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.

teacher campaign

Wanted: Millennials to teach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sharon Johnson, a teacher-in-training at Relay Graduate School of Education, instructs students at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis. SCORE hopes to attract more millennials to the teaching profession, especially to harder-to-staff subjects like science and math.

An influential education advocacy group has launched a statewide campaign to inspire millennials to teach in Tennessee.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, known as SCORE, kicked off its campaign Monday to recruit young people to high-needs schools in both rural and urban districts.

Dubbed “Teach Today. Change Tomorrow,” the effort includes a website and advertisements through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the radio.

The campaign gives special attention to the need for educators in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as recruiting a more diverse teaching force. While students of color make up 35 percent of Tennessee’s public school population, just 15 percent of its teachers identify as people of color — a concern both for SCORE and the State Department of Education, which works closely with the advocacy group.

About half of the state’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade, according to state officials.

“The mission of Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. is to inspire talented young people across Tennessee to become our state’s next generation of teachers,” said Jamie Woodson, executive chairman and CEO for SCORE. “By illustrating the positive impact that great teaching has on a community, we will show them that they have the power to change the future beyond the classroom.”

The campaign’s website includes information on how to become a teacher, as well as a Q&A that covers topics such as pay. (The statewide average is about $50,000, though the campaign’s site notes that Gov. Bill Haslam, in his penultimate year at the helm of state government, hopes to raise salaries more.)

Campaign partners include the Hyde Family Foundations, Nashville Public Education Foundation, Memphis Education Fund, Public Education Foundation Chattanooga, Conexión Américas, Lipscomb University, Teach For America Nashville, Crisp Communications, Tennessee Charter School Center and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Based in Nashville, SCORE is a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

lingering debate

Drop TNReady scores from teacher evaluations, urge Shelby County leaders

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
From left: Commissioners Reginald Milton, Van Turner and David Reaves listen during a meeting in Memphis of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The governing board this week urged state lawmakers to strip TNReady scores from teacher evaluations.

Just as students have begun taking Tennessee’s new standardized test, Shelby County officials are calling on state leaders to back off of using those scores to evaluate teachers.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for Memphis schools, voted unanimously on Monday to urge  the state to use TNReady results as only a “diagnostic” tool. Currently, the board says, state scores are being used as a punitive evaluation of both teachers and students.

The board’s call gets to the heart of a debate that has lingered since a 2010 state law tied standardized test results to teacher evaluations. That was several years before TNReady was introduced last year as a new measuring stick for determining how Tennessee students — and their teachers — are doing.

TNReady testing, which began this week and continues through May 5, has intensified that debate. The new test is aligned to more rigorous academic standards that Tennessee is counting on to improve the state’s national ranking.

But Shelby County’s board is questioning whether reforms initiated under Tennessee’s 2010 First to the Top plan are working.

“While giving off the appearance of a better education, this type of teaching to the test behavior actually limits the amount of quality content in deference to test taking strategies,” the board’s resolution reads.

The board also cites “unintended consequences” to the teaching profession as nearly half of Tennessee’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Record numbers of quality teachers are leaving the teaching profession and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers due to the TN standards imposed in regards to standardized testing,” the resolution reads.

It’s true that school districts statewide struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers in some subject areas. But there’s little evidence to support that incorporating test scores in evaluations is the primary reason teachers are leaving the profession.

It’s also unlikely that Tennessee will back off of its teacher evaluation model, even as some states have recently abandoned the practice. The model is baked into reforms that the state initiated through two gubernatorial administrations to improve both teacher and student performance.


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PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Commissioner David Reaves

Shelby County’s resolution was introduced by Commissioner David Reaves, a former Memphis school board member who says he hears a “continual outcry” from teachers and parents over high-stakes testing.

“Allow the local (school district) to assess and classify teachers and use the test results as a tool, not as a stick,” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

In Tennessee, test scores in some form count for 35 to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. TNReady scores currently count 10 percent but, as the state settles into its new test, that will gradually increase to 25 percent by 2018-19.

Classroom observations and evaluations did play a factor in retention rates for effective teachers in a 2014 study by the Tennessee Department of Education before the transition to TNReady. Where teachers reported consistent and objective classroom observations, effective teachers were more likely to stay.

State and local teacher surveys also differ on the quality of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system known as TEAM, which mostly relies on classroom observations.

In Shelby County Schools, exit surveys show issues like levels and stability of teacher pay — not test scores in their evaluations — are cited most often by teachers leaving the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the school board last month that most Shelby County teachers find the state’s evaluation system unfair, but the same majority think their own score is fair.

Another survey by the Tennessee Department of Education suggests that satisfaction with the state’s evaluation system is on the rise as teacher feedback continues to be incorporated.

The Shelby County board, which oversees funding for Tennessee’s largest district, is sending its resolution to Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, and the Tennessee General Assembly. Below is the full text: