Sheppard Elementary is a tiny, old school in West Kensington, where the community is overwhelmingly Latino and more than nine in ten students live below the poverty line. The neighborhood struggles with high crime rates and open-air drug trafficking.
“We should be the poster child for the hard-to-staff school,” said Principal James Otto.
But in the six years Otto has been at the school, there have been only two openings, and he filled them quickly. Most teachers at Sheppard have been there between six and 12 years, and some have stayed for 20. The daily teacher attendance rate is 96 percent.
“All of my staff has enough time [to] qualify for voluntary transfers to other places,” said Otto. “They choose not to.”
Unfortunately, Sheppard’s rate of teacher retention is rare in Philadelphia.
According to a report last year by Education Resource Strategies, 35 percent of teachers at the District’s lowest-performing schools – in so-called Corrective Action because they haven’t met student achievement goals for five years – are still not “highly qualified” by federal standards under No Child Left Behind. That rate compares to 20 percent at schools that are making “adequate yearly progress” under the law.
Schools in Corrective Action also have the highest percentages of teachers with less than three years of experience.
This situation exists even though NCLB, enacted in 2002, made a federal commitment to more equitably distribute the most qualified and experienced teachers. The goal of providing all students with a highly qualified teacher was supposed to be achieved by 2006, but few states and districts came close.
The Obama administration is ratcheting up the pressure, making improvement in teacher quality and equity a condition of receiving some of the federal stimulus money.
But what will keep experienced and highly qualified teachers in schools where they are most needed?
Teachers themselves emphasize the power of a supportive community and good leadership.
“The staff here, we’re all family,” said Christina Genetti-Grosh, who has been at Sheppard for 10 years. She said Otto “makes it a place where people want to stay.” He respects teachers’ classroom autonomy while providing support through professional development and making sure teachers have ample supplies, she said.
“We have everything we could possibly need to help our children,” she said. “It makes our job a lot easier.”
Teacher Kate Sharp, who spent eight years at Meade Elementary, also emphasized the need for collaboration among teachers under the direction of a strong leader. “My whole reason for staying at Meade was the team more than anything,” she said. “They took me under their wing immediately.” And the principal was “phenomenal at making teachers work together.”
It is easier, however, to build collegiality at a small elementary school than at a large neighborhood high school. A second-year teacher at one such high school in North Philadelphia described teaching as a solitary experience with little support or recognition. She plans to resign at the end of the year.
“You can fail or pass your students here,” said this teacher, who preferred not to identify herself or the school. “Right now nobody’s holding me accountable.”
She said administrators need to be more aware of what happens in classrooms. “Even just a weekly check-in: what did your kids know at the beginning of the week and what do they know now, and how did you do it?” she suggested. “There’s no way to feel successful.”
One way to address such isolation is to create small learning communities with common teacher planning time. Donald Anticoli, principal at Lincoln High School and formerly at Penn Treaty Middle, has had success with this model. “It gives teachers time to be professional as opposed to [just] teaching seven periods a day,” he explained. “This is all part of retaining teachers, creating an environment so that…they can collaborate and feel not alone.”
In a district where 29 percent of the principals have less than four years’ experience, however, not all school leaders may be able to provide the supports that teachers need.
Bernard McGee, a longtime Philadelphia principal who now places student teachers from Temple University, said that the District is “becoming more proactive” about identifying best practices for recruiting and keeping top teachers, but doesn’t devote enough attention to training principals in how to use them.
Advocating for such training and support is a major focus of a campaign for teacher effectiveness led by the Education First Compact and Philadelphia Cross City Campaign for School Reform. The groups say that the conditions necessary to ensure teaching quality and equity are not yet in place.
“Right now, you need to be an exceptional principal to be able to make the changes that we need for our kids,” said Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a leader in the campaign. “If we’re relying on people to be exceptional, we’ll never transform the system.”
Armstead said that one obvious policy change is full site selection, which means that principals and schools can select who they want to fill vacancies. Now, the District has a convoluted system in which only some positions are filled through site selection and the rest through seniority.
Some schools have full site selection, if they are newly created or the faculty votes for it, and these have fewer vacancies, Armstead said. Last year, 16 percent of site-selected schools had vacancies midway through the school year, compared to 33 percent of those without site selection.
Armstead added, however, that site selection itself will not solve the problem.
“A part of what’s critical,” he said, “is being able to create an environment that people want to come to.”