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MPS springs ahead on hiring new teachers, striking when the time is right

Of all the changes in the latest district-teacher union contract, the earlier hiring timeline is perhaps the most revolutionary.

Between growth in enrollment and a spate of retirements, at least another 150 teachers will be hired in coming weeks.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

The last week of school is typically a reflective time for everyone. What went right over the course of the year? What could go better next year? Among the leadership at Minneapolis Public Schools,  this conversation currently revolves around teaching.

It hasn’t been the stuff of headlines, but the past two years have seen major changes in the teaching profession in Minneapolis. And the sea changes are taking place at a juncture where demographic changes mean an influx of new teachers.

This is the first of several articles in which MinnPost will take a look at those changes.

On a recent rainy Thursday night, Maggie Sullivan stood watching what was on paper a very small change but is in practice a tectonic shift. The executive director of human capital for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), Sullivan was looking on as 200 teacher candidates checked in at district headquarters for job interviews.

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Traditionally, MPS’ teacher-screening interviews took place in July, months after many good outside applicants had already been snapped up by other districts. And after internal applicants —including those rejected by schools elsewhere — have filled all but the least desirable or hardest to staff positions.

As of the end of May, MPS had interviewed nearly 800 candidates. It made early offers to more than 150. Between growth in enrollment and a spate of retirements, at least another 150 will be hired in coming weeks.

“This is about being intentional and making sure we’ve got the best,” said Sullivan. “It’s not a replenishing pool. It’s about who can get the best talent right now.”

This year’s early start, enabled by a change in the latest district-teacher union contract, will allow the district to be more selective. Recent years’ layoffs notwithstanding, there is a shortage of Minnesota teachers with specific skills shown to work in closing the achievement gap.

Looking for certain traits

The scene surveyed by Sullivan included teachers waiting on chairs and benches, clutching portfolios of student work and other evidence of their effectiveness. The district leaders conducting the interviews probed for specific traits.

“I walked in on one where they were asking the candidate how comfortable he was about cultural competence,” said Sullivan by way of example.

Every new hire must now come with a combination of desired skills and traits. Whether that teacher is a good fit for a particular school is a separate question to be answered by the candidate and the school’s hiring committee or principal. Individual schools, too, can also be more selective.

To an outsider, this probably doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary. Yet the change in the timeline — and the other changes it facilitates — is one of the least discussed but perhaps most important features of the new teacher contract.

Not only does starting in the spring give the district access to better candidates, those new hires can participate in interviews at individual schools alongside teachers already in the candidate pool.

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“Were screening for qualities in teachers like skill set,” said Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s the standard for all teachers in MPS.’ At the school level they look for fit.”

Vacancies in high-demand, hard-to-fill areas such as special education, English-language learner services and math and science can be posted and filled on a rolling basis.

Because of other provisions in the contract, that pool is often heavy with candidates already rejected by other schools. And so the contract reforms of recent years allowing schools flexibility with regard to hiring outside strict seniority rolls have had limited impact.

In years past the district has not forecast openings for the fall until after the budget is established, typically in June. At that point, teachers already employed by MPS bid for coming openings. After this, teachers who were not hired were placed involuntarily in some of the remaining open positions.

After all of these internal placements were complete, the district finally began screening potential new hires. Top candidates — especially those with the most sought-after specialties — frequently weren’t willing to wait that long to learn whether they would have a job in the fall.

High turnover an issue

As in many districts, the hiring of teachers in Minneapolis has always been done by the central administration. The traditional system, however, virtually guaranteed for decades that the newest teachers were placed in the least desirable jobs.

After a teacher was hired they were placed on the seniority list. When there was an opening for a teacher holding a particular license, candidates bid for the position, with the most senior winning.

One result: The schools with the largest numbers of low-income kids, minorities, English-language learners and special-education students suffered from high teacher turnover. According to district statistics, a decade ago the highest-poverty MPS elementary schools had annual turnover of more than 200 percent.

Turnover at the late lamented Jordan Park was 443 percent. There were buildings in which principals — themselves fast-moving targets — did not know the names of the entire faculty.

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In January 2008, a new teacher contract ushered in a practice known as “interview and select.” The details in the contract were complicated, but the upshot was that schools could interview several candidates, including some not atop the seniority list.

On the upside, individual schools began screening for fit, skill set and other traits. On the downside, the pool was still relatively finite. And teachers who interviewed multiple times yet received no job offer would be forcibly placed.

The new contract shields MPS’ most challenged schools from forced placements. And the timeline for evaluating teachers with serious performance issues has been shortened.

New hires accelerating

Add to all of this a demographic shift: The layoffs of the early 2000s went so deep into seniority rolls the district was left with a teacher corps marching quickly toward retirement. The number of new teachers hired is accelerating.

Once the new teachers have found classroom jobs, Sullivan and Superintendent Johnson have plans to do more to make their first years on the job more supportive and to keep them once they gain experience.

A year ago, at the end of the first full year of evaluating all MPS teachers, Johnson and members of her executive team held a meeting with Minnesota’s teacher preparation programs. They asked for a greater emphasis on the diversity of the teacher candidate pipeline.

And they shared data on the classroom performance of the programs’ graduates. Johnson enumerated the traits associated with the most successful new teachers. And she told the colleges she could envision hiring more candidates from the programs that did the best job teaching desired traits.

Evaluation data is also being used to guide placement decisions. “We’re looking at the environments in which we put new teachers,” said Johnson. “We want them to observe models of success.”

Instead of a few weeks, student teachers may now spend a semester or an entire year working alongside a master teacher. And depending on the budgeting process expected to conclude June 10, young teachers in challenged schools may get more help from coaches or co-teachers.

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Words of encouragement

The district also is in negotiations with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities College of Education and Human Development to begin a program to train bilingual classroom aides and others with unique assets to become licensed teachers. The aides, many of them immigrants, can keep their jobs while earning their credentials.

Principals have been encouraged to identify great student teachers. “They’ve been emailing with great candidates,” said Sullivan.

School leaders also have been told that they need to do more to hang on to their best recruits. Teachers aren’t often told how much they are valued as members of the school community, said Johnson.

“We spend time talking about removing teachers,” said Johnson. “We need to spend time talking to principals about the importance of saying to teachers they want to retain, ‘You’re a great teacher. I want you to stay here.’”