NC principal vows to 'break this cycle' after 60% of teachers leave in one year

When Claude Archer became principal of West Edgecombe Middle School last year, he knew the job would be a challenge. The school was struggling. It had low test scores, high poverty rates and student discipline problems that had plagued principals before him. But that wasn't all.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe
ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — When Claude Archer became principal of West Edgecombe Middle School last year, he knew the job would be a challenge. The school was struggling. It had low test scores, high poverty rates and student discipline problems that had plagued principals before him. But that wasn't all.

Not long after he was hired, Archer learned of another problem. West Edgecombe was losing teachers. Fast.

Archer was in a principals' meeting when he first saw how many teachers had left over the years. The numbers seemed unusually high. The school lost nearly 60 percent of its teachers in one year? Archer scanned the information in disbelief.

"Is this right? Is this correct?" he asked.

It was.

Where did the teachers go?


Graphic by: Valerie Aguirre/WRAL — Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction

West Edgecombe Middle is one of 14 schools in the Edgecombe County public school system. The county has struggled for years with teacher turnover, routinely losing staff at a higher rate than the average North Carolina school district.

Last year, the county reported losing 24 percent of its teachers – the eighth highest rate in the state. But when broken down by school level, Edgecombe's teacher turnover numbers look even more troubling.

According to 2014-15 state data, the county lost 46 percent of its middle school teachers – more than any other school system in the state. The average North Carolina school district lost 16 percent.

Of the county's schools, West Edgecombe Middle had the highest turnover. Sixteen of its 27 teachers left – a nearly 60 percent loss. Most of those who left were experienced teachers. Two of the 16 were beginning teachers, according to state records.

Those who live in and love Edgecombe County say these numbers only tell part of the story. The district is in the midst of a dramatic transformation, school leaders say, one that other struggling school systems will want to learn from in the future.

Supporters point to a number of accomplishments, including higher teacher satisfaction rates, more supplemental pay for teachers and preliminary data showing that teacher turnover, while still high, appears to be improving.

Another success, school leaders say, was the recent opening of the county's new global school, Martin Millennium Academy in Tarboro, which serves students in grades K-8 and immerses them in foreign language.

Edgecombe County Superintendent John Farrelly says the opening of the global school may have contributed to the district's loss of middle school teachers.
Before opening the global school, the district decided to close Martin Middle, which was "extremely low performing" and struggled with disciplinary issues, according to Farrelly.

"Many of those teachers, when we closed Martin Middle School, did not end up teaching at Martin Millennium," he said.

Still, Farrelly says, losing teachers isn't always a negative thing. Sometimes, it's necessary.

"When you've got low-performing schools, there does need to be a certain level of turnover if you've got low-performing teachers," he said.

But not all teachers who leave are poor performers.

Teacher: 'It was a very tough, very difficult environment'

Matthew Straub began teaching in Edgecombe County in August 2013. By October, just a few months into the job, he knew he wanted out.

As an art teacher, Straub split his time between two middle schools – West Edgecombe and South Edgecombe. He says he quickly noticed the schools had "decidedly different cultures."

At South Edgecombe, he taught a packed class in a small art room – at one point, squeezing in 43 seventh graders. Despite the small space and large class size, Straub says he benefited from the school's stricter discipline policy, which helped keep students in line.

West Edgecombe Middle School, though, was a different story.

"It was a very tough, very difficult environment," he said.

The problems started right away. While setting up his art classroom, he noticed that the sink wasn't working. There was no water coming out of the faucet. He called maintenance for help. The water had to be shut off, workers explained, because students in the former art teacher's class had stuffed paper towels down the drain and clogged it.

Straub was determined to have a working sink.

"We need to get this turned back on," he said.

Art teacher Matthew Straub

The clogged sink foreshadowed some of the discipline problems Straub would face in class that year. He soon learned that students weren't only destructive to the school's property, they would also ruin items he had purchased with his own money.

Orange buckets meant for storing art supplies were ripped, torn and shredded. Colored pencils were snapped in half and turned into projectiles.

