Milton Schools dealing with glut of staff turnover

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Neil Johnson
Tuesday, October 29, 2013

MILTON—At Milton Middle School, there's a new culture blooming.

The teacher's lounge is now called the family room. It's been repainted from dull maroon to bright green. On one wall hangs a “family tree” with tacked-up tidbits about the backgrounds and biographies of school staff. A sign on the door reads: “All roads meet in Milton.”

School décor might seem a small issue, but Principal Stacey Loos said it's one of the many strategies the school is trying to adapt and to create comfort and familiarity amid teacher turnover.

In the last three school years, the 3,000-student district has seen retirement of nearly 70 staff members, according to district records. 

New blood is coming in. This year, Milton Middle School has 16 teachers who have never taught at the school before. Nine of them, Loos said, are brand-new to the district. Some are first or second-year teachers.

That's a huge jump in turnover from 2011, when Milton posted eight teaching position openings district wide.

Loos has been at the middle school, which houses seventh- and eighth-grade students, for 6 years. She served as assistant principal under former principal Tim Schigur, who now is the district's superintendent.

This is Loos' first year as principal, a year in which she's seen the most turnover in her career.

“You consider the last couple of years, when we had just one or two new folks at the middle school. This year, wow, it really changes your perspective. This is more hiring than I've done in 10 years,” Loos said.

Much of the turnover in the district is attributable to a spike in staff retirements in spring 2013. District wide, 48 staff—nearly half of them classroom teachers—opted to retire at the end of the school year as the last year of their contract ran out.

The retirements, in part, came as longtime employees sought to get grandfathered in on post-employee benefits amid drastic changes in public employee union labor rules ushered in by Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10.

Superintendent Tim Schigur says he believes the glut of teacher retirements peaked in spring 2013 and now will ebb.

“A lot of those (Act 10) changes are going to feel like more of the new norm,” Schigur said. “A lot of windows open for people to retire or be grandfathered in have closed now. I don't think we'll see a mass exodus in the coming years for us or a lot of districts.”

According to budget figures released in September, the district went from spending 47 percent of its budget on staff to 45 percent. Schigur said that decrease comes mostly from new staff hires coming in at a lower cost than outgoing staff, although he said the district does not have a philosophy of hiring at bargain cost.

“We have no restrictions on years of service or advanced degrees for hiring. Some districts might, but I think that sends a bad message if you do that,” Schigur said.

Still, the average age and relative experience of teachers in the district as well as time in the district have skewed younger in the last three years, Schigur said.

The biggest challenge, Schigur said, is training and initiating new and young teachers for all their responsibilities, which keep growing as schools shift more toward teaching and learning models such as Common Core, a national model of shared learning standards designed to increase academic rigor.

“They have a lot of things to learn. The institutional knowledge isn't just the institution of Milton (schools). It's the institution of how to educate kids,” Schigur said.

Melissa Jacob, a veteran eighth-grade life sciences teacher at Milton Middle School who's taught in Milton 16 years, is among a group of teachers considered “content specialists” at the school.

Among their duties, they mentor new teachers to show them how the district and the schools approach state, federal and school-level learning models. The group holds monthly meetings to establish new and better policies to train newer teachers.

Jacob said it's been startling to see how fast the new teachers' ideas on teaching and learning have meshed with veteran teachers' philosophies.

Milton Middle School has an intensive iPad digital device learning model. Every student and every teacher has an iPad, and teachers use the devices almost exclusively for classroom learning. One benefit to having a handful of newer, younger teachers is their willingness to embrace technology in the classroom, Loos said.

“They're digital natives. It's second-nature. It's not an add-on skill for them, and they've come in and gotten on board with a lot of confidence,” Loos said.

Jacob and Loos said long-term staff has had friendly competitions over who can mentor the most. They say it's energized the whole staff.

“Change can be challenging, but it's also good. You can take your own ideas, get input and put a new spin on them,” Jacob said.

Jacob is mentoring 2012 UW-Whitewater graduate Emily Rothering.

Rothering has brought in a new classroom behavior reinforcement tool that's drawing rave reviews from students and other teachers: Mr. Potato Head.

It's simple: Desirable classroom behavior equals the chance for a class section to put a new facial feature on its potato head. The first class section to complete its potato-head face wins a party, a movie day or another prize. 

Rothering's had almost no discipline problems this year, which can be a real trick dealing with junior-high students. Her five sections of students are almost rabid in self-policing their behavior.

In the Act 10 landscape, so-called step and lane teacher pay raises based on years of experience and level of education are no longer the preferred method of compensation in Wisconsin schools, and teachers unions' collective bargaining power is limited.

Those new rules test districts' ability to retain good teachers and staff.

Schigur said the district and the school board's human resources committee is working to establish new criteria for working conditions and potential new models for merit pay and bonuses or stipend pay based on extra work teachers do.

Schigur said the board and the district are still leery of basing teacher merit pay on student achievement or standardized test scores.

“If you're talking about output of things--cars, toys, scissors--you can dictate how many you make or how hard you work,” Schigur said. “When you're talking about working with little humans, how do you place somebody's monetary worth on that? Is it really fair to base someone's bonus or pay on, 'Well, you seem to have better kids this year?' That's just a dangerous place to go.”

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