Wednesday, April 11, 2012

TOP STORY >> Turnover at charter schools is a concern

Leader staff writer

High teacher turnover that surpasses other schools and frequent changes in leadership could be a factor in the sluggish test scores of Lighthouse charter schools in Jacksonville.

The campus at 251 N. First St. has seen three principals in the three years since it opened in 2009.

Phillis Nichols Anderson, Lighthouse Academies vice president for the southern region, said 14 out of the 25 teachers employed at the Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy campus have been employed for one year or longer. That means 11 — about 44 percent — Lighthouse teachers left the charter school after one year.

“We anticipate less than 5 percent change in our teaching staff for next year and no changes in leadership,” Anderson said.

How does that compare with the Pulaski County Special School District and the Cabot School District?

According Deb Roush, spokeswoman for PCSSD, 24 out of the 391 teachers employed at schools in Jacksonville are leaving this year. That number does not include teachers who are retiring. That’s a shift of about 6 percent.

Dr. Tony Thurman, superintendent for the Cabot School District, said, “We have slightly over 750 certified staff in the district, not considering those who retire each year. I’m estimating based on looking through our personnel information for the past few years that we average eight resignations per year.”

That’s a loss of about 1 percent for the Cabot School District.

“We primarily lose staff for three reasons,” he continued. “A spouse has been transferred to a new location, they have recently had a child and decide to stay home for a few years, or they are getting married and moving to a new location.

“There have been years when we’ve added many more staff, but this is due to increasing enrollment and the hiring of what we consider ‘growth’ or new positions,” Thurman added.

Three of the teachers who stayed at Lighthouse helped found the school and were promoted to principals, Anderson said.

“I would say that relocation is a big part of our turnover. About 90 percent is due to relocation out of the area,” she said.

Anderson said Lighthouse educators have a longer day than other public schools. They work eight-hour shifts and 10 additional days a year.

“This may not be appealing to some educators. But we know that more time on instruction is what our scholars need to move forward, and that’s what we give them. We are constantly looking for educators who share a passion for what we do.

“It’s not a good fit for everyone, but we do provide 160 hours of professional development as opposed to the 60 hours district schools provide and the state requires. Our teachers are well prepared and do have the opportunity to earn merit pay based on student growth each year. We are giving around $18,000 in teacher bonuses this year.

“So, our teachers understand that to accelerate student achievement, they can’t do the same thing that other schools are doing. We have to do more,” she said.

One advantage charter schools have is the ability to hire staff members who have expertise in their fields, but haven’t been certified or don’t have previous experience with teaching. They tend to be younger than public school teachers.

Mike Wilson, a financial supporter of Lighthouse, said, “My observation has been that they’re bright, young highly-interested teachers. They get promoted. Some of them get burned out. Some find out that the rigorous methods don’t suit them. Young teachers just don’t last too long. They may find out that they’re not cut out for it. Lighthouse demands more from their teachers and that could be a reason (for the turnover).”

Most of the charter schools’ Benchmark test scores have gone up since 2010, but not by much, and Lighthouse isn’t doing much better than the Pulaski County Special School District.

If the faculty-turnover rate is too high, students may become distracted from the learning process and test scores can suffer.

In 2011, 86 percent of Lighthouse third-graders scored proficient or advanced in math and 78 percent did so in literacy. That is a 6 percent increase in math and an 8 percent increase in literacy from the previous school year.

While 82 percent of fourth-graders earned proficient or better in math, an increase of 12 percent from 2010, the number of students doing the same in literacy dropped from 72 percent for 2010 to 70 percent in 2011.

For fifth-grade, 77 percent of students made the cut in math and 75 percent scored proficient or advanced in literacy. That’s up from 65 percent for both areas in 2010.

There was a 13 percent drop in how many sixth-graders score proficient or advanced in literacy, from 67 percent in 2010 to 54 percent in 2011.

But 78 percent of sixth-graders scored proficient or advanced in math for 2011, compared to 59 percent in 2010.

In 2011, 83 percent of PCSSD’s third-graders scored proficient or advanced in math and 75 percent did the same in literacy. The charter school’s scores were only higher by 3 percent.

In fourth-grade, 80 percent made the cut in math and 83 percent did so in literacy at PCSSD schools. Lighthouse did 2 percent better in math but had 13 percent fewer students do well in literacy.

Among PCSSD fifth-graders, 73 percent scored well in math and 76 percent the same in literacy. The charter school did better by 4 percent in math, but did 1 percent worse in literacy.

Among PCSSD sixth-graders, 63 percent scored proficient or advanced in math and 59 percent did the same in literacy. Lighthouse had 15 percent more students do well in math, but 5 percent did worse in literacy.

The first principal at the Jacksonville Lighthouse School was Nigena Livingston, who had been the principal of a Lighthouse school in Cleveland, Ohio, before accepting the position at the Jacksonville school.

At the end of the 2009-10 school year, she moved back to Ohio because she was planning to marry and her fiancé lived there.

The second principal was Ryan Dean, a Harvard graduate from a military family. He previously worked at a private school in Virginia and at a charter school in Massachusetts, but had relatives living in Arkansas.

His reason for leaving was not given.

The current principal is Norman Whitfield, a Fort Smith native who worked at Teach for America in Mississippi and was a program director for it in the Mississippi Delta.

He was hired as a first-grade teacher at Lighthouse in the second semester of the 2009-10 school and then promoted to vice principal for the upper academy.

Also, Felicia Kelly of Forrest City was hired last fall to take over as principal at the College Prep Academy, which will open in 2012-13 with the addition of a ninth-grade at the First Street campus.

A new high school building is planned for 2013-14 and the charter school will add one grade level each year until 2016, when it will graduate the first class.

Already, another principal, Chris Carter, has been selected for the position.

Anderson wouldn’t say whether Kelly was fired or quit or why she left.