When Alyssa Starinsky was called to the principal’s two years ago at Shortridge High School, she thought she might be in line for an honor.
Two years in a row, in fact, the classes she taught had posted among the highest test score growth of any of their peers in Indianapolis Public Schools; a student group she moderated was a two-time national award winner; and everyone at the school was buzzing about an upcoming Teacher of the Year announcement.
But instead of an award, the assistant principal handed a letter telling her she was being fired — not for performance but because the district expected to need fewer teachers the next year.
“I read it three times and I was crying uncontrollably,” Starinsky said. “You know when you’re a teacher, kids come to school for you and you come for them. You are working as hard as you can for them to achieve. I didn’t know how to tell my kids, with a month and a half left, that I wasn’t coming back.”
IPS didn’t have to lose her. They eventually tried to hire her back, but it was too late.
Starinsky did continue teaching. She kept her move quiet until the end of the school year and now she’s at Carpe Diem, an Indianapolis charter school. But this sort of forced move — school changes that teachers don’t want to make and that are not based on performance — are common and disruptive, both to the teachers and to the learning of their students, a new report states.
“I’m a statistic,” Starinsky said. “I’m in the majority, not the minority, of teachers who are moved involuntarily. It’s heartbreaking.”
Researched and written by local teachers through the Indianapolis chapter of TeachPlus, an organization that aims to spur teachers to get involved in policy, the report argues fairly simple changes could help reduce the problem.
One idea that seems pretty straightforward — track more carefully how many students are going to attend IPS, which is how the district figures out how many teachers it needs. Wrong student counts contribute to the uncertainty about where teachers need to be.
But that’s easier said than done. With a growing charter school movement, students looking at their options frequently end up enrolled in multiple schools. When that happens, IPS and charter schools can end up with faulty numbers that lead them to hire too few, or too many, teachers.
The report recommends a common enrollment system for IPS and the charters within the district. Better enrollment estimates, the report says, would reduce uncertainty about how many teachers schools will need and limiting last minute changes and late summer hiring decisions that are routine for IPS.
A survey the group commissioned of 500 teachers who teach at IPS now or did so in the past found 85 percent had changed schools at least once by their fourth year of teaching, most against their will.
“Teachers, particularly in the early years of their careers, are being treated as interchangeable parts,” said Caitlin Hannon, executive director of Teach Plus in Indianapolis and an IPS school board member. “A centralized enrollment system and a strategic effort by the district to track teacher movement would improve stability and benefit both teachers and students.”
Christina Lear, a Herron High School teacher and one of eight lead authors, said the report was spurred by a discussion of well known statistics about the large numbers of new teachers who choose to change careers.
“We felt there was an untold side of the story — teachers who want to stay, who built something they care about, who are invested and who are forced to go for reasons that don’t have anything to do with performance,” said Lear, who started her teaching career in IPS and changed schools three times in her first three years as a teacher.
The research showed a common belief — that students who move and change schools frequently caused enrollment projections to be wrong — was only part of the problem. Those moves, the report states, could be tracked and enrollment better understood if information about student movement were centrally collected and available to all schools. That would help identify which schools were truly having problems retaining students and which were more stable, the authors wrote.
“There would be more clear data about when students making any sort of move, where they’re coming from and where going to,” Lear said.
New Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he agrees that mobility — frequent moves among schools for both students and teachers — is a problem at IPS.
“It does create inconsistencies and lack of stability that’s needed for teachers and students to be comfortable with the learning process,” he said.
He thinks the district has some work to do to improve its own practices first.
“I think we control that,” Ferebee said. “I’m not sure if that’s an external issue more than an internal issue. We can create better processes to manage shifts in teachers. I would lie to see us go that route first.”
Without changes, the report suggests IPS, and its students, will continue to lose good young teachers like Starinsky.
She came to the district from Ohio State University through Teach for America four years ago and was happy to land at Shortridge, a new high school for law and public policy. But it was a bumpy ride for two years.
Starinksy started out teaching seventh grade world history and her students’ ISTEP scores soon made huge gains. But the second year she was moved to 11th grade U.S. history. Despite the assignment change, Starinsky again saw her students make major progress, posting the second highest gain in IPS on a U.S. history benchmark test.
She also threw herself into extracurriculars, coaching mock trial and moderating student council, yearbook, a talent show and a service club called Students In Action. That group won two Jefferson Awards, a national honor for community service.
But during the second year, the principal was fired mid-year. The assistant principal who did her performance review said every teacher had to be rated “basic,” a low score, in at least one category. Since Starinsky had been given all higher scores, she was asked to pick one category to have her rating lowered.
At the end of the year, an administrator told Starinsky she would have won teacher of the year, but they didn’t want to give it to someone who was leaving.
Even so, Starinsky tried to get back into IPS. She asked to be called back to work if there were any openings in the district. Meanwhile, she applied for other jobs as a back up and by June had an offer from the Carpe Diem. She put Carpe Diem’s principal, Mark Forner, off as long as she could hoping to hear from IPS but, eventually, she took the job at the end of June.
Two days after the start of school in early August, IPS called and asked her to come back. It took that long before the district was confident enough in its enrollment numbers to invite back teachers that administrators previously thought they wouldn’t need.
But it was too late for Starinsky.
“I waited as long as I could without health insurance or a pay check,” she said.
Today, Starinsky is happy in her second year at Carpe Diem, but she still can’t bring herself to completely cut the cord with Shortridge. She came back this year to again coach Shortridge’s mock trial team as a volunteer, reviving a group that had shut down after she left the school.
“I love the kids and they really wanted it,” she said, explaining why she’s back helping out at Shortridge for free.
The district, she said, doesn’t seem to understand the needs of new teachers, or their own students.
“They are so unappreciative,” Starinksy said. “And the bottom line is kids get hurt.”