Douglas County School District: Why are teachers leaving?

School district officials say numbers don’t reveal any major trend

Posted 3/29/16

Niki Mitchell has watched a number of fellow teachers leave the Douglas County School District in recent years. Some have gone to other school districts. Others have taken early retirement. A few have left the profession altogether.

“It’s …

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Douglas County School District: Why are teachers leaving?

School district officials say numbers don’t reveal any major trend

Posted

Niki Mitchell has watched a number of fellow teachers leave the Douglas County School District in recent years. Some have gone to other school districts. Others have taken early retirement. A few have left the profession altogether.

“It’s heartbreaking because these are all amazing teachers who have made such an impact on kids — every one of my friends who have left are veteran teachers,” said Mitchell, a kindergarten teacher at Saddle Ranch Elementary in Highlands Ranch who has taught in the district for 23 years. “Teachers are feeling demoralized. This has become a toxic place to teach.”

District officials maintain turnover rates are not alarming and say teachers who leave do so more for personal and philosophical reasons rather than workplace dissatisfaction. They also blame those critical of district policies for politicizing the issue and creating an anti-district agenda.

But interviews with 12 elementary, middle school and high school teachers and one school pyschologist — six are now teaching in other school districts, one will leave for a new district next school year, four are retired and two are working in the private sector — pinpoint specific district policies and initiatives as reasons for many teachers’ departures. They include the market-based salary structure implemented in 2012, an overly-exacting evaluation system that demands time teachers don’t have, a district that doesn’t value their work and concerns about the corporatization of education.

A protest earlier this month by Ponderosa High School students in Parker, who wanted answers from the district about why their favorite teachers were leaving, brought the issue into the spotlight as the school year begins to wind down, evaluations are completed and teachers make decisions for the next school year.

Between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, the district’s teacher turnover rate was 16.7 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That would account for about 561 of the district’s 3,361 teachers.

That’s higher than some neighboring districts, including Cherry Creek (9.3 percent), Littleton (8.3 percent) and Jefferson County (14.7 percent), but below the state average of 17.3 percent.

The turnover rate in Douglas County in the 2009-10 school year — the year a reform-minded school board was elected — was 10.2 percent. By 2013-14, the rate had risen to 17.3 percent, according to CDE.

Jeremy Meyer, the CDE’s assistant director of communications, said the department does not comment on when a district should be concerned about turnover because the number would vary depending on the district’s size and other factors. Turnover statistics for the 2015-16 school year are expected to be released in early April.

The school district disagrees with CDE’s numbers, saying the state counts teachers who leave their positions for promotions or other jobs in the district as turnover. Douglas County keeps its own statistics, excluding those categories, which show slightly lower rates.

“I think we all have concerns when there is a really excellent teacher who chooses to go somewhere else,” Douglas County Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said. “However, when you look into it more, sometimes the situation is that we had four years of pay freezes in the district and people can go get their years back on a salary schedule in another district. I completely understand that. Sometimes, we have people who are more philosophically aligned with another district. I can understand that, too. We ultimately want people to be happy. We want people to find the very best place for them and their families.”

District salaries were frozen from 2008 to 2012 because of budget shortages. In 2009, county residents elected school board members — including Meghann Silverthorn, Doug Benevento and John Carson — who would vote for numerous reform policies over the next several years. The board hired Fagen in 2010.

Former Highlands Ranch High School Principal Jerry Goings, however, believes the teacher turnover rate is worrying.

“In my opinion, a district like Douglas County, having a spike like that (in turnover) over the last three years or so, it’s not right,” said Goings, who retired after the 2014-15 school year. “If you look nationally, you do have higher turnover rates in areas of poverty and school districts that operate in that because it’s very stressful — it’s hard to do that. But Douglas County doesn’t have that issue. We should always compare ourselves to our neighboring districts, Cherry Creek and Littleton.”

Good turnover vs bad turnover

Whether turnover is positive or negative depends on who’s leaving and for what reasons, district officials said.

