Multimillion-dollar program hasn’t slowed teacher turnover in Austin’s struggling schools

Award-winning social studies teacher Magdalena Mata quit after just three years at Mendez Middle School, where she found a rigid administration and redundant paperwork nearly as troubling as the fistfights she broke up almost every day.

Teachers like Mata leave some Austin schools, many of them in East Austin, at two or three times the rate they leave other schools in the district. And it’s becoming apparent that money — thousands of dollars in incentives to stay in struggling schools — isn’t enough to keep them around.

High turnover in troubled schools has plagued the district for decades and has persisted despite piecemeal efforts to offer financial incentives. Three years ago, the district embarked on its largest incentive program yet — $62 million over five years — to keep veteran teachers and principals in the schools where they are badly needed. But the effort has done little to slow turnover, district data obtained by the American-Statesman show.

Worse, six high schools where the district has offered incentives have all seen turnover increase over the past three years, district data show.

Since 2010, the district’s Reach program has offered up to $8,000 in incentives a year, plus signing bonuses and retention bonuses of $1,500 a year for educators willing to stay around. Bilingual educators can earn another $1,500.

Some teachers, however, are motivated more by work environment than money, and the district has stiff competition in the suburbs and at private and charter schools. Meanwhile, the program still hasn’t reached some schools in the district — such as Mendez, where 52 percent of the school’s teachers left in 2012 — that have the hardest time holding onto teachers.

“In general terms, it’s not as effective as I wish it were,” Michael Houser, the district’s chief human capital officer, said of the program. “Bottom line is, (turnover) is a constant thing that creates havoc for us, and something we’re always trying to do better.”

Teachers say solid leadership, better working environments and talented co-workers are all more appealing than a few thousand dollars.

Leadership changes frequently lead to a spike in teacher turnover at schools. The same schools fighting to hold onto teachers also have a hard time keeping principals, who are under pressure to turn around schools struggling to meet state standards. New leaders come in and their style rankles some teachers, like Mata, who leave soon after. It’s a cycle that acts like a whirlpool to sinking schools.

“High turnover is like the canary in the coal mine — something’s not going well at that school,” said Ed Fuller, an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education. “If your turnover is that high, it’s just not possible to run a highly functioning school.”

Offering incentives

Johnston High School had 13 principals in 11 years and lost about a third of its teaching staff annually before the state closed it in 2008, said Fuller, a former state researcher and University of Texas at Austin professor until 2011. Fuller worked on a 2006 study on turnover for the district that led to the Reach program. Fuller says he isn’t surprised the program isn’t working, because it doesn’t offer enough money and should focus more on improving working conditions at the schools.

Johnston, plagued by chronic academic problems, was allowed to reopen as Eastside Memorial High the next year. Eastside, which the state threatened to close last year, has seen an average of 50 percent of teachers leave each year since 2009. In 2012, the school saw more than 54 percent turnover — double the district’s overall turnover rate.

“Those kids need the most stability in their lives, and they get the least,” Fuller said. “The kids in those kinds of situations desperately have to have a stable staff to do well. Most districts don’t have any concerted effort to address the turnover.”

But Austin does. Teachers can receive a maximum of $11,000 per year, and principals can get up to $21,500 through the district’s Reach program that started in 19 schools five years ago and has since expanded to 38 campuses. Most teachers receive about $5,000 annually. The program, which started in 2006 and was initially funded with state and local money, is now running on a $62 million, five-year federal grant. The district is in its third year of the grant and received $1.9 million from the state for the program.

While turnover has yet to slow in many of the schools, Houser said principals have said the extra money has helped.

“The people in the trenches are telling us it is beneficial to recruit and retain,” Houser said.

‘The one thing we have control over’

Teachers say pay isn’t everything. Educators in the schools with the highest turnover tend to be under the most pressure, as well.

Tensions between principals — trying to make sure their schools bring in good ratings from the state — and teachers at those schools can create a rigid working environment, said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, a labor group that represents district employees.

“Whenever you see regular high turnover, you have to start looking at leadership,” Zarifis said.

District officials are working with Education Austin and the Austin Association of Public School Administrators to improve communication and relationships between teachers and principals.

Mata, who was recognized by the Texas Council for the Social Studies in her first year at Mendez, left the school, she said, because she couldn’t get along with a new administration there. She said the new regime made the job too frustrating. It wanted to dictate how she taught, requiring more meetings and more paperwork, including detailed lesson plans to document what she was doing in the classroom. She was forced to quit offering perks, like a pizza party for the class that led in turning in homework.

Mata wasn’t alone. She says of the more than a dozen teachers who were on her teaching team at the school, only a couple of them remain. The middle school saw 52 percent turnover from the 2011 school year to the 2012 school year, according to district data. That was more than double the district average.

“It’s coming home every day and being upset,” Mata said. “I connected with these kids, I loved them. I was sad to leave Mendez, but I had to go find an environment that was healthy, safe and respectful for my own sanity.”

Making sure teachers feel respected by their bosses is key to keeping them around, Zarifis said.

“It’s the one thing we have control over,” he said.

Constant conflicts with a new principal at Davis Elementary School, which has relatively low turnover, pushed kindergarten teacher Kristin Allington to leave the school in December — in the middle of the school year.

Allington said she no longer felt like the administration — at the school and at the district — valued teachers. Administrators seemed more likely to write teachers up for minor personnel violations, and teachers felt their thoughts and opinions were ignored, she said. Allington said losing the support of her leaders was the one thing that could push her to leave the school.

“You go into it, because you feel called,” Allington said. “Part of the compensation that isn’t financial is the respect you get from the administration.”

District officials say that, in some schools, the pressure weighs on everyone.

“You have to really look at it much more than is it the principal that can’t seem to run a school or can’t seem to get along with teachers,” Houser said. “In these particular schools, it’s a matter of everything is very high stakes. A teacher and a principal will no doubt think twice about being in a more difficult school, because of the fact that it can be very damaging to your career.”

‘Team leading the league keeps winning’

Austin schools aren’t just competing with their district peers. Suburban school districts tend to pay more, and students there — mostly from more affluent families — regularly post better test results, meaning there aren’t the same pressures that exist in some of Austin’s struggling schools.

The Austin district has increased teacher pay in recent years, last year dipping into savings to give a one-time, 3 percent raise, and this year dipping a little further to maintain that raise and add an additional 1.5 percent. Teachers will keep their 3 percent boost next year, but the district can’t afford to extend the 1.5 percent raise. And without a tax increase, the trend can’t hold, officials say.

And, all the while, teachers in other area districts have received bigger, more consistent raises.

“What really makes it difficult — every time we give a raise, every other district gives a raise,” Houser said. “You pitch a no-hitter, but the team leading the league keeps winning.”

Meanwhile, the city is home to twice as many accredited private schools — there are now 67 — as a decade ago. Charter school options have grown just as much.

Allington is now at the Goddard School, a private preschool and kindergarten in Pflugerville. She says she won’t go back to public schools, and she won’t send her daughter to them if she can help it.

Mata was hesitant to go to a charter school, but she had no luck at other schools in the district. She’s now teaching at NYOS Charter School, which she calls a utopia. She has much smaller classes than at Mendez, where she taught 178 students in multiple classes, and she says the principal at the school lets her teach how she wants. She even took a group of 12 students to a national civics competition in Washington, D.C.

“No one is shoving a lesson down my throat or going to make me waste my time at a meeting,” Mata said.

And, even though Mata doesn’t have a contract, like she did in the Austin school district, she says she’s not worried.

“There’s no way they’re going to get rid of me,” she said. “I’m there, I’m committed, and I’m happy.”

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