Jefferson City teachers’ experience declining

Former students, teachers say retention issue has festered for years

The Jefferson City Public Schools have seen a steady decline in the number of years of experience of its professional staff, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Although the district is still outperforming the state average, Jefferson City teachers have fewer years of experience today, compared with years past. In 2005, according to DESE numbers, the district’s professional staff had, on average, 15.9 years of experience. That number has gradually slipped over the intervening years to 13.4 years.

Although the city’s two middle schools have only seen small decreases, Jefferson City High School has seen a larger loss — from 18.1 years of experience in 2006 to 14.2 years of experience.

In terms of totality, the 2007 staffs at Simonsen 9th Grade Center and JCHS had a combined 2,760 years of experience teaching public school. By 2014, that number dipped to 2,388 years of experience — a change of 372 years.

Nichols Career Center’s staff is slightly more experienced now than in the past.

Some observers believe the loss of experience reflects events of the 2008-09 school year, when 19 JCHS and Simonsen 9th Grade Center teachers retired. At the time, reports indicated about half of those teachers were ready to retire, but the rest likely would have stayed if not for issues related to student behavior and new administrators.

Earlier this week, a former high school journalism teacher — Karen Ray — filed suit in Cole County Circuit Court, alleging employment discrimination on the basis of gender and age.

According to the lawsuit’s petition, Ray had “witnessed the school administration use tactics of bullying, lies and intimidation to force out veteran, experienced and quality teachers.”

Former students are coming forward and raising concerns what they have noticed.

In a letter to the editor, Isaac Baumann, a 2011 graduate, said “experienced teachers like Ray have fled JCHS en masse in recent years.”

“JCHS has a severe retention problem,” Baumann wrote. “This is not a dilemma that is exclusive to a former teacher or an individual academic department. It is a school-wide problem that has festered for several years.”

Baumann continued: “Our community’s high school has hemorrhaged great teachers since the arrival of the current administration. Just a few years ago, JCHS had a remarkable core faculty whose diversity of accomplishments and insights rivaled those of the professors I have had in university. Most of those teachers possess decades of teaching experience and were held in high esteem both within the community and the student body. Among these teachers were professors, published writers, world travelers and even a civil rights marcher, who was particularly dear to me.”

Although Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson middle schools also lost years of experience, the reductions are negligible. For example, in 2004, Lewis and Clark’s teachers had about 15.7 years of experience on average; by 2013 that number had dipped to 15 years of experience.

Some of the elementary schools saw larger losses in experience than others.

The level of experience at Moreau Heights has been on a downward trend since 2007, when the staff had an average of 17 years of experience. In 2013, it was 15.4.

Becky Comley, a Moreau Heights music teacher, retired this spring after 22 years of service. She cited challenging student behavior and heavy work loads as reasons for her decision.

“The thing that bothers me the most is that I believe the administration is actively bullying teachers and forcing us in situations where we are in a hostile work environment,” she said. “And that is coming from above and below … so we are squeezed, like a vise.”

She said children are coming to the classroom with more and more needs that are disruptive to classroom teaching, and administrators continue to make more requests without listening to teachers’ concerns.

“As a teacher, I want to make sure everyone understands that I want to teach every child. Whenever the administration says, ‘We have to teach all children,’ I believe that. But the ones who do have extreme behaviors need help outside of the classroom,” she added.

Comley was so upset last fall by circumstances at her school that she was tempted to write a letter to the editor, but was dissuaded from doing so by peers.

“I told our principal last fall that this is going to be my last year. The behaviors … I can’t keep doing this. As the school year went on, I decided more and more to speak out. Because I did not want to feel like I was a victim. And I did not want all the other teachers in the building to feel like they were victims. Nobody could feel like they could speak out. And I feel like, the No. 1 thing we need to be able to do is be able to voice our concern privately in the teacher’s faculty meeting and try to come to solutions for the issues we are all having,” Comley said.

In 2005, Callaway Hills Elementary School’s staff had almost 25 years of experience and Belair Elementary School had 18.5 years of experience, on average. Eight years later, the staffs for those schools averaged 12.8 and 12.4 years of experience, respectively.

Human Resources Director Penny Rector said 16 teachers retired and seven resigned during a 11-year time span at Callaway Hills. The retirees had between 25 to 44½ years of experience when they left.

“At least half the people I’m going replace them with are going to have less than 10 years of experience,” she explained.

She wasn’t certain if DESE’s numbers are truly reflective of a trend.

“I want to spend some more time figuring that out. But I’m not alarmed. I was able to see we don’t look a lot different than other districts,” She said. “That’s not to say we’re satisfied.”

Rector compared JCPS to Blue Springs, Raytown, Joplin and Columbia. She noted those districts have seen declines as well, but Jefferson City still has a more experienced staff.

Rector said the phenomenon of veterans leaving together tends to be cyclical. A group of experienced teachers will work in cooperation with an administrator for years until something shifts, setting in motion a spill of retirements.

“In Missouri, 50 percent of all teachers have 10 or fewer years of experience. The candidate pool we’re going to draw from is going to have less experience than that retiring teacher,” Rector said.

She said numerous factors cause people to leave positions and workers change jobs more frequently than their predecessors did.

“Few people stay in a job for a career. Our workforce will change jobs numerous times over their work life. And I think that’s coming to education,” she said. “If tenure changes, I think you will see a much more transitory teaching population.”

Staffs at East Elementary, Thorpe Gordon Elementary and West Elementary saw some decreases, but not large ones.

Two elementary schools saw their faculties gain more experience: Pioneer Trail and Clarence Lawson.

Rector said retaining the district’s veteran teachers is a desired goal.

“We’d like for folks to stay as long as possible,” she said. “There’s a great deal of historical knowledge and expertise that veteran teachers bring. They have a good understanding of the district and our expectation and our traditions. There’s a lot to be gained from that.”

In recent weeks, some former teachers, parents and students have stepped forward to express complaints about conditions in the schools. Some of them have indicated a climate of retaliation may exist for people who step on administrators’ toes. Some have also indicated they’ve already raised concerns with principals and administrators to no avail.

Rector acknowledged numerous concerns have been aired in various forums in the community — at coffee klatschs, online, etc. — in recent weeks.

“Certainly we are hearing, and have heard, those comments that have been made. We’re looking into those. We’ve asked for them to bring those concerns. It’s part of the process,” she said.

A recent survey of school personnel indicated almost 60 percent of the certified staff said they disagreed that their opinion was valued or were neutral on the question. A little more than 40 percent of the staff felt their opinion was valued.

Rector said the administration doesn’t have a specific plan in place yet to address the problems of teachers leaving the district. But she noted that listening to teachers is one strategy they are employing to get to the bottom of the problem. And she said grievance procedures are in place for people who are still employed.

The Board of Education’s policy on grievances allows staff to act if they feel a board-adopted policy, regulation or collective bargaining agreement has been violated or misinterpreted. It allows complaints to effectively go up the chain of command, from the person’s immediate supervisor to the board itself. The time frames to file a grievance are fairly quick — within 10 days of the occurrence.

“Those teachers need to come have a conversation with me,” Rector encouraged. “We encourage our teachers and retirees to come have those conversations. Unless they come to us with their concerns, we can’t address them. If we’re not made aware of the specific issues and concerns, we can’t address them. My door is open,” Rector said.

“We’ve opened the door to two-way communication,” added Amy Berendzen, JCPS’s director of communications.

Berendzen suggested some of the concerns may be overblown. She noted only 16 percent of the staff would not recommend their school or the district as a good place to work, according to a district-wide “feedback report” conducted by the Excellence in Missouri Foundation for the district in February.

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