K-12

Charter schools, better known for ‘churn and burn,’ now try to keep teachers with mom-friendly policies

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When second-grade teacher Noelle King arrived for work on a balmy September morning, the moon was still lighting up the gray-blue sky just before 7 a.m.

While the early hour wasn’t unusual for a charter school teacher working long hours, the bundle King had with her was.

Crawling and not yet talking, King’s son, Colin, has been coming to work with her at KIPP SHINE Preparatory Charter School in Houston since he was just eight weeks old, spending school days in a brightly decorated classroom filled with plush rugs and cribs, toys and puzzles. As part of an effort to keep its teachers, KIPP, among the nation’s largest charter school networks, has joined the slim ranks of employers with on-site daycare for staff members’ children, including Colin, now eight months old.

The charter school movement may be better known for burning out their staffs than for working hard to keep them, but some schools — KIPP among them — are trying to stem the tide of departing teachers by addressing the needs of their mom (and dad) teachers. They’ve set aside space for daycares and lactation rooms, offered flexible schedules or shorter hours and even made sure staff kids have priority in competitive lotteries for admission.

“I feel lucky to be able to drop him off right downstairs,” King said, noting it made the return to work after maternity leave less fraught. “There wasn’t very much contemplation or hesitation or fear.”

Related: Half of teachers leave the job after five years. Here’s what to do about it

KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, is known for producing impressively high test scores while serving a population that might not otherwise have access to a good education. Of the now 58,000 students, more than 88 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school, and 95 percent are black or Latino. Researchers have attributed KIPP’s successes to its longer day and year with more time for core academics. At the same time, those long hours seem to have helped create an high turnover rate among its staff.

Charter school teacher Noelle King with son Colin, age eight months, outside KIPP SHINE Prep in Houston. (Photo: Rachel Monahan)

Charter school teacher Noelle King with son Colin, age eight months, outside KIPP SHINE Prep in Houston. (Photo: Rachel Monahan)

As the number of KIPP students has doubled over the last five years, with schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C., KIPP has been pushing to sustain its results, publishing a number each year that speaks to more to its weaknesses than its strengths. A third of KIPP teachers left their classroom job in 2012-13, according to the latest annual report.

In Houston, an astounding 36 percent of teachers switched jobs, according to data for the 2013-14 school year, though if you factor in teachers switching into leadership roles and out of the classroom, the retention rate rises: 74 percent stayed with KIPP Houston in some capacity — a notable improvement from the previous year, when KIPP Houston only kept 66 percent of its teachers in any role.

At KIPP we take the long view, and we continue to be our own biggest critics,” said KIPP founder Mike Feinberg, acknowledging that KIPP has a “high” teacher turnover rate.

While charter schools have debated the merits of pushing teachers to spend a lifetime in the classroom, advocates for keeping turnover to a minimum argue that a high rate of departures negatively affects student learning, creates instability at schools and is costly to districts and schools because they must recruit new teachers.

Related: Teach For America’s soft-power education reform strategy

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, have an 18.4 percent turnover rate, according to the latest National Center for Education Statistics survey — a marked 5.5-point drop from the previous survey four years earlier. At traditional public schools, a slightly lower 15.5 percent of teachers moved on, a number that has held steady. The problem is worst at high-poverty schools. In the 2012-13, at public schools where at least 75 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch, 22 percent of teachers left their job.

Research on the Los Angeles school district found higher turnover at charter schools, but Los Angeles charter school teachers younger than 30 were twice as likely to stay put as their public school peers. It was only later in their careers that charter teachers were more likely to leave.

The turnover report included no information on the teachers’ reasons for staying or going, but the researchers are now looking more closely at a subset of the charter schools.

“There is a big moment in the lives of these teachers when they get married and start to have kids,” said University of California at Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller, one of the report’s authors, noting that’s likely part of the “age effect” found in the first study.

Related: The teaching profession is becoming less gray and less green, but more teachers are leaving poor schools

Teachers leave their jobs for any number of reasons, including unfavorable work conditions or higher pay elsewhere. But offering family-friendly policies could have all the more impact given that women generally bear more of the brunt of childcare responsibilities and the teaching force (both in charter and public schools nationally as well as at KIPP’s Houston schools) is three-quarters female. The gender imbalance in the profession has, surprisingly, increased over the last generation, even as other professions have opened up to women.

