As the school year begins, Oakland faces low teacher retention rates

Students Alana Rust and Robert Green share their experiences with how teacher turnover affected their education. (Photo by Mickey Capper)

Students Alana Rust and Robert Green share their experiences with how teacher turnover affected their education. (Photo by Mickey Capper)

On Thursday evening, teachers, students and district officials gathered to learn more about teacher and staff turnover in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and discuss strategies to improve retention rates.

The committee—formally known as the Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality—was formed to make recommendations to the full school board about how to address the targeted $30 million in budget cuts this year. Each week the committee will address a different issue affecting the budget deficit.

School Board Director Shanthi Gonzalez (District 6) began the meeting by addressing the effect of high turnover rates. “We know that it’s costly,” she said, “but we actually don’t know what it costs us. We don’t know what it costs us in terms of resources, but we also don’t know what it costs us in terms of student achievement.” Gonzalez said the meeting was intended to begin the process of better understanding that effect through both hard data and testimonials about experiences from teachers and students.

Staff from the district’s talent division, which is responsible for recruiting, hiring, and supporting all OUSD staff, delivered a data presentation that offered a stark portrait of teacher turnover: The district has had an 18.5 percent teacher attrition rate over the last 11 years. That’s higher than both the national average (10 percent) and national average in urban districts (15 percent). Over the last few years, the problem has only worsened, with the attrition rate dipping down to 22.2 percent in 2016-17.

Based on this data and responses from a teacher and staff survey, the division staff keyed in on the importance of recruiting, supporting, and retaining teachers with ties to Oakland. According to Deputy Chief of Talent Tara Gard, “We know that when you live in Oakland, you go to school in Oakland, you then work in Oakland, there’s a likelihood that you’ll stay here longer.”

To address that, they proposed a “Grow Our Own” strategy that would focus on providing support and mentorship to new teachers, creating new pathways to becoming teachers, and designating funds to help new teachers cover expenses related to the certification process. The estimated budget to run these programs district-wide is $4.25 million.

Director Gonzalez expressed her support for the proposal, saying, “I see this as the biggest issue facing our district besides keeping local control of our district.” But she also pointed out that this proposal does not even include the cost of a salary raise for teachers. The Oakland Education Association (OEA), which represents Oakland teachers, and the district are currently in mediation on a contract. This school year is the second in a row without a contract in place for Oakland teachers.

During public comment in response to the presentation, teachers and members of the public expressed concerns that the district staff and school board members were missing the point. Megan Bumpus, a science teacher at REACH Academy who was wearing an Oakland Education Association t-shirt, questioned why teacher salary seemed to be an afterthought in the presentation and subsequent discussion, even though it topped the list on the district’s survey for why teachers considered leaving.

Mike Hutchison, a lifelong Oakland resident and OUSD graduate, said he felt the board was talking around the problem. “We all know what the issue is with retention. It is the way our teachers are treated and it is the way we pay them,” he said.

The meeting then moved on to a panel featuring testimony from teachers and students about how turnover had negatively affected their experiences in the district. Chaz Garcia, who’s been teaching here for the last 23 years, said that relationships between teachers and principals, along with the culture set at the top by school leadership, play a critical role in shaping how teachers feel about their work. In her 20 years at one school, Garcia worked with nine different principals, each with their “new idea of how a school should be run, new systems, new routines,” she said, which created constant disruptions and fractures in relationships. These disruptions, coupled with a lack of support for teachers as they learn how to “cultivate positive relationships,” she said, “ultimately weighs on our students.”

Alana Rust, a senior at Oakland High School who was on the panel, shared an example of how turnover affected her education. In her ninth grade Algebra I class, which serves as a foundation for all of high school math, her teacher left in the middle of the year and she had a new sub every day, she said. “This was extremely hard for me as a student, because I’m a ninth grader in high school—I can’t teach math. I’m not qualified to teach math,” Rust said.

During the panel, the issue of teacher salaries was raised again. According to Gard, starting teacher salaries in the OUSD are in the middle when compared to other districts in Alameda County. For a teacher with no experience, the starting salary is $46,570. For a teacher with 10 years of experience, the salary is $60,570, and if they have enough college credit, their salary rises to $64,123. But, the opportunity for salary increases is slower as teachers gain more experience and tops out at a maximum salary of $83,723 for its most experienced teachers, the second lowest in Alameda County.

The data and survey also showed that cost of living was a major factor that pushed teachers to leave the district. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland is $1,805 a month with rents still expected to rise, according to Apartment List, a company that tracks and lists rentals in over 40 U.S. cities.

Phalina Armstrong, a special education teacher at Westlake Middle School, commutes to work every day because she can’t afford Oakland rental rates. “Even though I was born and raised here, I can’t live here. And I wonder every day, how much longer can I do this,” she said. “This is my home. I don’t want to leave it.”

In response to the panel discussion, board members did note the importance of raising teacher salary. Board Director James Harris (District 7) commented that a majority of the revenue in the district over the last few years went to teacher and staff salary increases, but, he said, “It’s just not enough.”

After the meeting, Rust and fellow student Robert Green, a senior at Mount Eden High School in Hayward, who were on the panel, said they were excited about the board giving them an opportunity to speak. “I feel valued as a student that really doesn’t have the space to actually talk about my ideas,” Green said. “So, I felt empowered and inspired.”

But science teacher Bumpus left feeling that the main reasons the district has a turnover problem are still being overlooked by the district. “I just didn’t hear enough about improving the quality of our experience and the working conditions, and you know, giving us a fair contract so that we can actually live here,” she said. “I feel like so many teachers are living paycheck to paycheck, and that’s something that needs to be dealt with.”

One Comment

  1. Eve Isbell

    Thank you for all involved in this. We are new to OUSD but want to see every area thriving!
    I wonder what more I can do.. as a parent.
    Thanks to all-
    And yet, I wonder, why the cuts? I see overcrowded schools and now at Chabot a mixed class- 4 and 5th. That doesn’t seem to benefit anyone.

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