Oakland Unified School District discusses strategies for teacher recruitment and retention

Superintendent Antwan Wilson presents to a group of parents, teachers and administrators at the West Oakland Middle School library.

Superintendent Antwan Wilson presents to a group of parents, teachers and administrators at the West Oakland Middle School library.

At the superintendent-parent forum on Saturday morning, parents, teachers and district officials gathered at West Oakland Middle School to discuss new changes for teacher recruitment and retention strategies in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).

The forums are a new addition this year, requested by Superintendent Antwan Wilson and modeled after a series he implemented in Denver public schools. Each forum covers a different topic, and is a chance for parents, teachers and administrators to discuss new policies in an intimate setting. The forums rotate amongst the different school board districts.

“It’s a way to make the work of the district more transparent and also for the district to be informed by the community,” said Liz Sullivan, the director of community engagement for OUSD.

After introductions, the agenda overview and jokes about how the front row in the library was as vacant as a college lecture hall, the forum’s emcee, Charles Cole III, passed the microphone to Wilson, who shared the district’s larger vision regarding parental involvement and how to make progress in three priority areas by the school year 2020-2021: recruiting and training quality teachers, keeping the school district financially accountable, and ensuring that all schools are high-caliber. He said that the district had settled on salary increases with all seven of the school district’s labor unions.

“I feel really proud about that,” said Wilson. “Because some folks will look at that and say, ‘Well, there’s the recession.’ And I always say, ‘Well, our increases predate the recession. It’s more than anyone gave before the recession.’”

He added that district finances were better than they had been for several years. “Coming in, I didn’t anticipate when I came to the district that we would be dealing with finances from ’07 and ’08,” said Wilson. But by the end of the school year, the district will be caught up on audits, he added.

His announcements were met with applause from the audience.

But much work remains for academic achievement, Wilson warned, a red slide appearing on his PowerPoint presentation to reflect the gravitas of his reality check.

“Imagine 10 students entering ninth grade in Oakland,” he said. “Six of them—this is looking at current data—graduate from high school. Three of them will go to college, because 50 percent of all graduates in Oakland go to college. And then one of them is graduating.”

Chief Talent Officer Brigitte Marshall followed Wilson’s presentation with a more zeroed-in look at the heart of the meeting: teacher recruitment and retention. There has been a nationwide teacher shortage since the recession hit, she said. During the recession, schools reduced the number of teaching positions available, thus reducing the number of people going into education. Now schools are trying to revitalize the teaching profession and bring people back to the classroom. The district has to both compete for the limited supply of credentialed teachers and “grow its own talent pipeline,” she added.

In order to be attractive for teachers, she said, the district needs to provide adequate compensation, and teachers need to be able to find housing, have career pathway options and be engaged in their work.

“You heard our superintendent make reference to the recent agreement with our teachers here that resulted in almost a 15 percent salary increase to our teachers,” said Marshall. “That was no easy feat, but, candidly, it’s nowhere near as much as they deserve.”

According to Great Oakland (GO) Public Schools, a politically active nonprofit that informs the community about educational policy, Oakland Unified has had one of the lowest regional salaries in the last few years. In 2014-2015, an Oakland teacher’s starting salary was $40,245, just above the salary in Emery Unified, and about $8,000 less than the Alameda County average of $48,758. Maximum salaries were even more disparate, with Oakland Unified’s maximum pay being $72,353, compared to a county average of $89,681. But when benefits were accounted for, Oakland closed the gap, particularly in terms of starting salaries, though the district was still under the county average.

This pay disparity has made it difficult for the district to attract and retain teachers. Currently, Marshall added, the district could not “commit to pay our teachers more than we can responsibly afford to pay, given the reality of our financial situation and structure,” but OUSD’s ultimate goal is to be one of the highest-paying districts in the Bay Area.

Affording housing in the Bay Area also proves to be difficult for teachers. “Only 50 percent of our teachers live in the city of Oakland,” Marshall said. She said district officials are speaking to city officials about this challenge right now.

One focus of the district’s teacher search is “growing its own talent pool,” a phrase used often by district officials, including Marshall. In order to fill positions, the district will be looking to other community members and educators, including those in after-school programs or assistant teacher positions within the district, to find credentialing pathways for them. The administrators were especially hopeful that this strategy would help bring a greater diversity to the teacher pool, and fill the need for bilingual educators.

For example, “we have a number of individuals who are para-educators,” said Marshall. “They work in support of our special education program. Many of those individuals demonstrate really strong skills in being able to work effectively with our children. They don’t have a teaching credential. They may find it challenging to get through the various testing requirements in order to get a teaching credential. But they are demonstrating commitment to our kids, and the ability to work very well with our kids. So we are going to help them get a credential.”

Marshall said more experienced teachers often advance in the education world by taking an administrative position in their district, meaning good teachers leave the classroom. “If you’re an excellent teacher, we want to keep you engaged with our kids, but we want to provide opportunities for you to add interesting things to your resume,” said Marshall. The final component of OUSD’s competitive push will be ensuring that teachers feel engaged in improving the school district, she said.

She closed by asking all audience members present to help recruit teachers through word of mouth.

The forum then transitioned to small group discussions, with translators stationed where they were needed. Wilson circulated unobtrusively, listening at each cluster as parents and teachers voiced suggestions and concerns. In the “recruitment and retention group,” led by the talent development associates Sarah Glasband and Soo Hyun Han, many parents expressed concerns about teacher vacancies that sometimes lasted for months at a time. A few parents said they had seen third or fifth graders put in kindergarten classrooms for the day, because there was nowhere else for them to go. All concerns were written up on chart paper for the facilitators to respond to in a lightning round at the session’s conclusion.

At 11:45 a.m., as the group reunited before the forum’s closing, Sabrina Moore, a teacher from Teach Tomorrow in Oakland (TTO), an organization that recruits local, diverse teachers to commit to remaining in Oakland schools for at least five years, stood up to speak, reminding others with a teacher’s authority to remain seated until the meeting was over.

Teacher recruitment isn’t just the work of the Talent Division, Moore said. “You have to be the voice,” she told the audience.

As a final, sobering message, the presenters put up a slide with California’s per pupil state funding, and compared it to the rest of the United States. California was in 46th place at $8,308 per pupil per year, paying 71 percent of the national average. By comparison, Vermont, the leading state, was paying $18,882 per pupil per year, or 161 percent of the national average.

Sparse funding affects the district’s ability to recruit and retain teachers, and to provide all the services that Oakland children deserve, said Wilson. “California would rank amongst the top 10 in nations around the world in the amount of wealth that exists here,” he said. “So for the state to fund education, where it comes in 46th in states in this country, is egregious.”

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