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.

Making the SCORE

Seeking to balance reform with stability, SCORE unveils priorities in annual State of Education report

PHOTO: SCORE
SCORE President David Mansouri kicks off an event in Nashville to unveil the group's annual education report.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education on Tuesday released its annual State of Education report, asking Tennessee leaders to hold steady on reforms such as test-based teacher evaluations, while encouraging more support for educators and innovation in the classroom.

Known as SCORE, the influential education research and advocacy organization was founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. The group unveiled its top three priorities aimed at sustaining academic gains ushered in since Tennessee began overhauling its K-12 system in 2009 with  higher academic standards.

Underlying all of its priorities is the message that Tennessee needs to give teachers and students stability after years of sweeping changes, while also continually trying out new ideas to improve schools even more.

“Sticking to it … and at the same time being open to creative developments in our public school system, that’s a big task,” SCORE CEO Jamie Woodson said at an event in Nashville in conjunction with the report’s release.

SCORE identified the need to:

  • Accelerate support for Tennessee educators. This includes improving teacher compensation, strengthening teacher preparation, building school leadership pipelines, and maintaining a commitment to its test-based teacher evaluation system as a tool for improving instruction.
  • Drive toward excellence and equity for all students, especially underserved students. This includes expanding access to highly effective and diverse teachers and pushing forward with a new plan for an accountability system serving all students.
  • Stand firm on policies that have led to historic gains while seizing opportunities to advance innovation. SCORE specifically cited innovation opportunities related to professional development and high-quality instructional strategies and materials.

This was SCORE’s eighth annual report on the state of education in Tennessee. Its agenda is significant because the organization works closely with the State Department of Education to set priorities based on input from educators, state lawmakers, researchers and other state leaders.

Woodson, who represented Knoxville as a state senator from 1998 to 2011, said Tennessee public schools were in “a dark place” before it began to raise academic standards. The state regularly performed below nearly every other state on national benchmarks. She credited changes to standards, assessments and teacher evaluations for historic student gains as measured by the National Education Assessment Program, or NAEP.

“Our kids are killing it (now),” she told education stakeholders.

Why is NAEP testing important? One Tennessee leader explains.

While Woodson called for stability on academic standards and assessments, at least one bill has been filed with the Tennessee General Assembly to shake up state testing. Rep. Sheila Butt, a Republican from Columbia, wants to allow local districts to administer tests made by the ACT in lieu of TNReady, the state assessment that was mostly canceled last year due to technical and logistical problems.

Other speakers at the SCORE event included Tosha Downey of the Memphis Education Fund; Lindsay Hagan, an assistant principal at a Chattanooga elementary school; and Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee.

The full report can be found here.

survey says

Memphis wants to become ‘Teacher Town,’ especially to feed its ‘priority schools.’ Here’s the latest feedback from teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Tanya Hill, a Teach Plus fellow and ESL teacher, encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School in Memphis.

Memphis has invested millions of dollars in recent years to overhaul its system for recruiting, developing and retaining talent for its schools and classrooms, especially for its lowest-performing schools.

The newest survey of educators in those schools offers insights into what’s working, what’s not, and where the city’s new teacher hires are coming from.

Released Thursday, the fourth annual survey was conducted last summer by Teach901, a local initiative that recruits teachers to Memphis. The results are based on feedback from more than 900 teachers across 45 local and state-run “priority schools,” which are those with test scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide. The survey was conducted for the first time with help from researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Here are major takeaways:

1. Most new hires for priority schools were local, experienced teachers who reported being a new hire at their current school.

Some 63 percent fell into that category, while 25 percent indicated that they were first-year teachers and 12 percent reported being experienced teachers who relocated.

2. Of those who moved to Memphis, most tended to be millennials relocating from nearby states. 

Fewer teachers reported that they relocated this year than last. However, mirroring the previous year’s survey results, relocators were far more likely to be millennials moving from a city or state within driving distance.

For more on last year’s results, view our article here.

Mississippi was again the most popular state for transplants, with 28 percent of teachers arriving from Memphis’ neighbor to the south. Georgia was next, followed by other cities in Tennessee and also California.

Teachers who recently moved were most likely to rate Memphis as an “above average” or “excellent” place to live, compared to Memphis natives or teachers who hadn’t moved recently. Still, only 45 percent of recent relocators gave Memphis that distinction.

3. School leadership continues to be a major factor in teacher recruitment and retention.

The quality of a school’s leadership was the second most cited reason for why teachers initially chose to work at a Memphis school, as well as a major reason why some left.

That finding aligns with local and philanthropic efforts in recent years to better equip principals to change the culture in their schools around teaching, including the addition of teacher leaders and coaches.

New recruits also cite as a draw the opportunity to work with high-need students, as well as the chance to improve teaching skills.

Beyond school leadership, other reasons for leaving a school include a lack of opportunities to advance and a desire to take other career steps.

Salary also emerged as a major factor in attracting teachers to certain schools, as well as pushing them away from the profession.

4. New teachers are coming from local preparation programs, and they really like Memphis Teacher Residency.

Among survey participants, 46 percent said they had been trained by a preparation program in Tennessee, with the majority having received their training locally.

Memphis Teacher Residency had the highest “effectiveness” rating among large preparation programs for the fourth year in a row. When asked whether they agreed with the statement, “My teacher preparation program prepared me for my current teaching position,” nearly 96 percent of MTR-trained teachers “agreed” or “strongly agreed,” significantly outpacing all of the other large programs, according to the survey.

MTR, a Christian-based nonprofit organization, differs from other non-university teacher training programs because residents spend their first year paired four days a week with an experienced Shelby County Schools teacher while attending classes Fridays and Saturdays at Union University.