More teachers leaving Lafayette schools; reason in dispute

More teachers have resigned from their jobs in Lafayette Parish public school classrooms in the past two years than have resigned in any comparable period in recent history, records show.

But the reason for it is in dispute.

A teacher union representative says an unpopular teacher evaluation system and state-mandated policy changes are prompting more teachers to resign, but school system administrators say teachers are citing other reasons for leaving.

According to data compiled by the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, a total of 343 teachers resigned between January 2012 and December 2013. That compares to 225 resignations in the three-year period between January 2009 and December 2011.

Rodolfo Espinoza, a Lafayette High School teacher and president of the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, said the growing number of resignations is cause for alarm and signals a crisis in the parish school system.

Espinoza contends that more teachers are leaving because they are unhappy with the new COMPASS teacher evaluation system, overtesting of students and what he described as the ill-planned implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

“The increases coincide with the policy changes,” Espinoza said.

Superintendent Pat Cooper said he doesn’t dispute the accuracy of the number of resignations and retirements reported by the association.

However, Cooper said policy changes aren’t driving the numbers up, based on the reasons teachers have given the school system for leaving.

In the 2012-13 school year, the district started asking teachers to report their reasons for resigning. Cooper said the majority last year and continuing this year “are not saying it’s bureaucracy or the evaluations or COMPASS or Common Core.”

In the 2012-13 school year, and as of Dec. 31 in the current school year, the top three reasons teachers gave for resigning were family care/personal issues, relocation due to a spouse’s job and to go work for another school system.

Other reasons reported included: accepting a better-paying job, work pressure, professional growth or pay, personal health, continuing education, career change out of teaching, the commute and joining the military.

While teachers may be frustrated by mandated state policies, Cooper said, there are reasons for the policy changes.

“Louisiana’s been last in the country for the last decade,” Cooper said. “We can’t expect to do the same things and expect to get better. I do think there is some value to COMPASS and the Core Standards that we need to recognize.”

Cooper said the district has been able to fill positions left vacant by resignations. However, the district routinely has a few positions open in hard-to-fill jobs in science, math and special education, according to Bruce Leininger, human resources director.

Leininger said the district has had at least two positions — one in math and the other in science — open since December.

Leininger said the district has a human resources task force that will more closely examine teacher retention issues this spring and summer.

“I want to focus on teacher turnover,” he said. “I want to drill down into why teachers are leaving.”

The state collects teacher exit survey reports from school districts. A total of 6,083 teachers retired or resigned from Louisiana public school systems in the 2012-13 school year, based on the most recent Louisiana Department of Education exit survey report available. Of the 6,083 departures, 2,121 were retirements.

The top reasons for resignations were: transfers to other school districts in Louisiana (1,254 teachers or 21 percent); personal reasons (788 teachers or 13 percent); and family relocation (438 teachers or 7 percent), based on the report. At least 62 teachers, or 1 percent, reported their resignation was due to dissatisfaction with the school district or school climate, based on the report.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White, in a written statement issued through a department spokesman, said retirement numbers are steady.

“Data reported by the Lafayette Parish School Board indicate that exiting teachers in Lafayette leave their jobs due to retirement at a rate of 49 percent annually,” White said. “The statewide rate is 35 percent annually, and that has not changed over time. Reports to the contrary are inaccurate.”

One teacher who resigned from the Lafayette Parish School System in December, Craig Wall, was the region’s finalist two years ago for the state’s high school teacher of the year.

Wall said his decision to leave Northside High School, where he taught history and was a speech and debate coach, was made easier in light of recent laws and policies changing the landscape of public education in Louisiana.

He specifically cited the way teachers are evaluated, through a model weighed equally on administrator observations of two classroom visits and student performance based on pre- and post-tests given to students.

Wall now works for Teurlings Catholic High School.

“There are instances of students scoring better on pre-test than the post-test,” Wall said. “I don’t care how bad of a teacher you are, you’re not going to make a student less intelligent. Come see my classroom. Walk in any time. Evaluate me seven days out of the week. Just make it fair.”

Stories like Wall’s are becoming too common, Espinoza said.

“The state reform policies is the main reason we’re hearing why people are leaving,” Espinoza said.

This legislative session, lawmakers will consider pieces of legislation that run the gamut of either tweaking or killing some of the education laws and policies.

Espinoza and other teachers say the policies need to be changed.

“We hope that our legislators decide to repair the changes that are causing a teacher exodus in our parish and across the state,” Espinoza said. “I don’t doubt the Legislature had good intentions, but these policies are a failure. Include educators in discussions to fix these problems.”

Other frustrations have prompted veteran teachers like Jennifer Guillory to file her retirement papers a few years early.

The seventh-grade Edgar Martin Middle School math teacher retires in May after 26 years — about two years earlier than scheduled.

She said the disorganized implementation of a new math curriculum to comply with the Common Core Standards is her primary reason for moving up her retirement plans. She also regrets that her classroom has become more of a testing center than a place of creative learning.

“I’m spending way too many days testing instead of teaching,” she said. “It’s like that old farmer saying, ‘Weighing a cow does not make it heavier.’ All this data we’re collecting is not making our children smarter.”

Like Guillory, Eric Whitmore plans to retire in May after 20 years as a teacher at Lafayette High School. And, like Wall, he hopes to continue teaching in either a private or parochial school.

Whitmore said he doesn’t recognize the profession he entered 20 years ago.

“I don’t agree with the direction the state and the parish are going,” Whitmore said. “Teachers reach a breaking point and they resign and retire. I never envisioned retiring at 20 years. I love this profession. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. I just can’t do it anymore, not in the public system.”

He said he doesn’t regret his time in the parish, but it’s time to move on.

Cooper said while he’s concerned about the number of teachers leaving the district, he doesn’t have control over state mandates.

“We’re competing against a lot of obstacles here. I think the only way we’re going to make headway is to make it so the classroom is better,” he said.