Charters grow up

In 2006, 12 years after founding the first KIPP school in Houston, Feinberg, then superintendent of the region, helped open the daycare at KIPP SHINE, in response to a need expressed by teachers.

“We knew we weren’t trying to run a sprint,” said Feinberg. “We were trying to run a marathon. We were thinking well beyond what can we do to make sure our kids in May have good test scores. We were thinking about four or five Mays from now our kids having good test scores.”

Steve Mancini, KIPP’s national public affairs director, says other forces were also at work behind the network’s embrace of family-friendly policies. “It was started by two young guys and they were single. They were very committed to education and then both our founders got married and they both now have two kids,” he said.

In 2001 KIPP started replicating its model in other cities. The daycares, Mancini noted, are in older and larger KIPP regions (New Orleans, Arkansas, Houston), which are each run by superintendents who are themselves parents.

“I think what you’re seeing is very natural, very organic — that the leaders of these schools are young; they’re growing up; they’re having families, so they’re very attuned to this larger issue of sustainability. One way it manifests itself is daycare,” he said.

Traditionally, KIPP had run middle schools. But with KIPP SHINE, the network’s first elementary school, there was a convenient location for the daycare — on the first floor hallway with prekindergarten classes (which in Texas public schools can begin at age three). KIPP still subsidizes the daycare with roughly $1,000 per family per year, charging parents $34 a day for an infant or $33 for an older child.

Across the country, just under a third of KIPP teachers now have access to a charter-run daycare, KIPP officials estimate, and with it various conveniences – such as opening early to accommodate a teacher’s early work start time and vacation days that match their school’s schedule. The network of daycares has expanded to two in Houston, one in Arkansas and another in New Orleans, the last of which opened just this summer.

Related: Q&A with Dana Goldstein: How yesterday’s teacher wars explain today’s education battles

KIPP’s Houston region has also offered flexible hours to teachers as well as priority in admission to its charter schools for children of staff. While KIPP officials have long advocated more learning time for kids, this year they have trimmed Houston teachers’ workweek by two hours. Other KIPP regions and charter schools, including Boston Collegiate and Colorado’s Academy Charter, have adopted similar strategies in part to retain staff.

Daycares and flexible hours are, by far, the exception in charter schools. So too are the occasional high-profile scandals at charter schools that fire or mistreat their teachers– as in the case of a Colorado teacher allegedly fired for insisting on her legal right to pump breast milk or of Imagine Schools, which settled a federal pregnancy-discrimination lawsuit in 2010.

While the scandals may be rare, critics say that charter schools have generally overlooked the problem of high turnover.

“Part of what KIPP would tell you is that they treat people like a family. That begs the question of why there is so much churn and burn,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who at the same time praised the effort to offer daycare and other benefits to teachers who are parents.

“The fact that charters are doing this is a huge recognition of two things — number one, that their philosophy that churn and burn was okay is wrong and, number two, that they have to do something about it,” she said. “As they are evolving and maturing, what they’re realizing like every other school is that experience actually matters and that stability actually matters.”

Related: New study of KIPP says the charter chain pulls in more cash than other schools

At KIPP SHINE’s daycare, when King handed Colin over, he happily leaned into the arms of “Ms. Juana” (Gutierrez) who has been with KIPP from the start — first as a mother of a student in the original middle school and then as a caregiver when the daycare opened.

With 45 minutes to prepare for her students, King headed to her second-floor class, flipped on the brightly colored lamps lining the edge of the room and set up her laptop to project images that will go along with the day’s reading, “Beauty and the Beast.” (During the lesson, she’ll teach the children the word “balmy” — like the weather in Houston in the morning, she explained.)

Last year, King also asked for flexibility around scheduling so that she could leave at 4:00 p.m. — an hour before the long KIPP school day ended. The school leader arranged the classes so that her second-graders went to Spanish last period.

She wasn’t the only one to work out a flexible schedule; KIPP’s Houston school leaders have wide latitude to arrange shorter days to accommodate teachers’ needs. But at the request of its teachers, and not just teacher-moms, this year all of the teachers at KIPP’s Houston locations can finish at 4:15 p.m. instead of the regularly scheduled 5:00 Monday through Thursday. (Fridays now end at 3:00 p.m., instead of 2:00, and every day still starts at 7:15.) With the system-wide change, King now has her planning periods built back into her workday, a less traffic-congested evening commute and more free time when she leaves.

“I don’t bring anything home. I can focus on being a mom,” King said, noting she’s even been getting to the gym after work.

