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Teachers aren’t leaving most Western North Carolina public school districts as quickly as they are leaving districts in other parts of the state.

That trend is showing up statistically, with WNC public schools generally having the lowest teacher-turnover rates in the state, according to a draft report the N.C. Department of Public Instruction released last month.

Why this is happening remains hard to pinpoint. Statistics that Carolina Public Press analyzed show that many obvious explanations don’t hold up under scrutiny. Even with one possibility that makes more sense – WNC districts are hiring fewer beginning teachers, who are more prone to rapid turnover – intangible reasons for low turnover may matter more than quantifiable factors.

Lowest turnover rankings

The three lowest districts in teacher turnover were in the 18-county WNC region. Overall Graham County Schools had the lowest turnover, with 5.75 percent, or 5 teachers departing out of 87 working in the system.

Yancey County Schools were next lowest with 5.87 percent, or 10 out of 171 teachers. Avery County Schools placed third at 6.1 percent, and 10 out of 164 teachers departing.

Other WNC districts generally ranked low among the more than state’s 115 districts:

  • Madison County Schools, sixth lowest, 8.38 percent turnover;
  • Yadkin County Schools, eighth, 8.75 percent;
  • Rutherford County Schools, 10th, 9.17 percent;
  • Cherokee County Schools, 14th, 9.38 percent;
  • Mitchell County Schools, 23rd, 10.81 percent;
  • McDowell County Schools, 24th, 10.93 percent;
  • Clay County Schools, 25th; 11.11 percent;
  • Haywood County Schools, 27th, 11.49 percent;
  • Swain County Schools, 28th, 11.51 percent;
  • Polk County Schools, 30th, 11.64 percent;
  • Buncombe County Schools, 45th, 12.98 percent;
  • Henderson County Schools, 48th, 13.14 percent;
  • Macon County Schools, 55th, 14.51 percent;
  • Watauga County Schools, 56th, 14.65 percent;
  • Jackson County Schools, 60th, 14.8 percent;
  • Transylvania County Schools, 68th, 16.12 percent;
  • Asheville City Schools, 77th, 17.13 percent.

With the statewide turnover rate at 14.84 percent, only the last two of these districts showed turnover rates above that level.

Some districts in other regions of the state saw much more elevated teacher turnover, including four northeastern districts with turnover above 30 percent. Those districts had to replace almost 1 in every 3 teachers.

Sustained trend

While the trend of less teacher turnover in WNC districts appeared most pronounced this year, the same pattern has held true for some time according to state records CPP reviewed.

Although each district’s ranking has shifted over the last few years and the percentages of turnover have risen and fallen along with fluctuations in the state and regional economies, the west has consistently been the area with the lowest rate of departing teachers.

DPI reports show that when the last five years are averaged, all but one of the 19 school districts located in the west had turnover rates below the 12.74 percent statewide median for districts during that time period.

The exception was Jackson County Schools, which averaged nearly 15 percent in annual teacher turnover between 2010 and 2015.

Most WNC schools clustered near the low end of the spectrum, with 10 of the 19 WNC districts ranking in the top 25 statewide for low teacher turnover during that 5-year period.

DPI Assistant Director for Educator Effectiveness Yvette Stewart talked with CPP about this year’s report and similar findings in recent years.

“We haven’t looked at it regionally,” she said. “But we notice trends … that the western counties traditionally have not had a lot of turnover.”

She told CPP that her agency remains unsure of the underlying causes of that geographical trend, with their emphasis more on what’s causing teachers statewide to leave.

Why teachers left

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In an effort to understand why western districts experience less teacher turnover, CPP obtained a breakdown of the reasons why teachers left in each district for the 2014-15 school year.

Statewide, the top reasons teacher left were:

  1. To teach in another North Carolina public school system.
  2. Retired with full benefits
  3. Resigned due to family relocation
  4. Resigned to teach in another state
  5. Resigned to make a career change

In WNC counties, retirements drove a much higher portion of turnover in WNC counties, while transfers were much less important. Whereas the median district statewide saw more than twice as many teachers leave due to transfers between districts as left due to retirement, transfers from WNC districts were much less significant, occurring at the same level as retirees.

A relatively higher level of WNC district teachers left to teach in other states rather than transferring within North Carolina, with some districts located closer to population centers in South Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee. Even so, the WNC district median for teacher transfers of any kind remained well below the statewide level.

Both the median number of teachers who left a district due to family relocation and the number who left to pursue a career change were dramatically lower in western districts. As a result, teachers leaving the classroom to take a non-instructional job within the same school district ranked as one of the top reasons for teacher departures in the west, ahead of these other reasons.

