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The Exodus

Teachers flee Char-Meck high schools

Call it the exodus. State numbers released two weeks ago show that teachers are fleeing Charlotte-Mecklenburg's high schools in increasing numbers. Teacher turnover rates, or the percentage of teachers who leave their jobs each year, increased at 14 of the county's 17 high schools last year. The number of teachers leaving the system stayed the same at two other high schools and decreased at only one. Six high schools had teacher turnover rates of 30 percent or higher.

Sadly enough, the schools with the highest number of poor and minority students, called equity schools, seem to be the hardest hit. Despite programs that give bonuses to teachers who teach in equity schools if their students reach certain goals, all six equity high schools saw increases in teacher turnover rates. Of the five high schools in the system that lost the greatest number of teachers, four were equity schools. They include E.E. Waddell, Garinger, Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology and West Mecklenburg.

But the problem wasn't just confined to equity schools. All but five of the system's high schools posted higher teacher turnover rates than the statewide 20 percent average.

Even suburban schools struggled to hold on to their teachers. Myers Park High School lost 21 percent of its teachers, up from 17 percent the year before. Providence High School's turnover rate grew from 14 to 18 percent.

"It's a tough job no matter where you teach," said one teacher who currently works at West Mecklenburg and says she's committed to staying there. She has watched a lot of her colleagues leave over the years.

"It's easier to get the bonuses in schools where kids are prepared to learn, so teachers leave [for those]," she stated. "It's easier there, but not as easy as it used to be."

Teacher turnover numbers aren't just important because they reflect teacher satisfaction with how the system is run -- they have a direct impact on the quality of education children receive, because when experienced teachers depart, they're often replaced with younger, less experienced ones.

"So consequently, if you've got schools that have a disproportionate number of beginning teachers, you would expect those schools to have lower rates of gain than schools that have a smaller percentage of beginning teachers," offered education researcher William L. Sanders, a Senior Research Fellow with the University of North Carolina system.

It's a problem Creative Loafing has been tracking since this spring, when we published a study of the system's schools that showed that the number of teachers with less than four years experience who taught in schools with high minority or poverty levels was almost twice that at suburban schools with large white populations. (See "Flawed Priorities," CL, April 28.)

Though the system is struggling to retain teachers at the middle school level as well, things aren't quite as dire. Teacher turnover rates increased at 14 of the system's 30 middle schools and decreased at 13 of them. But again, equity schools seem to be the hardest hit on average. Of the 17 middle schools with teacher turnover rates higher than the state average of 29 percent, 11 are equity schools. Some 47 percent of the system's middle schools have teacher turnover rates of 30 percent or higher.

Teacher retention at the elementary school level actually seems to be improving somewhat. Though the teacher turnover rate increased at 33 of the county's elementary schools last year, it decreased at 42 of them.

But again, equity schools were the hardest hit. Half of the 51 schools with turnover rates higher than the state average of 20 percent were equity schools. Of the 31 equity elementary schools in the system, 19 had teacher turnover rates higher than 24 percent, the average turnover rate for elementaries in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system.

Overall, CMS' average teacher turnover rates were higher than those posted by the rest of the school systems in the state.

Part of the problem may be that students are literally getting harder to teach. Much of the explosive growth in the student population in recent years -- school enrollment grew from about 103,000 in 1999 to an expected 118,464 this year -- has been among groups of children who struggle, including poor students and those who aren't fully fluent in English. They cost more to educate, system leaders say, and make teachers' jobs harder.

School board member Larry Gauvreau, a frequent critic of the current school leadership, says the public should know that some teachers leave the system for other reasons besides dissatisfaction with their jobs.

It's a female-dominated profession, he says, and when their husbands leave to take other jobs, they go, too, which contributes to the problem.

But that doesn't explain why the system has higher turnover rates, he says.

"It's still much, much higher than most areas of North Carolina and most areas of the country," said Gauvreau. "It's because of the culture of our school system. We have not created a culture where we decentralize and allow some sort of power down at the schoolhouse level. We also have a tolerance for the high level of school violence. Teachers aren't going to put up with it. That's the real reason why there's such a higher than average turnover in the teaching ranks."

It's a problem of which CMS administrators appear to be cognizant. Earlier this year, they launched a non-profit charity called the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools Foundation. Its goals include funding the expansion of the system's teacher mentor program and providing incentives to entice teachers to work in the system's most troubled schools.

CMS administrators also recently announced that they'd be asking state lawmakers for funds to help recruit and keep good teachers. They want the state to consider everything from increasing teacher salaries and recruiting to retention bonuses and tax credits for teachers.

But how far they'll get in the state legislature with their requests is unclear, particularly after a controversial memo sent to the school system earlier this month by Judge Howard Manning. Manning is a school funding advocate who believes the state has under-funded struggling school systems and has ordered the state to increase funding in legal rulings.

In the memo, Manning said that 10 out of 15 high schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system are posting test scores below 70 percent despite what he considers high levels of funding.

"The level of academic performance in these high schools is below par, to put it mildly," Manning wrote. "This below par performance is especially troubling in view of the amount of local spending per pupil in Mecklenburg County."

Contact Tara Servatius at

Teacher Turnover In Our High Schools
Percentage of high schools where teacher turnover
increased last year: 82%
Highest teacher turnover rate: Garinger, 40%
Lowest teacher turnover rate: Butler, 14%
Average teacher turnover at CMS high schools: 24%

Teacher Turnover By The Numbers High Schools
Average Statewide teacher turnover: 20%
Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher turnover: 24%
Middle Schools
Average Statewide teacher turnover: 23%
Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher turnover: 29%
Elementary Schools
Average Statewide teacher turnover: 20%
Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher turnover: 24%

Schools That Lost 30 Percent Or More Of Their Teachers Last Year

High Schools
E.E. Waddell * (34%)
Garinger * (40%)
Northwest (30%)
Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology * (31%)
West Mecklenburg * (31%)

Middle Schools
Albemarle Road * (30%)
Alexander Graham (30%)
Cochrane * (33%)
Coulwood * (34%)
Crestdale (32%)
Francis Bradley (32%)
J.T. Williams * (31%)
Robert F. Kennedy * (47%)
James Martin * (36%)
McClintock (39%)
Northeast (38%)
Ranson * (34%)
Wilson * (32%)

Elementary Schools
Albemarle Road * (39%)
Briarwood * (40%)
Chantilly/Billingsville (36%)
Crown Point (30%)
Hawk Ridge (43%)
Hickory Grove (31%)
Hornet's Nest (40%)
Huntingtowne Farms * (31%)
Lincoln Heights * (33%)
McKee Road (33%)
Montclaire * (40%)
Nathanial Alexander (31%)
Oakhurst (52%)
Park Road Montessori (32%)
Pawtuckett * (32%)
Reid Park * (36%)
University Park (35%)
Villa Heights (33%)
Walter G. Byers * (32%)
Westerly Hills * (30%)
Windsor Park* (31%)

(* Equity School. Equity Schools have higher percentages of minority and poor students.)

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