“Sometimes, turnover is not a negative thing,” Fagen said. “Sometimes, we all agree that it’s not a fit or there are other circumstances.”

Turnover among teachers who are rated poorly or ineffective also can be a positive, Chief Human Resource Officer Brian Cesare said.

“You have to look at turnover situationally,” he said. “For example, if we had 100 percent turnover in the ineffective category, we’re not going to complain about that. Every number has to be mirrored against what the reality of the situation is.”

According to district numbers, turnover among teachers rated highly effective is low — about 4.9 percent. But several of the teachers interviewed, who left the district, said they were rated highly effective.

And a parent from Chaparral High School, whose son graduated from the Parker school in 2014, said the unusually high number of teachers leaving the school in one year indicates a problem exists.

After her son’s junior year in 2012-2013, parent Eda DiPasquale said, “Chap lost 33 teachers and the principal.”

Reasons for leaving

Many of the teachers interviewed blame market-based pay and a new evaluation process for much of the fallout with the district.

Teacher and principal evaluations are required in all Colorado school districts under 2010’s Senate Bill 191, also called the Educator Effectiveness Bill. Districts were allowed to adopt either the state’s teacher-evaluation program or create their own. DCSD is among six districts that designed its own.

Called CITE, Continuous Improvement of Teacher Effectiveness, it has six components for measuring teacher effectiveness: Outcomes, Assessment, Instruction, Culture and Climate, Professionalism and Student Data. Each of those categories contains a number of standards with a subset of criteria — totaling 31 in all — against which teachers are evaluated, according to the district website.

The evaluations are part of DCSD’s pay-for-performance program. Based on self-evaluations, evaluations by administrators and other factors, such as use of the district’s Guaranteed Viable Curriculum, each teacher is rated “highly effective,” “effective,” “partially effective” or “ineffective.”

Pay increases are tied to those ratings, as well as a market-based pay scale that pays some instructors more than others depending on what they teach. For example, a math teacher would typically make more than a social studies teacher and those who teach in high school generally earn more than elementary school instructors.

Chrissy Kavas Thorsen left Ponderosa last year for Cherry Creek High School because of the increased workload the evaluation process demands and the opportunity for better pay. She had worked at the Parker school since 2000.

“I looked at my job and knew my family deserved more,” the English teacher said. “I’m a mother. We are trying to raise three boys and we weren’t able to make ends meet. As a teacher, I am loyal to my kids. It hurt me to leave them. It stung a lot, but I had to do what was best for our family. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

What the survey says

In the 2015 TELL survey, 71 percent of Douglas County teachers said they don’t believe that CITE accurately measures their effectiveness — a response considerably higher than the state average of 55 percent.

The Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning Colorado survey is an anonymous statewide survey of licensed, school-based educators to assess teaching conditions at the school, district and state level.

The survey is administered every other year by a partnership of agencies including: CDE, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

Kamala Schuster taught in the Douglas County School District for 21 years, most recently at Soaring Hawk Elementary in Castle RockShe left DCSD two years ago and now teaches technology at Rolling Hills Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District.

“The amount of stress that I had and the low morale of teachers throughout the district affected my decision,” she said. “Although I was rated highly effective, it was because I worked countless hours beyond my time at school to jump through hoops and prove my value as an educator. Because I am an overachiever, I couldn’t find it in myself to accept a lower rating.”

Several teachers also dislike the district’s business-like approach to education.

Maureen Curran taught French and English as a Second Language for five years at Castle Rock Middle School before leaving the district in 2013 for Smoky Hill High School in the Cherry Creek School District.

“I’m against the way that they are trying to run schools like a corporation,” Curran, a teacher for more than 20 years, said. “It created a really bad work environment. I didn’t feel like I could be myself as a teacher, as a mentor or as a person. I didn’t feel valued.”

Tom Horiagon, father of two third-graders at Acres Green Elementary in Lone Tree, also said changes made by the district are morphing public education into a business.

