Retaining teachers who can’t afford to live in the districts where they teach has become a growing challenge for districts and was one of the issues leading to this week’s strike in Denver Public Schools.
But imagine leading a district with Google headquarters as a neighbor and where even families pushing six-figure incomes are considered below the poverty line. That’s the reality in the Mountain View Whisman School District, where Ayindé Rudolph took over as superintendent in 2015.
One problem, however, was that the job of recruiting and retaining teachers fell only on the district’s chief of human resources. Even though the district’s strategic plan clearly stated that retention was a priority, no one else saw how they were accountable for it.
“We did all this work to establish priorities, but no one was doing anything about it,” Rudolph said Thursday during a breakout session on the first day of AASA, The Superintendent Association’s conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
To change that, he began including language from the strategic plan in every presentation to principals, board members and the community. To address working conditions for teachers, he fired principals who were not “a good fit” and “did not own anything in the strategic plan.”
The district gave employees a 28% raise — possible because of high property values, but not sustainable, Rudolph said. He invited teachers to participate in committees on professional development because it was an area they complained about.
Ultimately, however, housing is the biggest barrier to keeping teachers in the district, which serves some of the highest-priced zip codes in the nation. So the district, which owns much of the green space in the area, conducted a study to determine where it could build housing for teachers. In spite of protests from those who want to preserve green space, the district is working with the city to develop a 144-unit apartment complex where teachers can rent at below-market rates.
"Now retention falls on every single department," he said, using the story as one example of becoming an "aligned" district.
"Since we’ve become clear about how we are aligned, student outcomes have improved," he said. "If you align your actions, if you empower people who feel like they’re accountable, outcomes are going to change."
Rural superintendents: Consolidation rarely saves money
State legislatures often push for forcing small, rural school districts to combine as a money-saving measure, but a panel of superintendents from small districts said Thursday that those savings rarely materialize. In fact, costs sometimes increase because of the need to provide transportation over longer distances, said Jay Burkhart, the superintendent of South Western School District in Hanover, Pennsylvania.
When districts combine, teachers from the district that previously paid lower salaries typically get a raise, and former superintendents take other leadership positions in the newly consolidated district.
”I don’t know anyone who actually lost their job because of consolidation,” said Richard Abernathy, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.
Savings are only realized, the speakers said, when schools close — usually a painful process. “The school is the identity; it is the epicenter of everything that occurs in our communities,” said Jay Curtis, the superintendent of the 1,850-student Park County School District in Powell, Wyoming. He previously led a district with 136 students.
He urged members of the audience — including many who raised their hands to indicate they could be facing consolidation — to show lawmakers that there are other ways to save money, such as through purchasing cooperatives. “We as districts can be responsible for finding those efficiencies, creating those cooperatives and saving money on our own,” he said.
Curtis also added, however, that consolidation is not always a bad idea, especially if it means improving opportunities for students, such as providing Advanced Placement courses.
G.A. Buie, the executive director of United School Administrators of Kansas, said his organization, and small districts overall, have been able to defeat the legislature’s efforts to force consolidation by working with parents who advocate to keep their schools. “One of the best ways we’ve been able to fight back,” he said, “is through these parent organizations.”
Flipping the system through personalized learning
In a room too small to accommodate interested attendees, members of AASA’s Personalized Learning Cohort shared their progress toward implementing self-paced, competency-based education.
“We know every student learns at a different pace. We know we have a lot of non-traditional kids,” said Jeff Thake, the superintendent of Williston Public School District 1 in North Dakota, who first began implementing personalized learning as superintendent of Amboy Community Schools in Illinois.
One of the first visible signs of the transformation, he said, was that classrooms began to incorporate flexible seating because students expressed that they couldn’t sit at a desk all day. The district, he said, is also “resource rich” in terms of the community partners and business leaders who want to work with the district and offer high school students learning opportunities. The next step, he said, is creating a profile of a Williston graduate.
The Lindsey Unified School District, in California’s Central Valley, led by Superintendent Tom Rooney, is widely known for its competency-based system. After “decades of failing learners,” Rooney said, the district — in which 90% of the students are Latino and 100% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — built a system that meets “learners where they are.”
In the traditional model of schooling, he said, “we pass earners through because the school year ended, not because they learned.” But now, students “at any level can tell you where they are, what they’re doing next, and how they’re demonstrating competency.”
The percentage of students moving on to a four-year university has increased from 21% to 41%, and the district is part of a community-wide WiFi initiative so students and families can access curriculum materials on their devices. “We have flipped the system,” Rooney said.
Thake also encouraged attendees to follow #EdReimagined on Twitter for other stories on districts implementing personalized learning. “We learn from each others’ strengths and from each others struggles,” he said.