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    Memphis wants "Teacher Town USA" title

    Jane Roberts


    Every year about now, Michael Whaley, executive director of Memphis College Prep in Greenlaw, wakes up with an extra load on his shoulders. Between now and early spring, he needs to find and hire the equivalent of one-fifth of his staff in a city where three dozen charters, the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools are competing for the same people.
    “We’ll interview 75 to 100 people,” Whaley says. “Granted, many won’t make it past the phone interview. It takes a lot of time to do it right.”
    For months, charter operators and principals in the city’s lowest-performing schools have been kicking around what it would take to make Memphis — with all its reforms and philanthropic investment — the No. 1 place in the nation for talented, rising teachers.
    ASD Supt. Chris Barbic coined it “Teacher Town USA” last fall.
    The name stuck and a collaboration called Teacher Town has emerged involving SCS, the ASD and principals and charter operators running the 68 schools where test scores are low in the city.
    “Broadly, we think of it as honoring and recognizing the work our great teachers are doing every single day here,” said Teacher Town portfolio director Sara Solar, on the job since November.
    The goals are: Retain the county’s best teachers and school leaders; make sure they have opportunities to develop skills, and, given the number of teachers expected to retire as the baby boom exits the workforce, find ways to recruit talent to Memphis. That means making it attractive enough that they will want to stay.
    “My hope is that Teacher Town will be an initiative to create more teachers that are not in traditional teacher pathway now,” said Jamal McCall, executive director of KIPP Memphis, and one of 14 members of the Teacher Town advisory council.
    “Hopefully, it will bring non-education career folks into education and be a source for finding people who are already in college, wanting to teach. You don’t know what the creation is until you create it.”
    For nearly a decade, cities have been trying to make themselves more attractive to teachers. “People have actually been thinking pretty hard about this,” said Betheny Gross at the University of Washington. “You can build relationships with some of the teacher pipelines, Teach for America, or other teacher-preparation programs you think are turning out quality candidates.”
    They can invest in infrastructure that helps teachers advance or build housing with them in mind.
    A community group in Philadelphia built a large apartment complex specifically for teachers, hoping to create a place where new hires could collaborate in their off hours.
    New York gave teachers raises under Chancellor Joel Klein, and then launched the public relations campaign, Teach NYC.
    New Schools for New Orleans launched in 2006 as the central recruiter after Hurricane Katrina.
    “Our teachers were dispersed throughout the county. We needed teachers in the buildings and leaders to run them. We needed charters to come run schools as well,” said Mike Stone, spokesman. “We’ve shifted from recruitment to teacher development. We are focused on moving medium-performing teachers to right on the bell curve by making sure they have quality professional development.”
    Ultimately, the goal here is to create a more stable environment for students and teachers in the lowest-performing schools, where staff turnover is higher because the work is harder. The churn is expensive.
    A study at the University of Washington in 2007 found districts spend more than $8,000 per teacher in recruitment and induction costs, which does not include hiring a substitute if a teacher leaves midyear. It also does not factor in the cost of lost productivity if a teacher with even three or four years’ of experience is replaced by one with none.
    In a poor, urban school system like Shelby County Schools, half of the high-performing teachers are gone by their sixth year, according to Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project.
    “Two-thirds of them have left the district completely and one-third have transferred to another school,” he said.
    Teachers generally transfer to schools where the work is easier, which usually translates into wealthier schools, closer to their homes. The fallacy, Daly says, is thinking it’s OK to lose tens of thousands of young teachers because their potential is still developing.
    “The tendency to discuss retention in the absence of quality is a terrible mistake,” he said. “No one expects a team to keep bad players. But in education, we have had no custom of distinguishing levels of quality. We fell into the habit of discussing retention without discussing quality.”
    Shoring up retention will mean paying attention to what keeps high-performing teachers happy and challenged. In Shelby County, it may mean addressing changes in the teacher evaluation.
    “The work now is put on the teacher to do the self-rating, and the principal’s assessment of our classroom observation can no longer be changed,” said Margaret Box, kindergarten teacher at Cordova Elementary.
    “We had two take early retirement last year because of the changes. Another is going to this year.”
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