Discipline was a constant problem at West Edgecombe. So was teacher turnover. Straub says he saw one sixth grade class go through four teachers in one year because "nobody wanted to hold that section down."

"It was tough for people to keep kids in line," he said. "It was a unique culture. Kids had the run of the place."

Despite his difficulties, Straub says he did have some success at the school. He helped increase art and technology use, completed a three-panel wall mural and was nominated as the school's Teacher of the Year, which he lost on a re-vote after tying with a fellow teacher.

But it wasn't enough to make him stay. After just one year at West Edgecombe, Straub wanted out. He was one of 16 teachers who decided not to stay for the 2014-15 school year.

"I enjoyed the colleagues that I had there. There are plenty of people who are teaching their heart out," he said. "I know it's not an easy thing. Many of them, just because of the situation, may not be able to move and are really trying to tough it out."

Straub says the school system never did an exit interview with him, and no one ever asked why he was leaving. But if they had, he would have told them about West Edgecombe's discipline issues and fractured staff. He also would have given them this advice: "Give teachers the support that they need. We want somebody to have our backs."

Straub's advice is now sought after in Wilson County Schools, where he has taught art since 2014. In his first two years at Speight Middle School in Stantonsburg, he has won more than $3,000 in grants for his school and helped add 10 new computers to the computer lab.

This past spring, he was named his school's Teacher of the Year. Straub says the school has given him something else he is grateful for.

"I have two working sinks," he laughed. "They are fantastic."

West Edgecombe principal reassigned to different school

Superintendent John Farrelly had a decision to make. West Edgecombe Middle School was losing teachers faster than any other school in the county.

The school's new principal, Donita Gregory, was struggling to keep her staff. After her first year, nearly 60 percent of the teachers left. Many went to work in nearby school systems. The next year, more than 40 percent of the staff was gone. Something had to be done.

"Well, obviously we made an administrative change. That certainly was a concern," Farrelly said. "Between school performance and the number of teachers that were leaving the school, there's a reason why there was a change made."

Graphic by: Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL — Source: Edgecombe County Schools

Gregory was a first-time principal when she came to West Edgecombe Middle School in 2013. She had previously worked as an assistant principal in Union County Public Schools, but her move to Edgecombe County marked her first time at the helm of a school.

West Edgecombe presented her with immediate challenges. Gregory was the school's third principal in four years. Teachers were hungry for consistency, and morale was low.

"Research states that whenever there is a new principal or leader, there is an increase in staff turnover, therefore, I am not surprised by the number of teachers that left," Gregory wrote in an email to WRAL News. "West Edgecombe was a growing and learning experience for me as well as the school."

In her two years there, Gregory says, the school saw a decrease in suspensions and an increase in student proficiency. Still, it wasn't enough for her to stay. Last year, she was moved to another school in Edgecombe County, Phillips Middle in Battleboro, where she is beginning her second year as principal.

So far, the superintendent has been pleased with her progress.

Phillips Middle saw "tremendous growth" in Gregory's first year leading the school, Farrelly said. "She went into a smaller setting. She's still a young administrator, and things clicked for her."

In her first year at Phillips, Gregory says, the school went from not meeting academic growth standards to exceeding them. Student proficiency rates increased 12 percentage points, and the school saw a 41 percent decrease in student discipline issues.

And one of her former teachers from West Edgecombe, who temporarily left the teaching profession, decided to return and work with her at Phillips Middle.

"My move to Phillips was another year of growth for me, and I accomplished many successes," Gregory told WRAL News by email.

With Gregory reassigned to a different school, West Edgecombe needed a new leader yet again. The school's revolving door of principals was becoming a problem. The superintendent needed to find someone strong to save the sinking school.

He found Claude Archer, an assistant principal from Rocky Mount High School.

New principal challenges himself to 'break this cycle'

West Edgecombe Middle School Principal Claude Archer says he will never park in the principal's spot because "I don't need to flaunt my title."

When he first came to West Edgecombe Middle School last July, Claude Archer saw the parking space meant for him. "RESERVED FOR PRINCIPAL," the sign read. He ignored it and parked in another spot.

