

Woodson said Tennessee is in a unique position to get teacher preparation right under the leadership of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, a leader in that arena when she was dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education.

A key recommendation from SCORE focuses on bettering student-teaching experiences before teachers take the full reins of a classroom. Partnerships between programs and districts are important for mentoring both before graduating and after, so that new career teachers have continued support.

“The brain of a first-year teacher is a wild place,” said Randall Lahann, director of the Nashville Teacher Residency, one of Tennessee’s newest alternative teaching programs. “It’s our job as teacher educators to slow things down and give them a clear vision of what it means to be more successful.”

Overall, the report recommends eight ways to improve teacher preparation programs, including better processes for admitting students and reviewing and approving programs, as well as more transparency about data on the programs.

In 2014, the State Board of Education passed a new teacher preparation policy that touches on many of SCORE’s recommendations, like the use of the edTPA licensure test, which is supposed to more rigorously assess whether a candidate is ready to teach full time.

Read SCORE’s full report here.