Saturday, February 17, 2018
Education

Despite promise of extra cash, teachers want out of tough schools

"Change a child's life," says the blue and white brochure touting a teaching career at Maximo Elementary, one of Pinellas County's poorest elementary schools.

Teachers who come to Maximo — where nine of 10 students live in poverty — should have an open heart, a strong mind and the "resilience to greet daily challenges with a positive attitude," the pamphlet says. Teachers will receive a $3,000 recruitment bonus, with more payouts for staying on multiple years.

For five schools in Pinellas facing restructuring for chronic low performance, hiring and keeping good teachers is a never-ending battle. Despite the lure of extra cash, teachers aren't fighting to get into some of the county's lowest-performing schools. In many cases, they're trying to get out.

Transfer requests were highest this year at some of the schools that district officials say are most in need of good teachers. Melrose Elementary, one of five "turnaround" schools, had the highest transfer request rate in Pinellas, with 71 percent of the instructional staff eyeing the exit. The lowest rate among the four was 43 percent.

That was despite various financial incentives offered to teachers in the 2012/13 school year. The schools offered a $1,000 recruitment bonus, while a couple also offered $1,000 to $5,000 payouts based on student test scores.

Recruiting and retaining good teachers is a constant problem in any school setting. At low-income schools, where behavior problems often are worse and students typically are behind academically, the problem can be more acute.

Research shows that teachers with more experience and training are less likely to teach at low-income schools. Studies also show that money is necessary to recruit teachers to challenging environments, but leaves unanswered: How much?

And money isn't the only factor. In surveys, teachers have said they left a school because of low salary, poor leadership and difficult working conditions.

"Any research that I've seen is that it has more to do with the successful climate than any amount of money," said Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

With federal programs that fund incentive and performance pay for school districts, Pinellas has used cash "carrots" at a variety of elementary, middle and high schools in recent years. Jan Urbanski, director of the special projects office, said preliminary data show retention rates vary widely, from 40 percent to a high of 85 percent.

"Which indicates that it might not be the money," she said.

Climate surveys from the turnaround schools paint a complex picture, with some respondents reporting a strong bond among the staff but frequent problems with student behavior, low parental involvement and the district administration's constantly changing plans.

Sometimes teachers request a transfer for personal reasons —to be closer to home or childcare. But a high number of transfer requests can also be a sign that a school is struggling.

Transfer requests for high-performing schools in Pinellas were generally low. At Palm Harbor University High, for instance, just five people, or 4 percent, asked for a transfer.

At more than a dozen low-performing schools this year, principals had more flexibility to hire, relieved of agreements that force them to accept involuntary transfers. Yet, it hasn't been easy to fill spots, Proud said.

"Nobody really wants to go there," he said of the schools.

The School District and teachers union worked this year to increase the amount of incentive pay at the turnaround schools. The district now offers teachers $3,000, in two payments, and the chance to earn more if they continue on at the school and receive good professional evaluations.

It's not clear yet how well those incentives have worked for the upcoming school year. Of about 125 transfer requests on the School Board's agenda Tuesday, 32 are for employees leaving the five schools, while 25 were for people going to them.

The turnaround schools are still hiring, making it difficult to get an accurate count, according to the district. Earlier this summer, three of the five schools had rehired most of their original staff, while numbers weren't available at the other two.

At Fairmount Park, where 60 percent of the staff had requested transfers, 31 members were returning out of 47. The school still was looking for teachers earlier this month.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

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