Explanations that don’t work

Some possible reasons for these differences don’t hold up under scrutiny. For instance, many WNC counties are rural or economically disadvantaged. But counties with much higher teacher turnover in other parts of the state also had high levels of poverty and low population densities.

Some WNC counties are better off economically than those elsewhere, with very low rates of joblessness, but still showed lower turnover rates than comparable counties elsewhere.

While the most urban WNC districts, such as Buncombe County Schools, Asheville City Schools and Henderson County Schools, generally had higher turnover rates than most other WNC districts, these districts still ranked well ahead of similar districts in other areas of the state.

Another possibility considered was the level of population growth, which naturally affects the hiring needs of school districts.

But WNC districts generally have been facing, and are projected to continue facing, low-growth, with a few counties in medium-growth categories, according to the State Demographer’s Office. The state has identified just two WNC districts, Cherokee and Rutherford counties, for net population loss this decade.

Except for a few coastal and metropolitan areas with very high growth and several sections of the state with very rapid declines, WNC districts were in line with statewide growth trends.

Fewer beginning teachers

Looking back at what is different in WNC teacher turnover versus statewide teacher turnover, the importance of retirements in the west stands out.

Because of this, CPP analyzed one probable explanation in-depth: WNC districts may have been recruiting fewer beginning teachers, which DPI defines as those with less than four years of experience, who are disproportionately responsible for driving turnover in most of the state.

Statewide, more than 20 percent of all beginning teachers left their positions during the 2014-2015 school year for whatever reason. One reason they didn’t leave was the one that’s not available to inexperienced teachers: they didn’t retire with full benefits.

For some special categories of newer teachers, like those working through Teach for America, the departure rate was even higher at more than 30 percent.

By contrast, career-status teachers left, often by retirement, at a lower rate of only about 13.4 percent, according to DPI.

Because districts in the west are seeing retirements drive the turnover they do have, it appears there’s much less pressure from beginning teachers. This could be because many WNC districts are generally not hiring as many newer teachers. They may also be doing a better job of retaining those they do hire.

Stewart at DPI told CPP that her agency could not provide a district-by-district breakdown of beginning teachers working in each system since this was beyond the scope of the data gathered for the report on teacher attrition.

To indirectly test the role played by retirees versus beginning teachers, CPP ranked districts by the percentage of their turnover that resulted from career-status teachers, rather than beginning teachers. Although there were some anomalies, this generally showed that counties with low teacher-turnover rates had a larger share of career-status departures and a smaller share of beginning teachers leaving.

Among WNC districts, nine with generally low turnover rates ranked roughly among the lowest third of districts for the portion of departures generated by beginning teachers. Four WNC districts that had moderately low turnover rates had somewhat higher levels of beginning teachers leaving.

Four WNC districts with somewhat higher teacher turnover levels had much higher levels of beginning teacher departures than other WNC districts. Just two WNC districts, Avery and Madison counties, demonstrated results that did not correlate with this explanation.

This suggests that low levels of beginning teachers do tend to correlate with districts having low turnover levels. But additional factors that remain unidentified must also play an important role in some districts.

Intangibles

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One reason it may be difficult to identify all the causes of low WNC teacher turnover in statistics is that they’re not all there. Qualitative advantages of WNC schools may be hard to define, but could be some of the most decisive factors.

Graham County Schools Superintendent Angie Knight seems to think these sorts of issues keep teacher turnover down in her district, and likely in other parts of WNC.

In a phone interview with CPP, Knight said a strong community helped ensure that a lower percentage of teachers left her school district than any other in North Carolina last year. “They feel like when they’re teaching in Graham County, we’re still a county where teaching is respectable,” she said.

That attitude seems to contribute to teacher career longevity. “Our teachers stay until they retire,” Knight said. “So we’re not having to go out (and recruit) that much.”

She estimated that her district’s faculty is 60 percent local and about 40 percent from elsewhere. “We probably grow a lot of our own,” she said. “A lot of residents want to come back.”

One concern about the limited recruitment of new teachers in WNC counties is the potential for a sudden wave of retirees as previous generations of teachers age out at once. But Knight said that’s not a valid concern in Graham County due to faculty pool whose age is very “staggered.”

Besides the sense of community support, Knight said her district’s policies also try to offer “total support,” especially to the new teachers who are recruited. This includes ensuring that the district picks up the tab for school supplies, which many new teachers nationwide report having to pay for out of their own pockets.

Knight said new teachers are assigned mentors who help them ease into the classroom. All of these policies, combined with the community’s backing, add up to better teacher retention, she said.

It doesn’t hurt WNC counties that the landscape is beautiful and draws many newcomers who appreciate the outdoors, Knight noted. That isn’t something North Carolina districts outside the west can do anything about.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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