When Jakil Hill Turner moved last year to Chicago from Tennessee, she thought she’d have to substitute teach for a few months before finding a permanent classroom of her own.
After all, it was January, typically a hard time to get a teaching job.
But someone in human resources with Chicago Public Schools saw she was veteran teacher with an excellent evaluation.
Before she knew it, she was talking to the principal of a school she knew little about. She remembers her first conversation with Jessica Biggs, the principal of Burke Elementary in Washington Park on the South Side.
“I really enjoyed listening to her speak about being rooted in a community — understanding that the school is not contained within the school, but it is much more,” Turner said. “The food pantry, the parenting classes, those are things that line up with what I believe makes a difference in a child's life.”
Turner was sold, and accepted a job teaching fifth grade at Burke.
It was a win for Turner and for the school, which struggles to get enough high-quality applicants to consider the school — a common problem for schools serving many poor children.
Turner was identified through a new Chicago Public Schools program that helps principals who are struggling to find candidates.
Some Chicago schools get six times the number of applicants as others, according to CPS. Schools like Burke often get only a handful of applicants per job.
Principal Biggs calls this “Opportunity Schools” program “transformative.”
Unprepared and overwhelmed teachers who don’t stay in the job means high-poverty schools can never get any traction, Biggs said.
“How do we, as a system, start to funnel high quality people so that school improvement can happen or can continue to happen,” Biggs said.
Human resources identified 50 Chicago public schools that consistently struggle to find good candidates and suffer from high teacher turnover. They dubbed them “opportunity schools.”
In the program’s first 18 months, CPS has placed more than 230 teachers. The program costs $300,000 to run and is paid for partly by foundation grants.
Underlying the program is the notion that teachers might come to these schools if they knew more about them, CPS officials say. Human resource recruiters play matchmaker, scouting for potential candidates and committing to hiring them, no matter the time of year and even without a specific position in mind.
CPS leaders say they are on the hunt for people driven by a sense of social justice and a desire to teach poor students. Once hired, the program provides extra supports, particularly for new teachers. In the future, CPS plans to offer stipends for teachers who take on leadership roles.
Usually, principals at Chicago’s 500-some schools fend for themselves to recruit talent. Candidates apply through a centralized process, but designate schools of interest and then the schools are on their own.
In the past, Biggs, the principal at Burke, said she has had a hard time filling not only new positions, but also ones created by staff turnover. She said she often wound up reaching out to respected colleagues begging them to send good teacher candidates her way.
Now, when CPS sends sends a candidate her way, she can hook them by selling what her school has to offer.
“Kids want to be here in this building,” Biggs said. “That doesn't mean that our students aren't also coming with some … behaviors that are the result of trauma that is in their lives. But there is a lot of joy and a lot of love between students and staff that is here.”
This is not just a Chicago problem. Other school districts have tried to draw teachers to high-need schools by offering financial incentives. But studies show that bonuses must be substantial to work.
Research also shows that teaching conditions, such as small class sizes and supports for students, are more important to teachers than money.
Chicago’s program doesn’t address any of those conditions, which could impact its success long-term.
Turner noted how difficult it is to get help for students who have experienced trauma. At her previous district in Tennessee, there was a mental health program right at her school.
“It would just seem that we have more hoops that we have to jump through to get some of the wraparound services,” she said.
But Turner said she’s been surprised by what teaching at Burke has given her. She knew about Chicago’s issues with gun violence and problems in Washington Park. At first, she worried her fifth grade students would be weatherworn and tough.
“But these kids are just as sweet as the next kids,” Turner said. “These kids are just as challenging as any other kids as well. There are a different set of issues that they deal with, but they are loving. They come ready to learn. They want a relationship. Whatever you give them, they are going to give them back.”
This was underscored when Turner was dealing with several deaths in her family. She worried she would be too emotionally spent to be available for her students. But she found her students gave her the lift she needed.
“The students were continuously pouring into me, buying me cookies … offering me words of advice,” she said. “With what little bits they had to give, they were giving it to me. And it taught me a lot and it has made me a better teacher.”