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Eight Forty-Eight

Hiring Practices Pay off for Local Charter

Teachers working at charter schools typically work longer hours than teachers in regular public schools. And they often do it for less pay. So maybe it's no surprise that some national studies find Charter school teachers leave their schools at a higher rate than other public school teachers. But at one of Chicago's largest charter school networks, teacher turnover—which can hurt schools--doesn't seem to be a problem.

Most people don't get into teaching for the money. But at least there's job security, right? 

METZ: Everyone is touchable here at Noble. That sounded creepy, but you know, everyone can be asked to not come back.

Expectations for teachers at Noble Street College Prep are clear. Show up for a meeting late, and you get more than just a dirty look.

FARHAN: We get mulligans for being late to meetings. Even if you're 30 seconds late, you get a mulligan. 

Get enough mulligans, and you loose bonus pay. On the other hand, get students to score well on achievement tests, and your bonus pay goes up. On average, Noble Street College Prep teachers make about 47,000 dollars a year compared to 65,000 at CPS high schools.

Science teacher Nick Caputi says he logs a lot of hours each week, although he doesn't have an exact number. 

CAPUTI: It's one of those numbers I try not to add up, ‘cause it makes me kind of sad. 

Caputi's only joking, but on some level, there's truth to what he's saying.  According to administrators here, the major reason teachers leave is because they can't handle the workload. 

Betheny Gross is from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She's keeping an eye on charter turnover across the country.

GROSS: We do see attrition rates that are higher than what you see in traditional public schools.  

Fifteen percent higher, according to one researcher. Some experts blame higher turnover on age. Charter teachers are often younger, and that comes hand in hand with mobility. At Noble Street College Prep, if you average it out, teachers are nine years younger than those at CPS high schools. 

But at Noble Street, even with this younger staff, administrators say turnover's not a problem. To get to the heart of why, you have to start at the beginning…hiring.

LERMAN: He emailed me and asked me for 10 references. Ten!

Joanne Lerman teaches history at Noble Street. 

LERMAN: For about a month, almost everyday afterschool, I knew that at around 3:30, I would get a call from Bill Olsen…

OLSEN: The way you talk about it sounds so stalker-ey. It sounds very stalking... 

Hiring is not a laughing matter for principal Bill Olsen. Olsen says one of the reasons his school has low turnover is because of its thorough hiring process. Olsen won't hire anyone unless he sees them teach a sample lesson—even if he has to fly them out for it.

It's a rigorous process, but the school routinely gets hundreds of applicants for a single opening. So why all the clamor to work here?

FARHAN: When you order books for your classes, you get them in a week here. And I think anyone that's taught in a public school system—I wouldn't need to further explain how amazing that is.

The support Asma Farhan talks about extends beyond material items for class. Teachers here say they value the opportunity to grow, have input in school decisions, and follow a clear discipline system.

Noble Street's Ellen Metz used to teach history at CPS' Farragut high school.

METZ: I could be a rock star teacher in the classroom, and there were lots of rock star teachers at Ferrigut in the classroom. But as a whole entity, if students are going to three or four rock star classes, and one or two not rock star classes, it kind of cancels out.

Metz has worked her way up to assistant principal here at Noble Street College Prep. Her fidelity is not unusual. Over 60 percent of those teaching here in 2004 still teach at one of Noble Network's seven schools. 

Chicago Public Schools was not able to provide comparable information, but a forthcoming  report from the Chicago Consortium on School Research finds that a typical CPS school looses around half of its teachers over five years.

Here at Noble Street College Prep, trying to be a rock star teacher can sometimes feel more like a balancing act than a concert, especially if you have a family, or in Farhan's case, a newborn. 

FARHAN: Well it's difficult, right? Like, I want to be great at both things. So I'd say right now, my life is high hopes, little sleep. 

What would it be like at a non-charter school?

FARHAN: I'd be getting home earlier, but I don't know if I'd be more stressed out. 

When I ask Principal Olsen about the tradeoffs of working here, he sees it differently.

OLSEN: It can start to be counterproductive if start to think about, 'Oh, I'm giving up this to be a teacher or I'm giving up that to be a teacher.' Because if you start to think that way, you might not like it so much.

But the Noble Network has a couple of other incentives up its sleeve. It's looking at ways to increase pay, and will open a daycare for staff members' children in the fall.

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