Revolving door for rookie teachers

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Just two years ago, Amy Baumanis began her career teaching English and reading at Robeson Achievement Academy. Now, she’s ready to move on.

The chance to build close relationships with kids in the small setting is one thing that attracted her to the job, she says. “But the flip side is, it’s emotionally exhausting.”

Baumanis’ story is all too common in the district’s nine achievement academies, which serve some of the district’s most academically challenged students. Most of the academies suffer from high teacher turnover and have a greater percentage of rookie teachers than the district as a whole, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of data provided by Chicago Public Schools.

Between 2004-05 and 2005-06, teacher turnover at the academies was 29 percent overall, compared to the district average of 18 percent for high-poverty high schools, Catalyst’s analysis found. (Catalyst found irregularities in the data, however. For instance, Chicago Vocational Career Academy lists two achievement academy teachers under the regular high school’s unit number.)

During the 2004-05 school year, 43 percent of academy teachers were in their first or second year of teaching, compared to 20 percent of high school teachers across the district, Catalyst found.

Some academies have had a revolving door of directors also. Senn, for instance, has had three leaders in three years, due to two retirements.

The academies may have ended up with a higher proportion of new teachers in part because the program is so new. When CPS shut the academic prep centers in 2003, it reopened programs inside high schools and some of the old staff reapplied. But many vacant positions were filled by newcomers.

Since then, CPS has continued to shut and open academies, creating more turnover. After only one year, the board closed Julian Achievement Academy and opened a new one at Fenger High. Last year, it also shut Westinghouse Achievement Academy to incoming freshmen because it had slated the larger school for closing. A new academy opened this year in Clemente High to replace it, starting from scratch with a brand new staff.

‘We’re hurting these kids’

Robeson Achievement Academy has had an especially hard time keeping teachers, with 36 percent turnover since last school year, when 45 percent of its teachers were newcomers.

The Englewood school has difficulty filling positions and often recruits from Teach for America, which only requires its graduates to make a two-year commitment to teaching.

Aaron Bredenkamp, a Teach for America algebra teacher, says he came to Robeson’s achievement academy because his program requires that he accept the first position offered to him after an interview. After next year, he thinks he might head to Oregon and isn’t sure whether he’ll remain in teaching.

Hiring inexperienced staff contributes to high turnover at Robeson’s academy, says veteran English teacher Debra Ford.

Unlike Baumanis and Bredenkamp, Ford has 17 years of teaching experience and a background in special education that taught her how to reach struggling readers. The children’s difficulties are not a drain on her, she says. “It’s challenging and it’s a stimulant for me.”

Typically, achievement academy students are two years below grade level for their age, and have already repeated one grade before failing 8th grade. About 40 percent of students who entered the academies last fall came directly from 6th or 7th grade because they were approaching age 15, according to the Office of High School Programs.

Both inexperienced staff and high turnover can depress student achievement. Research has found that new teachers tend to produce lower standardized test score gains, particularly in mathematics, and high turnover means that each year, a new crop of teachers must learn the curriculum and teaching strategies for the Talent Development High School model on which academies are based.

But even with coaching, it takes time to get up to speed with the unfamiliar program, says Bernadine Harris, who arrived at Chicago Vocational Achievement Academy this fall to teach reading and English. “We’re learning [the program] while we’re trying to use it,” she says. “We’re hurting these kids.”