The district “is moving in the direction of central control of teaching at all levels and commoditization of the teaching profession,” said Horiagon. “The pay-for-performance fad needs to be understood against the backdrop of a very wealthy county that simply doesn’t want to pay for anything.”

But Fagen, reiterating that district officials always try to work directly with teachers who have concerns, said some issues boil down topolicy differences of opinion.

“I would encourage any employee in the district who feels torn to sit down and have conversations with people and make sure that they are torn based on facts, because there are a lot of rumors,” she said. “And, sometimes, people hear those things, believe it, and get upset.”

Anti-district agenda at play?

Several school board members and district administrators rebuff the assertion that teacher turnover is unusually high, that workplace satisfaction is low or that teachers are leaving because of policies and initiatives implemented since 2009.

“I think that there’s an agenda going on,” board member James Geddes said. “Some way or another there is an anti-teacher pay-for-performance sentiment, anti-Superintendent Fagen and anti-teacher evaluation agenda.”

Geddes pointed to the fact that only a small fraction of Ponderosa’s nearly 2,000 students joined the protest and some students even disagreed with it.

Board member Anne-Marie Lemieux disagreed.

“I spoke to really every one of those over 100 students that were in attendance,” she said. “They absolutely were not there at the direction of anyone except themselves and the concern over the loss of their teachers.”

More than 1,500 people also signed a student-initiated change.org petition in support of the student protest.

“We can talk about numbers and we can talk about partially effective and highly effective and who’s leaving and who’s not leaving, but these are human beings and these are the people who are having a huge impact on our kids,” board member Wendy Vogel said. “We have to honor that. We have to listen to that. It’s a big deal.”

Lemieux, Vogel and board member David Ray, a former principal in the district, were elected last November. The campaign symbolized the opposition to the school district’s reform policies of the past several years and ousted incumbents Kevin Larsen, Craig Richardson and Richard Robbins. Each challenger won with at least 58 percent of the vote.

Board member Doug Benevento, however, echoed Geddes’ sentiment that opposition to district policies is political.

“Frankly, there are those who like to point out the negative in the district and never acknowledge anything good,” Benevento said. “They never acknowledge our accredited with distinction. They never acknowledge the fact that we are keeping our highest quality teachers, as we determine them to be. They never acknowledge the explosion in the AP exam participation we are having because there is, for some, a political agenda that is trying to tear the district apart.”

Comments

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CodeUAF

Bravo to the teachers who were able to leave the district for speaking out on the issue the school board majority continues to slight. With every quote from teachers who have departed for MUCH greener pastures, I found myself nodding my head in admiration and envy.

I only ask one thing of the journalist Mr.DiFerdinando. I am a journalist as well, so my advice is valid. With each education article you do on DCSD, you end with a quote from a majority board member who continues to refuse to see that DCSD has become a poisonous work environment due to HIS making. You know very well, as I do, as taught in "journalist school", what you end an article with is what sticks with people, and at last count EVERY article you have thusfar done on the district has ended the exact same way. You must be fair and impartial, and the next five times (at least) conclude with a quote from an actual employee who is truly suffering from the misguided and foolish decisions polluting this district.

Unless, of course, you feel as every DougCo teacher does that somehow, if you speak the truth or reflect poorly on the district, your job is somehow in jeopardy?

| Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Report this
Pattimom

And of course Mr. Benevento and Mr. Geddes choose to blame the political agenda they believe that 'some' people have. Well, indeed, they are the ones that brought the political and corporate climate into the schools. Two ideologies that do not belong in the public school system. Shame on them for continuing to spin and not acknowledge the turnover issue that we are facing. Teachers are leaving due to the lack of respect for what they do day in and day out. I would challenge these board members any day to spend 1 full week in a classroom and just observe what goes on everyday. I seriously think they wouldn't last a day.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Report this
MominColorado

We've lived in Douglas County since 1999, and moved here specifically for the schools. One of my daughters graduated from Ponderosa High School last year (GO PONDO!!), and the other is in 8th grade at Sagewood Middle School. I also worked as an Educational Assistant for 4 years in DCSD, and have volunteered (sometimes as much as 30 hours a week) since 2002.

