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.”