Some Philly schools churn through teachers at alarming rate
A elementary school in Philadelphia (Brad Larrison/for WHYY)
(Philadelphia) — Jaclyn Fabbri knew that Jay Cooke Elementary School had a rough reputation when she agreed to teach middle-school English there. But the young teacher had high hopes as she walked through the North Philadelphia school’s bright red double doors for the first time.
That feeling didn’t last long.
After her first year at Cooke, almost half the faculty left. Last summer, after only two years, she left, too — along with almost a third of her fellow teachers.
“I thought this was a school that believed in working for the kids,” Fabbri said.
Cooke employs about 30 teachers. Since 2012, however, at least 131 educators have cycled through the century-old brick school building — on average, more than four teachers for each position.
Experts say a stable teaching staff is crucial to a school’s academic success, and turnover of 25 percent in a year is cause for alarm.
Twenty-six of the district’s more than 200 schools, including Cooke, experience turnover far beyond that measure, an investigation by The Philadelphia Inquirer found. These schools lost at least 25 percent of their teachers for four years straight or lost more than one-third in each of the last two school years. Located mostly in North and Southwest Philadelphia, the schools serve about 12,000 of the district’s most vulnerable students, nearly all of them minorities.
Public education’s promise to equalize and uplift remains unfulfilled for those children. Born into disadvantage in the poorest big city in America, they also face volatility in school, where would-be mentors and role models often shuffle in and out the door. This constant churn means that less experienced educators like Fabbri teach the neediest students, which would be a challenge even for dedicated veterans.
Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is an expert in school staffing, called the Inquirer’s findings “appalling.”
“Good schools have a sense of community. The teachers, the students, the staff. They’re like a family. Turnover this high means there’s no continuity,” said Ingersoll, who has taught in public and private schools. “It’s a really terrible situation.”
Stephen DiDonato, associate director of Thomas Jefferson University’s Community and Trauma Counseling Program, was similarly troubled.
“This high turnover causes great social and emotional health concerns for our children,” said DiDonato, who has consulted in city schools. “When we see this type of turnover, why would our kids trust the next incoming adult?”
Middle school students change classes in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/WHYY)
The School District focuses on preventing teachers from quitting, but puts scant emphasis on flagging turnover at individual schools or developing plans to combat it.
For this story, reporters analyzed district staffing data since 2012, when William R. Hite Jr. took over as superintendent. They also interviewed scores of students, parents, and teachers connected to the struggling schools.
The analysis shows that most of the students who attend the 26 schools are deeply disadvantaged. They fare poorly on state tests and are frequently absent.
Few of their teachers are rated highly in instruction by principals, and many are “chronically absent” — missing more than 10 days a year, the Inquirer found.
Teachers, in turn, say principals who fail to keep order and motivate them drive them away.
The district’s method for assigning teachers also contributes to the churn.
Schools beset by turnover routinely have vacancies, and those slots are often filled by people whom other principals have pushed out through the “forced transfer” process or by teachers new to the district. More than half of the teachers who currently work at the 26 schools have less than four years of experience in the system to lean on.
Even as their teachers walk away, the children in the district’s high-turnover schools are stuck there.
Asked if chronic teacher turnover adversely impacts students’ learning, district spokesperson Lee Whack said it’s “not ideal.” He added that turnover is common among urban school systems and that quality is more important than teachers’ familiarity with their students or the communities they serve.
Chief talent officer Lou Bellardine gave as reasons for the churn a shrinking pool of qualified applicants and the district’s declining enrollment, which forces staff reshuffling. He also said the district sometimes intentionally uses teacher turnover to overhaul low-performing schools.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan criticized that strategy, and said a raft of school closings and layoffs in 2013 destabilized many schools suffering from turnover today.
When Fabbri went back to Cooke after summer break, she was the only returning middle-school teacher.
It wasn’t a big surprise. “I’d worked hard to build relationships with my colleagues,” she told the Inquirer. “At the end of the year, people became distant. We all knew we were going our separate ways.”