Inside the school, he went to his office and made sure his door was open. It needs to stay that way, he thought. Be open and accessible. The staff needs to see that. The school had been through so many principals, he wanted to show them he was different. Little things matter when you're trying to change the culture of a school.

When he accepted the job, Archer knew the school was struggling academically. What he didn't know was how many teachers had left over the years. He was sitting in his first principals' meeting when he saw just how bad it was – nearly 60 percent teacher turnover one year, 41 percent the next. The numbers didn't seem real.

"Was it scary knowing that that was an issue? Absolutely. But I had to challenge myself and say, listen, what are you going to do to break this cycle?" Archer said. "Do I expect to lose some teachers? Absolutely. Do I expect to lose 50, 60 percent? Absolutely not. Because, if that's the case, then I need to go back to the drawing board and say, what am I not doing right?"

West Edgecombe Middle School Principal Claude Archer

As Archer prepares to begin his second year as principal at West Edgecombe, he still tries to keep his door open and avoids parking in the principal's space so he can give it to a star teacher instead.

"I want them to understand that I don't need to flaunt my title," he said. "Some people love power. I love success. What I do is give my power to my teachers."

Archer has also given power to the community. He has been turning to parents, alumni and community members to help renovate and restore West Edgecombe's building and grounds. While some look at the school and see an old, outdated building, Archer sees promise.

"This building has a lot of historical value and a lot of historical passion and presence to it," he said. "There's a beauty about this building that I don't think you can find anywhere else."

As Archer walks around the school, he points out projects as he goes, sharing his vision for what he hopes the school will look like in the future.

The school's original 1928 auditorium needs a lot of work, he says. He envisions opening the balcony, which was enclosed years ago, and adding a wireless projector so students can learn to operate it. At the front of the auditorium, he'd like to install a projection screen and new curtains. Some of the room's old, broken seats also need to be replaced.

"It's a beautiful place. It has so much character," Archer said. "I want to mesh something old with something new."

Principal Claude Archer sits in West Edgecombe Middle School's auditorium.

Outside the school, Archer wants to upgrade the athletic fields, which he says have not been improved in 30 to 40 years. Some of his plans are already underway, thanks to a parent with a tractor who has been smoothing and leveling the fields for free.

"Believe it or not, we're doing all the work ourselves. We're trying to minimize the amount of money we ask our central office for," Archer said. "My philosophy has always been, if there's something you can do for yourself, then just do it."

West Edgecombe Middle School is getting a new softball field, thanks to a parent with a tractor who volunteered to help.

New ball fields and auditorium upgrades are nice, but what does that have to do with improving students' test scores and keeping teachers around longer? Everything, Archer says.

He can't pay his teachers more. That's out of his control. But if he can make their work environment better, maybe he can convince them to stay. And maybe improving the school will inspire students to improve themselves.

"Every year, not only do I want to make academic progress, but I want to make sure that we have enhanced our facility in some way," Archer said. "If we don't have a facility in which it's safe, it's clean and we're constantly thinking about ways that we can make it better, then we're not going to have great test scores. Because all of those things impact our test scores."

It's all part of Archer's plan to get the school "off the island," as he calls it. What is "the island?"

"The island of low performance," he said.

West Edgecombe is not the only school in the county on that island. Three other schools – Coker-Wimberly Elementary, Princeville Elementary and Phillips Middle – are also there.

All four schools are on the state's list of recurring low-performing schools, meaning they have not met academic performance standards for two of the past three years. More than 400 North Carolina schools are currently on the list

The state has a number of ways it tries to help low-performing schools improve. One way is to send school transformation coaches from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to the schools with the most need.

Dan Davis is one of the coaches. He works with seven schools in Edgecombe, Wilson and Wayne counties. He has worked with Principal Archer at West Edgecombe Middle and Principal Gregory at Phillips Middle since January.

"I drive around the countryside and go and see what I can do to help," said Davis, who spent 15 years as a middle school principal in New Mexico and retired before moving across the country to help North Carolina schools.
A large part of the job, he says, is gaining the trust of principals and getting them to open up about their struggles. He takes a "What you say here stays here" approach, which he says allows school leaders to be more candid with him.

