"I couldn't accept that." Why Muskegon Heights teachers quit and how it impacts students

Jan 3, 2013

This story is the second in a four-part series about how things are going so far in Michigan's first fully privatized public school district. Find part one here, part three here, and part four here.

At least one in four teachers at the new Muskegon Heights school district have already quit the charter school this year. That’s after an emergency manager laid off all the former public school teachers in Muskegon Heights because he didn’t have enough money to open school in the fall. That means there have been a lot of new, adult faces in the district.

Students say the high teacher turnover has affected them and top school administrators say it has held back academic achievement this school year.

Students: teacher turnover causing issues in the classroom

17-year old Muskegon Heights senior Deaisha Cooper says many of her friends transferred out of Muskegon Heights schools over the summer. Then homecoming got canceled because of fights. It took a couple of weeks to get her class schedule right.

“It’s not like what your senior year is supposed to be,” Cooper frowned.

Now she’s upset the only teacher left at the high school who worked for the old public school district, one of her favorites, Ms. Fisher, just left for a new job at Grand Rapids Public Schools. She says Ms. Fisher took care of the senior class, made sure they “were all right.”

“When she left it just seemed like everything just fell downhill and it seemed like the school was just running by day by day and they don’t know what they’re actually doing,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s classmate, 18-year old Tony Harris, says when a teacher quits the classroom feels even less productive than usual. He’s had three math teachers by early December.

“Basically it’s confusing because I go from this learning process to this learning process to that learning process and it’s just ridiculous how some teachers leave and then we have to start all over and then we learn something new. It’s just, it’s crazy,” Harris said.

Harris and some other students say during this time in between teachers, they feel like they’re really just doing busy work until a new teacher comes in.

“I actually feel dumb because I’m just sitting there not doing anything, well, I’m not saying I’m not doing anything but I’m not doing nothing, basically,” Harris said.

17-year old Inari Spralls says she was angry when students brought one young math teacher of hers to tears in class. She says the teacher quit shortly after. 

“I am very weak at math and when they made her cry that’s like hurting me because I don’t know nothing about math and I need to get it out of my way in order to graduate. And that’s just really stressful because it’s also interrupting everybody else that’s trying to learn,” Spralls said.

"... you got these new teachers, the kids are going to test them. So far, they have been failing," Hauke said.

“They’re all your age,” 18-year old Cody Hauke chimes in while looking at me (I’m under 30 years old).

"I just think it's a game of respect. The longer the teacher's been here the more authority they have over the kids. And when they're gone and you got these new teachers, the kids are going to test them. So far, they have been failing," Hauke said.

There’s a “turnover of staff that we did not anticipate."

Alena Zachery-Ross is the Regional Vice President for Mosaica Education Incorporated. It’s sort of equivalent to being the district’s superintendent. Positive and full of energy, she’s worked her way up from a teaching position at Detroit Public Schools, to an administrator at Van Dyke Public Schools to her current position.

“For me it wasn’t – it’s not a level step up even, it’s really a risk. But I think the risk is worth it because it’s changing lives,” Zachery-Ross said of her move from public schools to Mosaica.

Mosaica had less than 60 days from the time the contract was signed until classes started. Mosaica Education co-founder and President Gene Eidelman says probably the biggest challenge the company faced in this project was to hire and train a staff of 140 people during that short time.

“We’ve hired the best (teachers) we could find but some people were just not expecting how tough it’s going to be,” Eidelman said when I first reported on teacher turnover last month.

Shabadoo Waller, a parent of a Muskegon Heights high school student (and who’s now employed as a sort of security person with Mosaica) says he figured teacher turnover would be high.

“You’re dealing with inner-city youth kids and they’re just going to test you – that’s it. I mean once you stand firm and let them know that you’re not going to back down, they’ll back down,” Waller said.

“We’ve have a turnover of staff that we did not anticipate,” Zachery-Ross said.

