Teacher retention sees sharp drop across Franklin County districts

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-29-2023 1:17 PM

GREENFIELD — In the wake of what local school officials have described as “the most challenging years” in education, administrators across the state and locally experienced one of the sharpest declines in teacher retention rates this year compared to previous years.

“Given the challenges I’ve seen in education, I’m not surprised,” said Greenfield Superintendent Christine DeBarge. “It’s a very hard job. When teachers aren’t working in a district that’s regionally competitive for salary, that makes it all that much more challenging.”

In Greenfield, the percentage of teachers retained by the district steadily decreased from 87% in 2018 to 70.5% in 2023, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Between 2022 and 2023, in particular, the district’s retention rate dropped from 77.9% to 70.5%, placing it in the lowest quarter of roughly 400 public school districts included in the report.

By comparison, the state average for retention was 84.6% in 2023, down from 86.9% in 2018, according to the DESE report published earlier this month. The retention rate for teachers remaining in their job classification anywhere in the state declined slightly from 89.8% to 88.7% in the same timeframe.

Attempts to reach DESE and the Massachusetts Teachers Association for comment were unsuccessful as neither the state agency nor the association returned calls in recent days.

Other nearby districts have also seen a greater decline than the state average in the last five years, including Orange, where data is broken down by district, with the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District seeing the retention rate drop from 95.2% in 2018 to 82.8% in 2023.

The Gill-Montague Regional School District had a 91.4% retention rate in 2018 compared to a 77.9% rate in 2023, according to the DESE report. Between 2022 and 2023, the retention rate dropped from 93% to 77.9%.

Prior to this decline, however, the district had steadily been increasing since 2019.

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“I think a significant amount of it is related to [pandemic burnout],” said Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Brian Beck. “Regional superintendents get together on a regular basis, and we’re seeing the same thing across districts.”

In recent years, he added, teachers have cited a desire to join districts closer to home, return to school or spend more time with family as reasons for leaving their roles.

In Greenfield, DeBarge said while there isn’t currently a system for conducting exit interviews for staff who are leaving the district, it’s something administrators are hoping to implement. To date, there isn’t data being collected as to why people choose to leave the district for different jobs.

Anecdotally, she said, there isn’t necessarily a pattern behind why teachers leave. For some, it’s a matter of moving out of the region; for others, it’s salary or a desire to leave the profession entirely.

“Subjectively, I will say that last year was probably… one of the most challenging years in my own experience,” DeBarge said. “In listening to educators — not just in Greenfield but I have friends who teach in a variety of districts — they’re reporting the same types of things that Greenfield was struggling with — mental health issues, student behavior, challenges for staff. I think we don’t often look at the challenges of adults coming out of the pandemic.”

In that regard, she said, the last academic year (2021-22), which marked the return to full-time, in-person learning for districts that had pivoted to remote methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was “an anomaly.”

According to the state’s report, Greenfield saw its sharpest decline in retention between 2022 and 2023, with 10 teachers leaving their positions from one year to the next. The total number of teachers counted in the report increased by one between the two years.

“Last year was a particularly difficult year for a lot of reasons,” said Andrew Varnon, a fifth grade teacher at Greenfield Middle School. “But I think turnover is part of the story. They have difficulty hiring subs; they have difficulty hiring [instructional assistants].”

Greenfield School Committee member Susan Eckstrom, who was elected in 2017, noted that it’s not uncommon to see turnover in a school or district after a new principal or superintendent is hired. DeBarge took over as superintendent in July 2021.

DeBarge added that it was unclear to her if the state’s data factors in teachers hired on emergency waivers — a DESE COVID-19 policy that temporarily waives certain requirements for hiring.

“We have to post the job,” she explained. “If we get a qualified candidate, we have to hire that person [over the individual on a waiver].”

In a recent My Turn published in the April 13 edition of the Greenfield Recorder, Greenfield Education Association President Ann Valentine argued that the mayor’s proposed $1.5 million cut to DeBarge’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget will “undermine the fair contract we recently negotiated with the city,” in part by jeopardizing the quality of education students receive. She argued that this would do little to encourage teachers and instructional assistants to remain in the district.

With the mayor’s $1.5 million in proposed cuts to the budget, DeBarge said more teaching positions, in addition to programs and resources, are at risk of being lost. And while she acknowledged a pattern of declining student enrollment, she said it isn’t to the degree that warrants fewer teaching positions.

“I can’t reduce a teacher if class sizes go from 20 to 19,” she said.

Beck said one effort his district has made to improve retention is to provide a “sound mentoring program” that helps to connect new teachers with current ones.

“[We’re also] trying to minimize the amount of information that teachers need to submit to their principals and supervisors in the evaluation process … so the time they do spend is directly connected to helping their students improve,” he said.

DeBarge, meanwhile, said if teachers are, in fact, leaving Greenfield to teach elsewhere, she hopes the recently approved contracts serve as a positive influence.

“If they’re leaving the region, my belief, or my thinking, is that that is related to the declining population in this region,” she added. “If they’re leaving the field, I don’t know. I wish I knew what could be done in education, in general, to make it a more attractive field. It is challenging.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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