If anyone, current board member, DCSD employee, parent, or community member, can answer a question for me, that'd be helpful. Can you explain why at my girl's former elementary school, the turnover rate has been slightly higher? Since my oldest began school there in 2005, the turnover has been approximately 66%. (I just counted; 36 out of 54 district positions at that school have been filled with new staff members, some positions having been filled two or three different times, since 2005) How is this possible if there's no issue with high DCSD employee turnover? Oh, and this isn't just teachers, it's support staff, the principal, asst. principal, office staff, pretty much every area of the school has been affected. If there's not a problem, please explain this aberration.

Also, before you jump in with, "Oh, this school is an outlier. Most schools haven't had these issues", I can promise you , there are schools upon schools in DCSD with the same, if not worse turnover rates. How sad that my kids will never be able to visit their old school and see their former teachers. With a few exceptions, not a single one will be there. Oh well, chalk one up for corporate education reform.

P.S. A little off topic, I worked in Mr. Mark Phillips classroom a few years back (see sidebar where former DCSD teachers are quoted). He was one of the best teachers I've ever worked with. He made those kids excited to come to class every day, interested in learning new concepts, and you could tell he genuinely enjoyed his job. I'm sorry to see that he retired, because there are so many kids in our district who could have benefited from his HIGHLY EFFECTIVE teaching.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Report this
Niall8or

This, and most other articles out there seem biased to me. As a journalist CodeUAF, you must also know that many readers only read the headline and maybe the first few paragraphs. The last paragraph can be just lip service to say they covered the opposing view. Why are there no interviews with teachers who agree with the changes? Great teachers who were sick of poor performing teachers getting the same raise as them? Yes, they are out there, but one would never know by reading what the press puts out there.

For those of us who want the best for our children, why aren't we celebrating a system that can now get rid of poor quality teachers instead of rewarding them the same as the best of the best?

Change can be difficult, and we see that here in this situation, but without change we can never grow.

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Report this
3@DCSD

Mr Geddes: The "agenda going on" is simple: Teachers, students and parents want students of DCSD to have a quality educational experience.

Majority don't want to follow a business model thrown at them by District members who lack business acumen.

Quality is adherence to exact specifications. Those specifications and goals were in place at DCSD until the REFORM Agenda pushed different.

Believe what you say, but that is NOT what the majority of teachers, parents, and students want in DCSD. Just ask....oh wait, you don't want to!

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Report this
wmeds

The News-Press has clearly gone all in in support of one side of this issue. This 'story' and the related stories about individual teachers leaving should be on an editorial page, not masquerading as 'journalism'. As Niall8or commented above, where's the balance?

In 2008 87.5% of the teachers remained and this past year 83.3% remained. And yet this story - and the profile stories - concentrate on a small fraction of the 16.7% that have left. Further, two out of the three profiled teachers are not even teaching in the American public school system. Are we honestly expected to believe, for example, that the policy decisions of the Douglas County School Board are the main reason that Ms. Bleess chose to pack up and teach in Albania? Or that Ms. Wessel's primary beef is with the Board and not public school teaching in general?

As Niall8or asked, what about those that have stayed? Do those remaining look longingly on those who left as escapees from Prison Douglas County? Could one perhaps find three teachers with positive feelings to profile? The tone of the article would lead one to believe they don't exist - but common sense would suggest that with 83.3% retention there must be at least three.

Further what about those that have left because they were rated poorly and were not scheduled to receive the pay raises that better performing teachers received? Sure privacy issues might make an analysis of such teachers difficult but what about some actual investigative journalism?

