June 1, 2005 - A Catalina Foothills School District governing board meeting agenda item filled a room in the high school with more than 40 parents, teachers and students, and prompted five to speak out on the topic of teacher retention, something they said was a problem.
Associate Superintendent Terry Downey gave a presentation addressing the issue, which showed a lower percentage of teacher turnover in the district than the national average.
For Adrienne Walser, no matter what the numbers say, she said she would not stay in her current teaching position.
"I wouldn't stay, I couldn't stay," Walser said as she addressed the board.
Walser is leaving her high school English teaching position after eight years to continue her education.
She told the board CFSD schools are missing a sense of community, consistency and continuity. She said she has noticed a decrease in writing skills and in the overall production level of the students, partially due to the inexperienced teachers the district keeps hiring to replace the experienced teachers, she said.
"Teachers have lost energy, passion, enthusiasm," Walser said.
The topic of teacher retention was placed on the agenda at the request of many during the public comment time at the last board meeting May 10, where more than 50 people attended to show their support for teacher Mitch Dorson, who resigned after what he said was a lack of district support.
Parent Michael Moynihan told the board he moved to the district because of its reputation, something that he said is failing.
Jen Prileson, another high school teacher, said she, too, moved to the district to raise her children. She told the board that it's easy to see the district is losing teachers, that the faces change annually in the yearbook.
Having been with the district for 14 years, she said she is the only one left from the original planning team. She said the district has lost more than 30 teachers in each area, including math and English, "a number that should trouble everybody," she said.
She asked the board to obtain a third party to interview staff members about why they are choosing to leave their positions. She said the district should focus more on "What would it take to keep you here," not "Why are you leaving."
Using graphs, pie charts and numbers to illustrate the employment changes throughout the past few years, Downey indicated turnover at CFSD is about average for school districts.
The report focused on "characteristics of teachers who are more likely to leave Catalina Foothills School District, and why they leave," according to information provided by the district.
Downey reported that the teaching profession nationally makes up 4 percent of the civilian workforce. In the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, an independent government and business research organization, the nationwide level of employee departures has averaged 11 percent a year, adding to the "large number of (employees who) flow into, between and out of schools each year," Downey reported.
According to 2001-02 data presented by Downey, the national teacher turnover rate was 16 percent, but the district's rate was only 13.25 percent.
However, at the district's high school, the turnover rate was 16.4 percent, slightly above the national average. District middle school teachers had the highest turnover, 18.4 percent, and elementary teachers fell well bellow the national average, at 5.7 percent.
"Not all employee turnover is a bad thing," Downey said, adding that limited turnover rates could benefit organizations by eliminating low-caliber performers and bringing in new ideas.
A high level of turnover does illustrate a problem, though, Downey said, and has serious consequences in a workplace with close interaction.
According to a line graph that showed the district's teacher turnover data between 1995-96 and 2003-04, the last school year that data was available, the district had the highest turnover rate in 1998-99: 18.8 percent. The data include all certified staff, such as librarians, counselors, and speech therapists, even those employed part time, Downey said.
The school year with the lowest reported turnover was in 1996-97, at 10.50 percent. The 2002-03 school year came in at 14.2 percent, and the following school year was at 14.4 percent.
Downey said the turnover is high for teachers, but it affects beginning teachers more than veteran teachers. She referred to national data showing that within five years 40 to 50 percent of all beginning teachers will leave the profession.
A rough estimate provided by the district of beginning teachers leaving within the first five years was 28 percent, Downey reported.
Training and coaching for new teachers is provided for the first three years of employment within the district, and it is designed to help the teachers "develop skills and knowledge for curriculum planning, instructional strategies, student assessment and classroom management," Downey reported.
Downey showed the board the teachers' reasons for leaving the district in 2003-04. The majority of teachers at the high school level claimed they were leaving due to moving, however only at the high school level did teachers report they were leaving due to "employment elsewhere" in the Tucson area. Only two teachers left, and leaving a job for another in town at the elementary and middle schools was not a factor, Downey said.
"The data shows no startling variation in turnover or causes of turnover between CFSD and the national data on teacher turnover," according to information provided by the district.
Dorson, an American history teacher, whose resignation was effective in May over an incident regarding a student cheating and over what he said was a lack of support, said "no one amongst you seems to have so much as paused to ask a question before making a pro forma acceptance of my resignation."
Dorson's resignation sparked much controversy within the district. About 60 students, staff members and parents threw him a support and appreciation party, saying he was their favorite teacher.
Dorson told the board "that what you should have done is treat me as a human being deserves to be treated - not with the incivility of silence, but with the respect that any teacher in my position deserved."
No board members could respond to the teachers and parents addressing them, citing the state's open meetings law, which prevents them from commenting unless the topic is on the agenda. Other than teacher retention, no other topic from the May 10 meeting, including other public comment on the resignation of Dorson, was addressed by the board.
Dorson received a standing ovation after his two minutes of addressing the board, along with shouts of "Bravo!"
Dorson sat quietly in his seat as the applause continued for at least 60 seconds.
Board President Cliff Altfeld thanked Dorson for addressing the board members with respect.
"I know the passion you feel on these issues," he said.
In other business, high school principal Wagner Van Vlack and counselor Jay Christopher made a presentation on possibly eliminating class rank from college and university scholarship programs. This was the first reading of the proposed item, and possible action could be taken at the June 14 board meeting.
The Catalina Foothills High School Curriculum and Resource Committee and its Accountability Committee are in full support of the elimination of class rank, and stated that ranking could hurt highly performing students, "actually causing our students a disadvantage," Van Vlack said.
Christopher said that, nationally there has been a movement against reporting class rank.
The board stressed concern that some students may opt to take general courses instead of advanced placement courses because they would be striving for a higher grade point average if class rank were eliminated.
Christopher said that's possible, but when faced with such situations, the schools rely on students and counselors to make the best choices for the students.
Christopher reported that the district divides students into percentiles and that the highest possible hypothetical grade point average a student could get would be about 4.31, he said. He said that number proves that class rank can hurt some students. At the high school there are 47 students with 4.0 grade point averages, he said. Students with 3.9 or 3.8 grade point averages could fall into the second or third percentiles, which could hurt their chances when they apply for admission into universities. About 90 percent of Catalina Foothills students attend universities, Christopher said.