Making room for moms

Like KIPP, Boston Collegiate has something to offer its teachers who become parents, and by at least one measure, the charter school has succeeded in establishing its reputation as family-friendly place to work: A dozen staffers were pregnant last school year, something of a challenge for a school with a 65-person teaching staff.

“Everyone here is so excited for everyone else when they’re having a baby,” said Sarah Muncey, director of family and community relations. “It’s a real community of moms and dads.”

The school started a daycare in 2010 — which became possible when they opened a new building — and has remained a feature of the school that visitors always notice first, said Muncey.

With so many babies arriving, there’s been competition for the daycare, which charges $60 a day and has space for 15 children. Muncey asked for a spot when she was just six weeks pregnant.

Related: Is the power of parent talk enough to close the school readiness divide?

In the Boston Collegiate upper school building, there’s also a dedicated Room For Moms — for teachers who want to pump breast milk when they return from maternity leave. For lower-school teachers with babies in the daycare, it’s a quick trip to nurse during breaks or planning periods.

Starting her 12th year at the school, sixth-grade math teacher Bridget Adam, 34, mother of Stuart, 6, and Corrina, almost 3, was among the first teachers with a baby at Boston Collegiate, which opened 17 years ago and is a small standalone school with 700 students.

In the early days, the administration didn’t seem to trust staff. Getting time off — even for a funeral — wasn’t automatic, Adam said.

“You requested a day off, and you were told no. People worked so hard,” she said. But the culture mellowed as the school became more established after new administrators joined the leadership. “We have made some significant changes,” she said, including enlisting teachers on a formal committee to try to retain staff. (The committee, notably, helped raise pay at the school, bringing it to 90 percent of the district’s.)

With her first child she arranged a schedule so that she could arrive an hour later, so that she could drop him off at daycare. When the daycare opened after her daughter was born, Adam was able to breastfeed at school. “They’ve been flexible with me,” she said.

Related: Why is a Reagan-era report driving today’s education reform?

But combining motherhood with the intensity of a charter school teaching job still has its challenges. “There was really no time by myself. I always had one kid attached to me or 25 kids raising their hands asking for help,” she said.

The effort to accommodate families appears to be paying off. The school saw 85 percent of its teachers return on average for each of the last six years – up from 80 percent on average between 2000 and 2007.

Giving a leg up in the lottery

Though on-site daycares at charter schools are still rare, it’s been much more common for charter schools to grant children of staff and founders admissions. This practice has its roots in the early charter movement when parents sought to build schools for their own kids. In some places, the admissions preference has been part of an effort to compete for teachers with districts that have a similar policy. But lately preferences have also served as a way to keep teachers happy.

In D.C., after a change in the law this year, charter schools will be able to offer preference to kids of staffers (though they cannot account for more than 10 percent of the student body). It was an idea championed by some of the highest-performing charter schools in the city at the request of teachers there, charter school officials said.

At Academy Charter School, among the first charter schools in Colorado, 20 of the 21 staffers with appropriately aged kids send them to the school, officials there report. That’s just a fraction of the roughly 600 students in the kindergarten through eighth grade, where just 6 percent of students are low-income.

The school also began offering childcare in 2001. Children as young as two can attend preschool specifically dedicated to children of staff (which the charter school operates at cost, charging staffers $30 a day).

When Christie Marble, 54, started as an Academy Charter teacher in 1997, her son Jesse attended the middle school. Now his daughter Livvy, age two, attends preschool, thanks to her principal’s willingness to extend the benefits to grandchildren. “[Jesse] knew what an amazing education it was. He’s said for forever that ‘when I get married and have kids, they’re going there,’” she said.

Fifth-grade teacher Tara Lindburg, 39, in her ninth year as an Academy Charter teacher, even moved to the neighborhood so that her children — Annika, 6, now a first-grader, and Soren, 3 — would live in the community where they go to class. The quality of education that her children will receive is part of what keeps her at the school. And while they’re young at least, it’s a special treat for the family to be in the same place.

“As you get older it’s not as cool to be at school with Mom. Hugs in the hallway turn into high fives, turn into looking away,” she said.

At KIPP SHINE, King said it’s too early to decide whether to enroll Colin after he turns four, partly because she has good schools where she lives and partly because it depends on her own professional future.

“If I am still working here, he would definitely be attending SHINE,” she said. “It would be a great thing for him to be here with me.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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