Jackson County has a teacher-turnover problem, and there’s no one reason pinpointing why.
N.C. Department of Public Instruction data shows Jackson County posted a 15.56 percent turnover rate from 2008-13. In the past five years, about one out of every six teachers working here have quit, retired, moved to another school system or been fired.
That’s the 18th highest churn among 115 public school systems in North Carolina – and it’s much more dramatic than in other mountain counties. The next closest is Madison County, which is 64th in North Carolina with an 11.47 percent turnover rate.
You have to motor some 228 miles into the Piedmont, to Thomasville City Schools, before finding a school system with worse numbers than Jackson County. Thomasville, in Davidson County, is ranked 17th in North Carolina with a 16.01 percent turnover rate.
So, what’s going on? Is it the work environment; a failure to provide local salary supplements; an aging workforce; the presence of Western Carolina University feeding bright new teachers into the system who, after gaining experience, promptly move home?
The state data indicates some of those reasons might be in play.
“This is a nurturing school system. Teachers didn’t leave because they are miserable or it’s a bad place to work,” Superintendent Mike Murray said. “This turnover-rate percentage does not accurately reflect the reality.”
The school system uses exit interviews to determine why teachers leave. Here’s the breakdown on the 43 teachers who left between March 2012 and March 2013, according to Human Resources Coordinator Lavonda Woodring:11 retired; four moved out of state; 12 moved to different school systems in this state (one is a Jackson County resident); two left because of family responsibility/child care (one has returned); one resigned because of health issues; three changed careers; two relocated with their families; one was a non-renewal/resignation; one’s interim contract ended; one moved to a non-teaching position; two accepted non-teaching positions at WCU; and three left for “other,” undisclosed reasons.
“Retirement is the direct variable that made our rate higher than it should be,” Murray said.
Removing retirements would reduce Jackson County’s turnover rate to 12.9 percent. But, that still doesn’t square the numbers, at least not completely. Other school systems are losing teachers to retirement, too. Statewide, from 2008-2013, retirement was the number two reason for teacher churn; leaving to teach elsewhere was No. 1.
Though you can’t find state data that provides the detail available locally, a category designated “turnover beyond control” in the state’s database comes close. It is made up of retirements with full benefits, health-related resignations and resignations tied to family responsibilities or family relocation.
Jackson County, with its 18th highest-in-the-state ranking, lost 37.21 percent of teachers to “turnover beyond control.”
Haywood (78th) lost 42.86 percent; Cherokee (96th) lost 60 percent; Transylvania (98th) lost 40 percent; Asheville City (104th) lost 41.86 percent and Clay (112th) lost 55.56 percent.
Meaning, retirement is not the complete answer to Jackson County’s turnover question.
Jackson County teachers – particularly those new to education – don’t seem to lack support.
“At any given time I can pick up the phone and ask questions and have immediate help,” said Pam Bryant, a first-year exceptional children’s teacher at Cullowhee Valley School. “I’d be crazy to say that more money wouldn’t be nice. But as a beginning teacher, the support I’ve had has been amazing. I love my job and I love what I do.”
Jackson County Schools has a three-year support program targeting new teachers. That’s one additional year of institutional structure than most school systems offer. Jackson County recently added the extra year because administrators noticed an exodus.
“Teachers made it through those first two years, got some work experience, and then they began to look elsewhere,” said Angie Lovedahl, who oversees the teacher support program.
First-year teachers meet monthly, second-year teachers meet quarterly and third-year teachers meet once each semester. Teachers such as Bryant get help developing strategies for classroom management. They are assigned mentors. They talk about what works in the classroom and what doesn’t work. Bryant, next year, will have a paid substitute, allowing her to visit another school and spend a half-day observing an experienced colleague.
Lovedahl said teacher consistency and longevity are necessary for a high-performing school system.
There are significant transitions when experienced teachers even change grade levels, she said, more when someone comes cold into the profession. “We’d really like to keep teachers for a long time, so they are good and confident in what they are doing,” Lovedahl said.
North Carolina doesn’t pay its teachers well.
Paying an average salary of $45,938, North Carolina is 46th lowest in the nation in teacher compensation – almost $10,000 below the national average salary of $55,418.
Teachers just starting out in North Carolina receive $30,800; it takes them 15 years to reach $40,000.
Many school systems in North Carolina – 103 of 115 – help supplement standardized salaries with local supplements. Amounts vary widely, from a low of $200 in Mitchell County to $6,031 in Wake County.
Jackson County doesn’t offer a dime. But, attributing teacher turnover to this county’s decision not to offer supplements isn’t supported by the data. There are no local supplements in Madison, ranked 64th in turnover; Swain, 83rd; Cherokee, 96th or Clay, 112th. Durham County, which boasts the state’s third-highest local supplement at $5,733 a year per teacher, has a bigger turnover problem than Jackson County: 18.20 percent – or, 10th highest in the state.
Macon County Schools Personnel Director Dan Moore said offering a local supplement does help. They give teachers there $830 extra a year.
Macon County still has difficulty competing with neighboring states such as South Carolina and Georgia, where teachers receive higher base salaries, he said. Macon County recently lost two administrators and two teachers to neighboring Rabun County, Ga.
South Carolina teachers, on average, receive $47,050 a year; Georgia teachers, $52,815.
Such significant differences likely will entice more teachers from Jackson County, too, Moore said. “I think we are all going to see a lot more transients, and people going across the state line based on better pay,” he said.
Murray noted 15 of the 43 teachers who left Jackson County Schools last year went to teach elsewhere.
Many Western Carolina University students get their first teaching jobs here in Jackson County, moving seamlessly from internships into permanent classroom positions. WCU pays Jackson County $43,000 annually to provide internships to students. Finance Officer Gwen Edwards said $147 each is given to those teachers who agree to oversee interns.
Watauga County, however, has Appalachian State University and is 77th in the state with a 10.20 percent turnover rate; Pitt County has East Carolina University and is 60th in the state with a 13.02 percent rate; Guilford County has UNC-Greensboro, Greensboro College, A&T State University and Guilford College -- and is 61st in the state with an 11.58 percent rate.
Watauga gives teachers a $2,355 a year local teaching supplement, Pitt a $2,037 supplement and Guilford a $4,912 supplement, which might be helping sway move-ins to remain stay-ins within those particular school systems.
Does it matter?
It sure looks like it.
Jackson County’s standardized test scores, released in November, came in 2 percent lower than the state average of 42.4 percent.
The 18 school districts with the highest rate of teacher turnover – including Jackson County – all scored below the state average of 44.7 percent on standardized tests.
Only three of 20 school districts that posted the lowest teacher-turnover rates scored below the state’s average on standardized tests.