For these CMS teachers, change doesn’t mean N.C. exodus

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJune 20, 2014 

After a year of frustration with low pay and challenging conditions, teachers Marie Calabro, Dave Hartzell and Justin Ashley have packed their boxes and left their jobs.

Despite talk of a teacher exodus from North Carolina, though, these three aren’t leaving the state – or even Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Calabro, who organized sidewalk rallies for teachers, and Hartzell, featured in an Observer article on teacher pay, both switched schools to take higher-paying “opportunity culture” jobs that keep them in classrooms. The House and governor’s budget plans call for expanding that approach, which CMS is pioneering.

“It’s like a logical career step, which I’ve never seen before,” said Hartzell, who had planned to leave the state or switch careers so he could support his wife and new baby. “I was looking everywhere. I’m very excited about it.”

As the school year ended, the Observer contacted several teachers who were interviewed about pay and working conditions during the past year. Their plans for 2014-15 illustrate the complexity of career decisions and the difficulty of teasing out the factors that shape them.

Most said they plan to stay in CMS, while watching state and local budget talks with a mix of hope and wariness.

N.C. Senate, House and the governor’s budget plans for the coming year all feature significant teacher raises. All attempt to address concerns about tenure, advanced degrees and working conditions. Lawmakers are still hashing out differences in the plans and the costs. Mecklenburg County commissioners just voted to hold a fall referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax hike that would bolster CMS pay.

Ashley, an award-winning teacher whose open letter about choosing education over fast-food management went viral, recently posted a “breakup letter” with North Carolina. But he said for now he plans to move to another CMS school and “see what happens as the state and local budgets progress.” He says he hasn’t ruled out a move to South Carolina.

The youngest of the batch – 21-year-old Donielle Huggins, a 2014 UNC Charlotte graduate who was featured in a May 4 article on teacher pay – is hitting the road for higher wages.

Huggins had dreamed of returning to her hometown of Raleigh to teach, but says she opted for a $50,000-a-year job teaching English in Houston. That compares with a state minimum of $33,000 for starting teachers in North Carolina next year, even with early career raises that GOP leaders have agreed on.

“Although I love Raleigh and North Carolina in general, I do not think North Carolina is where I want to begin my teaching career,” Huggins said Tuesday.

And for more established teachers, changes may still lie ahead.

Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, noted that many teachers wait until the last minute to give the required 30 days’ notice. Every year, CMS and other districts scramble to staff classrooms before the students report to school.

North Carolina’s 2013 teacher turnover report showed departures rising statewide, with CMS at a 10-year high. As for the effect of this year’s turmoil and the proposals being debated this summer, Kidd said, “I guess when the dust settles we’ll find out.”

Sidewalk Wednesdays

Last summer, as talk swirled about a teacher walk-out, Calabro called for a weekly demonstration of support for teachers.

A fourth-grade teacher at Beverly Woods Elementary, she urged parents, teachers and students to rally on sidewalks in front of schools at 5 p.m. every Wednesday in hopes it would push policymakers to do better by public education. “Walk to the Sidewalk Wednesdays” went on for a few weeks but ended when early darkness made the roadside gatherings risky, Calabro said.

This spring Calabro, who has taught for 23 years in CMS, attended a Project LIFT job fair.

Project LIFT, supported by $55 million in private donations, is a five-year quest to boost achievement at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools. Those schools are working with Public Impact, a Chapel Hill education consulting firm, to pilot the Opportunity Culture approach. Each school designs career options that let effective teachers get big raises for staying in classrooms while supporting colleagues and reaching more students.

For 2014-15, Calabro took a job teaching fourth-grade math and science at Bruns Academy, a preK-8 school. With a recruiting bonus and potential for additional rewards, her salary will rise by $5,000 to $6,000 the first year, she said.

Burger King vs. teaching

Ashley, a fourth-grade teacher at McAlpine Elementary, was chosen as 2013 state teacher of the year in history and social studies.

In August he gained a new audience when he wrote an open letter to House Speaker Thom Tillis relating how a state teaching fellowship gave him an alternative to becoming a Burger King manager. He urged Tillis to rethink abolishing that program, along with tenure and pay for master’s degrees.

“Hold on to great teachers right now before it’s too late,” Ashley wrote in a letter that circulated nationally on social media and education blogs. Ashley spoke at local and state teacher rallies after that and launched an online petition to get Gov. Pat McCrory to spend a day teaching his class.

In mid-May, Ashley posted a break-up letter to North Carolina on his Facebook page. “I used to love you, but I really can’t do this anymore. ... I’m leaving you for your sister state, South Carolina,” he wrote.

Ashley might want to change his relationship status to “It’s complicated.”

“For now, I took a position as an eighth grade social studies teacher at Community House Middle School,” a CMS school near McAlpine in south Charlotte, Ashley said in an email. “I’m also waiting on my licensure paperwork to go through and then I can start applying in S.C.”

Staying put

Peter Huxtable, a single father who teaches science at Alexander Graham Middle School, was also interviewed about pay. He talked about having to work extra jobs to support his daughter.

Huxtable said he plans to return in August. Having a supportive administration and PTA helps, he said, and “I also am confident that we will be getting a raise next year.” But he said he’s worried about some of the trade-offs being discussed, especially the Senate plan to cut teacher assistants.

Cameron Campbell, a second-year teacher at Quail Hollow Middle School, was featured in an article about teachers leaving CMS. At a public budget talk, he told Superintendent Heath Morrison that the two teachers he shares a house who are leaving for higher-paying jobs in other states, and he worried about his own ability to stay.

Campbell said that while pay is important, so is administrator support. He said his roommates’ principals didn’t make them feel valued, but his principal does.

Campbell couldn’t be reached this week, but Quail Hollow Principal Rachael Neill said Campbell plans to return.

Supporting a family

In early May, the Observer and PNC Bank sponsored a public forum on teacher pay and working conditions. Hartzell, a standout teacher at Sterling Elementary, was featured in a front-page article and video played at the forum.

His dilemma: He loves teaching, but said North Carolina’s pay scale made it impossible to stay while trying to support his wife and a baby born in April. He talked about moving to a state that pays teachers more or switching to banking or insurance to stay in Charlotte.

“Maybe if people who are as dedicated as me leave, that’s the only way to make a difference,” he said.

The coverage brought a surge of messages urging Hartzell to stay, he said. One tip paid off when Hartzell learned this week he has been hired for an opportunity culture job at Shamrock Gardens Elementary.

After the Project LIFT debut this year, CMS teamed with the Belk Foundation to expand the program to 17 more schools, including Shamrock, in 2014-15.

Hartzell said he’s not yet certain of the pay; it will be more, though his wife will still have to return to work in the fall. But he can stay in teaching and expand his “ 40 book project,” which uses donated books to create home libraries for low-income students.

“It’s going to be enough that we can live on,” he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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