Finally, since this is obviously a highly politicized issue how about identifying party affiliation? We know that the Board is majority Republican. But what about the opposition? Majority Democrat? Likely. What about the organization and funding of the opposition? Is that all coming from inside Douglas County, or are outside parties getting involved (see voucher program for example)? That would probably make for an interesting story.

Come on News-Press, you want to dive into a highly charged political issue at least cover it in a more balanced fashion. Perhaps even do a little sleuthing and provide your readers with some true investigative journalism.

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Report this
DougcoTeacher

Wmeds, some of your questions can be answered simply by looking at public election information. The reform "opposition" is made up of people from all political affiliations, not primarily one or another. The three new directors reflect that makeup, one is a Republican, one is a Democrat, and one is unaffiliated.

Campaign funding information can be found on the Colorado Secretary of State website, where it can easily be seen that the new directors are funded via a large number of small contributions from average community members across Douglas County. The outside funding you're so concerned about supported the reform incumbents. Not only the three that just lost their bid for reelection, but the four that remain in office after being elected in 2013, were funded by huge donations from a few wealthy privatization proponents from outside of Douglas County, with only small amounts contributed by average community members.

As far as interviewing teachers who support the districts privatization efforts, they could have easily contacted the journalist to tell their side, if there are any. I saw a call for teachers to be interviewed on a public website frequented by teachers in the district, it's not the reporters fault that no supporters decided to contact him. I talk to a lot of teachers and I know many who put on a happy face and tell people everything is fine, because they're professionals and they want to shield their students from the dysfunction. But I don't know a single teacher who actually supports what is happening. Likewise, it's doubtful there are any teachers who left because they got a smaller raise than those rated higher because the difference in those raises is only $200 or $300 a year.

You're clearly buying the spin the district puts out. Thank you to this journalist for reporting the teachers perspective.

| Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Report this
wmeds1

DougcoTeacher, you clearly missed many of the points I was trying to make. In particular, I asked that the News-Press actually engage in some investigative journalism. Your helpful information as to where much of the missing factual information can be found only reinforces the point that the News-Press is presenting a lazy, biased side of the story.

And to suggest that it is the responsibility of the parties to an issue to contact the 'reporter' is simply laughable. Maybe it's better to be a Colorado Community Media regular like Ms. Bleess who was interviewed by Ann Macari Healey in 2014 about her upcoming move to Albania. Nothing then about the horribad atmosphere at Castle View. Why were she and her husband going to leave for Europe? "We just wanted a new adventure," Cristin said.

The point is the News-Press is spoon feeding us a healthy serving of facts, opinion and emotion supporting one side of the story while (conveniently?) omitting other facts, opinion and, yes, emotion which might support the other side. If I have to find that information on my own that makes this piece editorial opinion, not news.

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Report this
John

Thank you, Mr. DiFerdinando, for sharing the plight of teachers in Douglas County Schools. Too often when someone hears of the concerns within the district, some are quick to say the voices are invalid or the reporter has a difficult time doing his/her job. I applaud Mr. DiFerdinando in writing a comprehensive piece showing the real people impacted by the rough shod decisions of the reform school board.

It is equally concerning that some board members and the superintendent are oblivious to the people they represent. The people responsible for teaching our children should be treated with respect and support, not fear, intimidation, and put downs. As adults, and adults in the capacity of a school board or upper administration, it is time for them to treat people with respect. Our community schools are in grave need of support from upper administration and the reform board, as can be read from the article.

It is one thing to disagree with a practice or concept within education, but as adults, we need to be able to have conversations about the issues. Carte Blanche comments similar to what Director Geddes stated re: a political agenda are confusing as he was found using the republican logo on his "non-partisan" election posters and other comments in the newspaper wanting people of a certain mindset to be teaching children. The referenced type of person he wants is from Hillsdale College...

Let's remove the political actions of the reform board and bring a level minded modicum to the running of Douglas County Schools.

Keep up the good reporting. Our entire community needs to hear the truth, not the spin.

Friday, April 1, 2016 | Report this