In the beginning, Zachery-Ross says some teachers couldn’t handle the discipline issues presented by a high poverty, inner-city school district. Later, it was mostly about how little the charter company pays.

“I don’t know what their full packages are but other districts are able to offer more,” Zachery-Ross said. Mosaica said in July base teacher salary would be $35,000 plus about $10,000 in benefits.

She feels the charter schools would make more progress if not for the high teacher turnover.

“I realized I couldn’t make a difference.” Former teachers on why they left.

Almost a hundred miles away from Muskegon Heights, I met Craig Oliver at his home in Portage, just outside of Kalamazoo. He’s been a social studies teacher for more than 20 years.

Most of that time, Oliver worked at Martin Public Schools, a small, mostly rural district. But last spring he decided he wanted a challenge. So he applied at Muskegon Heights.

Craig Oliver in a 2011 school photo where he taught social studies before taking a new job at Muskegon Heights school.
Craig Oliver in a 2011 school photo where he taught social studies before taking a new job at Muskegon Heights school.
Credit Courtesy photo

“I thought that it was a situation that really needed some experienced teachers and it was someplace I could make a difference,” Oliver said.  

He got a job teaching 3rd grade at Edgewood Elementary School, moved in with his 83-year mom who lives in nearby Muskegon, and he took a pay cut.

“Until I hit my head up against the wall basically, and encountered a lot more going on in the community and attitudes that I could fix just in the classroom,” Oliver said.

He only lasted until October 12th.

Oliver says he couldn’t seem to stop kids from talking or “guide” the class as he could in Martin. That made it hard to get through the day’s lessons successfully.

Another former teacher, Susan Strobel, stayed two weeks longer than Oliver at Mosaica.

Neither Strobel nor Oliver quit for another job. They quit out of frustration.

“It’s very hard for me to describe what it’s like (in class). It’s nothing that you’ve ever experienced before,” Strobel said.

Strobel was one of the few teachers the charter school company hired from the old Muskegon Heights Public School district. At first she was kind of excited. Muskegon Heights middle and high schools have close to the lowest student achievement scores in the whole state. So she figured change could be a good thing.

“I mean if I can be part of something good and help move the students forward and see them achieve – who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? I mean that’s why I’m a teacher,” Strobel said.

As a former Muskegon Heights teacher under the old system, she has a soft spot for a few students there. She’s mentored three in particular; they still meet for tutoring at the public library, going to museums and even to check out Strobel’s daughter play in a holiday music concert in Holland. “They really made working a joy,” Strobel says with a smile.

But change just wasn’t happening fast enough for Strobel under the new system. Near the end of the first marking period this fall, Strobel says about half of her students weren’t even showing up.

School data shows it wasn’t just her high school class either. Mosaica officials acknowledge attendance in the high school, is “a concern.” The company is implementing several strategies to increase attendance.

The high school principal has set a goal to raise attendance 10 percent by the end of this month. The average weekly attendance rate in November was around 60 percent. A couple of those weeks, only one in two high school juniors or seniors were reportedly in class.

Despite Strobel’s offers to tutor them, only 12 of her 74 students were passing.

“I could not accept that. To me, that was the reality, I couldn’t change that and I won’t change that, but I couldn’t accept that,” Strobel said. “I just felt that I couldn’t do the teaching that I felt these students deserved, and I couldn’t continue.”

Both Strobel and Oliver say a lack of clear discipline policy, work expectations and the right supplies to teach students with poor reading skills played a big part in why they left.

Both say it was a tough decision to quit, not one they took lightly.

Oliver says most of the teachers he knows who are still at Muskegon Heights are there because they don’t have a choice.

“They’ve got to stay. It’s their income. But they’re looking. They’re always looking. You know? How can I move on?” Oliver said.

At last check, both Oliver and Strobel are in the final stages of securing jobs as substitute teachers.

Tomorrow we’ll get into the classroom, to see how students are learning under the new charter system.