LA School Report: Fighting teacher burnout: Great Public Schools Now grants aim to retain effective educators

Feb. 17, 2017

When Hrag Hamalian opened Valor Academy Middle School in 2009, teacher retention was his foremost concern, so he decided to find out what educators desired in the workplace.

Now executive director of Bright Star Schools, which includes six other charter schools, Hamalian surveyed his highly effective teachers in search of the answer. He found that teachers wanted to be able to teach, but also to raise their own families and stay healthy.

The results of the survey became an application for a Great Public Schools Now grant, and Bright Star on Friday was awarded $250,000 that will go toward workplace enhancements, including four additional weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave, childcare subsidies for teachers, fitness classes on campuses, nutrition counseling and lactation pods, so teachers who return from maternity leave will have a private place to pump breastmilk at school.

“We’ve really tried to craft our organization to be the type of model where people can make a career out of staying in the classroom,” Hamalian said. “We’re not interested in having teachers come for two years and leave.”

The grant to Bright Star Schools was part of nearly $900,000 in total grant money doled out by GPSN to schools and organizations for teacher retention efforts. GPSN is a nonprofit organization that funds initiatives to replicate high-performing schools in underserved areas.

Angie Trae-Greenbarg, who has taught fifth-grade science and social studies at Valor Academy since it opened, knows what it’s like to reap the benefits of a workplace that accommodates young mothers.

She was the first teacher at her school to become pregnant.

“It was nice to have that support because I do feel like it is really stressful to feel like I want to be with my daughter, but then I also don’t want to be away from the students and how to manage that and how are the students going to deal with me being gone for so long,” she said.

Three other new moms at the school will also benefit.

When he was preparing to open the school, Hamalian looked at research to find out what benefits would keep teachers. He implemented mentorships that partner more experienced teachers with newer teachers, differentiated professional development, leadership opportunities like scholarships for National Board certifications and learning a second-language, and competitive salaries and health benefits.

Before opening Valor Academy, Hamalian was a fellow with Building Excellent Schools, an intensive training program for charter school leaders.

Trae-Greenbarg said she feels like she can have candid conversations with administrators because they have been receptive to feedback from teachers about ways the school can improve to prevent teacher burnout.

For example, after discussions with teachers, the school reduced its day by one hour, ending at 4 p.m. instead of 5. It starts at 7:15 a.m.

“It’s something that shows they value our hard work and they also understand we have personal lives,” she said.

Valor Academy Middle School Principal Maurice Regalado said his job as a school leader is to “create an optimal environment for development and progress” so teachers can grow and feel appreciated and inspired.

Ted Christensen, 47, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher who has taught at Valor Middle Academy for six years and has been a teacher for 18 years, said the evaluations he gets during classroom observations make him feel valued.

“The professionalism of the feedback that I get to make me better makes me feel like they do want to make me better every single year,” he said.

“I like that I can be a teacher and be valued as a teacher as opposed to well, this is as far as I can get and if I want to advance or challenge myself I have to be an administrator,” Trae-Greenbarg said.

In most public schools in Los Angeles, somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom within five years, according to Jane Mayer, who directs the Los Angeles region of the nonprofit organization The Teaching Well.

2011 study found teacher turnover at Los Angeles charter schools was nearly three times higher than in the district’s traditional public schools.

“We know that teachers are the most important factor within a school and that keeping great ones in the classroom can have an immediate and profound effect on students,” Myrna Castrejón, GPSN’s executive director, said in a news release. “We believe that these programs have found creative and common sense ways to help teachers do what they do best: inspire students to reach their full potential.”

To qualify for the grant, schools must have retained at least 70 percent of their teachers over the past year and met minimum academic requirements.

The grant recipients identified 150 high-performing teachers who were considered irreplaceable based on data and feedback from students and families.

The other grant awardees are Teach Plus, which will receive a $90,000 grant, PUC Charter Schools, which will receive $105,000, Aspire Public Schools, which will receive $153,000, Environmental Charter Schools, which will receive $200,000, and Nightingale Middle School’s Business Entrepreneurial Technology Magnet, which will receive $65,000.

Nightingale Principal Rafael Gaeta said the idea to apply for the grant came directly from the magnet program coordinator, John Valencia, and two teachers in the program, Jalina Chatzipantsios and Lester Vasquez.

The grant will be used to give the teachers replacement pay so they can work on curriculum development for the magnet program. Right now, the teachers are using a program created for high school students. Nightingale’s business magnet program is the district’s first such program for middle schoolers. The grant will also fund professional development for teachers.

“The conversations that we’ve had especially with the teachers is how do we keep them engaged and also avoid burnout by making sure that these professional duties are taking place during the professional day,” Gaeta said.

He said the teachers have spent time during the evenings and weekends to work with sixth-grade students to develop a business plan to prepare for competitions. The students made history by being the first middle school students to be regional finalists the Annual Regional Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge last year.

Gaeta said Chatzipantsios has brought her preschool-aged daughter with her to school on the weekends while the students were preparing because the teacher otherwise couldn’t have put in the additional time.

“The idea that I’m very supportive of is, as a district, we need to think outside the box to be able to retain these strong teachers that will help lead the work at the school site,” he said.

By Sarah Favot

Read the whole LA School Report story here.