"I'm here to support them and help them do their best," Davis said. "It really is a difficult – I won't say impossible – but it really is a difficult role these principals and teachers find themselves in."

Dan Davis, school transformation coach for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

When he's working with a principal who has lost a lot of teachers, he advises them to find out why their staff is leaving. Exit interviews are especially important because it gives schools a chance to ask teachers, "What would it take to keep you?"

"If somebody's teaching seventh grade math in my building and they go down the street and teach seventh grade math, I want to know why," Davis said. "Some teachers said, 'I would have stayed, but nobody asked.'"

Davis says he has met teachers who stayed in challenging positions because they felt respected.

Respecting teachers who choose to work in struggling schools is especially important, says State Board of Education member Becky Taylor.

Taylor began her teaching career in Edgecombe County and says she often encourages new teachers to start out in a rural community, like she did. One of the challenges, she admits, is that rural school districts often don't pay as much as larger school systems.

"Their funds are limited. They do have a hard time recruiting staff," she said. "But I think there are a lot of things that good administrators can and are doing to try to retain these teachers."

In North Carolina, baseline teacher salaries are set by the state government. Many counties add a local supplement.

Last school year, Wake County schools paid the highest average teacher supplement in the state at nearly $7,000. Durham Public Schools paid the second highest at nearly $6,800, followed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which also paid nearly $6,800.

Edgecombe County paid its teachers an average of about $2,100 last school year.

Seven school systems in the state did not pay their teachers any extra money.

Edgecombe's superintendent says increasing teacher pay has been one of his top priorities. With help from county commissioners, teachers' supplemental pay in the county has risen from 4 percent to 7 percent in the past two years.

"We wanted to get 10 percent, but we'll take 7," Farrelly said. "The supplement is certainly part of the solution (to teacher turnover) because there's no question that there's a financial aspect of teachers making decisions about where they want to go."

Can West be the best again?

Teacher pay hasn't swayed Jalene Bullock. She has taught at West Edgecombe Middle School since 2003 and has no plans to leave.

"Why have I stayed?" Bullock says. She points in the direction of her house. She lives nearby.

"This is my home. My parents are here, so I just want to be close to them," she said. "You just have to tough it out. It's like I say, principals come and go, preachers come and go. You stay with your church. You stay with your school."

Jalene Bullock, an eighth-grade science teacher, has worked at West Edgecombe Middle School since 2003.

Bullock grew up in Edgecombe County and has seen West Edgecombe Middle through good and bad times. In her 13 years with the school, she has worked for nearly half a dozen principals. She has watched the school's test scores slide and students' bad behaviors escalate. She has also seen many coworkers come and go.

"There's no consistency, and that hurts the kids. I don't know how many band teachers they've had. I don't know how many art teachers they've had," Bullock said.

"When I first came here, West Edgecombe was referred to as the flagship of the middle schools of the county, which meant they were the best," she said. "We want to get back to hearing that again. We use that term, 'West is the best,' and I want it to be true."

Principal Archer hopes to make that come true. West Edgecombe's teachers appear to be more satisfied with the school this year than they were two years ago, according to the state's latest Teacher Working Conditions survey, which is given every two years.

"If it ever gets back to me as an administrator that I lost staff members because I was not supporting them, I did not allow them to grow and have a voice, then as an administrator, I'm not doing my job," Archer said. "Because it's my job to keep this staff. It's my job to make sure that they're happy."

It's that kind of leadership that's going to make a difference for West Edgecombe, the superintendent says.

"Mr. Archer is the perfect example of a high-quality administrator. He's come in in a very short amount of time, and he really turned the school culture around dramatically," Farrelly said. "(He's) demonstrating that dreams can come true and that turnaround can happen."

The big test for Archer is how many teachers return when school starts on Monday. Has he managed to keep most of his staff from last year?

Yes, Archer says. At last check, 95 percent of the teachers are coming back.

"I won't leave them, and I honestly believe that they won't leave me, simply because of what we're building," Archer said. "I love the staff that I have."


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