Looking to leave?

As two Detroit districts merge, uncertainty over leadership and pay stokes fear of teacher exodus in 11 schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

Stefanie Kovaleski loves teaching kindergarten at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

“I love this building. I love the kids in it,” she said as she doled out hugs and high-fives to her young students while they lined up to get their backpacks at dismissal. “I love that I have autonomy and that I’m treated with professionalism here.”

She hopes to stay in her classroom and remain a part of her students’ lives, she said, but she’s actively talking to banks and credit unions about working outside education.

“I can’t see myself out of teaching but I’ve definitely started looking in the private sector,” she said.

Kovaleski, 33, is one of many teachers in the state-run Education Achievement Authority who say they’re considering leaving their schools in what some fear could be a mass exodus — the kind of disruption that could drive down test scores, drive up behavioral issues and create new challenges for children whose lives are already tumultuous.

“These children have very little stability in their lives,” Kovaleski said of a school where 98.7 percent of students are identified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state. “The people in this building are the only stable people they have.”

The EAA teachers fear major pay cuts and changes to school leadership when their schools return this summer to the main Detroit school district after five years of state control. Their departures could undermine  a group of 11 schools that have weathered multiple changes and enrollment declines since they were taken out of the Detroit Public Schools in 2012 and put into the state’s recovery district.

As the two districts prepare to reunite July 1, officials in both districts say they’re taking steps to ensure as much stability as they can.

The main district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — extended offers to all EAA teachers who have not been rated ineffective so they can stay in their current jobs.

The Detroit school board this week lifted a hiring freeze that had been holding up decisions about principal and assistant principal jobs in the schools.

And leaders from both districts have been meeting regularly to discuss details of the transition, from summer school to building upgrades.

But with just weeks to go before the end of the school year, EAA teachers still don’t know what their salaries will be next year or who their principals will be and they’ve grown impatient with the lack of information.

“Many of us now feel that our backs are against the wall,” wrote Rubye Richard, an English teacher at the EAA’s Mumford Academy High School, in one of many letters EAA teachers have written to the Detroit school board in recent weeks.

“If decisions are not made and communicated to us, we are forced to continue searching for employment in other districts,” she wrote.

The delay in teachers knowing their salaries is related to the fact that the main district is negotiating a contract with its teachers union.

If negotiations don’t change salaries much from the current contract, EAA teachers could see major pay cuts. First-year EAA teachers, who are not in a union, now make $45,000 a year compared to less than $36,000 for their unionized DPSCD counterparts.

Some of the pay discrepancy is because EAA teachers worked summers while Detroit district teachers can make extra money teaching summer school. A DPSCD spokeswoman noted that the main Detroit district also pays more generous benefits than the EAA.

But the larger impact on EAA teachers will come from the decision about how much experience EAA teachers will be given credit for when they become DPSCD teachers.

When the EAA calculated teacher salaries, it gave new hires credit for all their years of experience. That means Kovaleski now makes $65,000 a year — a salary based on ten years of teaching including four years at Bethune, one year in the Dearborn school district and five years at a Detroit charter school.

But under Detroit’s current union contract, new teachers to the district typically get just two years of credit, regardless of how long they’ve worked in other districts.

Though the contract lets the district credit teachers with up to eight years of experience under special circumstances, such as critical vacancies, teachers like Kovaleski could essentially have to start from scratch.

The current Detroit teacher contract pays $40,643 to teachers with a master’s degree and two years of experience so Kovaleski could be looking at a nearly $15,000 pay cut.

Kovaleski’s mother lives with her, has congenital heart failure and $50,000 in debt from a recent hospital stay, she said. “The bills keep rolling in so when I stop and think, man, can I afford to take [a pay cut]? I just don’t know.”

Teachers union president Ivy Bailey said she regrets that some EAA teachers might take pay cuts. But she also notes that teachers in the main district have had stagnant wages for years.

“It would not be fair for someone from the EAA with only two years to come in here and make more than a teacher who has been here and … weathered the storm through all of this,” Bailey said.

Salary Comparison

The uncertainty has already driven some EAA teachers out the door.

District data show that 43 percent of EAA teachers did not come back for the current school year — twice the attrition rate from the year before. And principals say more teachers than usual have left mid-year.

At Bethune, principal Alisanda Woods said four of her 32 teachers have left since September.

Some left because they were worried about their salaries in DPSCD, Woods said. Others left because Bethune was one of 25 Detroit schools that were threatened with state closure this year. The closures were averted when the district this month signed a “partnership agreement” with the state, but some teachers were already gone.

Massive teacher turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s part of a deliberate improvement plan, said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research.

In Washington D.C., public schools saw improvement as a result of teacher turnover. “It was a very high functioning school district investing a lot of effort into screening new teacher applications and encouraging ineffective teachers to leave,” Goldhaber said.

But absent an effort like that, he said, studies show that too many new teachers will hurt kids. “Even if you were to replace a teacher with a second teacher of equal quality, just the disruptive effect of a teacher leaving will have” a negative impact, he said.

EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme, who is leaving Detroit to start a new job in July, said she’s been working closely with her DPSCD counterparts to keep the EAA schools as stable as possible after the transition, but unanswered questions about teachers and principals are making that difficult.

“I’m really worried about the fact the we haven’t finalized offers” for teachers, Conforme said. “It’s the middle of May … That’s deeply concerning.”

The EAA schools, which were put into the district originally because of years of poor results, are still some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, but most of them have seen recent improvements. Conforme said she worries that progress could be disrupted if teachers leave.

The main Detroit district is already trying to fill more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

The EAA schools saw dramatic teacher turnover back in 2012 when the new district began.

“There was a big shakeup,” said David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor who wrote a paper on the early years of the EAA. But that big shakeup wasn’t well planned, he said. “The EAA was a spectacular train wreck right out of the gate.”

These years later, he said, he was hoping the process of returning the EAA schools to the main district would be smoother. (Of the original 15 EAA schools, three have been converted to charter schools and one has closed).

Conforme said she hopes most of her teachers  ultimately will decide to stay because if they leave, families will follow.

“What families and students care about is that there’s consistency with the teachers that have been teaching them, the support staff that have been supporting them and the leaders the families have gotten comfortable with,” Conforme said. “That part is critical.”

 

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.