When the Houston Independent School District's Gregory-Lincoln Education Center re-opens this month with yet another new principal, its fifth in eight years, the school's new leader will face a tough customer in Shana Pruitt.
The Houston Chronicle reports the mother of two daughters at Gregory-Lincoln has grown so exasperated by the constant staff shuffle at the Fourth Ward campus that she avoids engaging with the school. Over the past decade, no Gregory-Lincoln principal has stayed for more than two years. During that stretch, about 40% of teachers, on average, left the campus every year.
"I would not participate in anything at the school," said Pruitt, who attended Gregory-Lincoln as a child. "We can say all day and night that it doesn't seem right, that they keep switching teachers and principals, but we can't make anything happen."
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In the state's largest school district, dozens of campuses like Gregory-Lincoln, many of them serving the city's most impoverished and neediest children, are afflicted by a chronic revolving door of principals and teachers spanning the past decade, a Houston Chronicle analysis of state employee databases has found. Researchers and educators say the constant staffing turnover is linked to lower student achievement, particularly for lower-income and black students, and reduced confidence in schools desperate for more community involvement.
In analyzing 10 years' worth of staffing data, the Chronicle found nearly 40 of HISD's 260 district-run schools have, on average, replaced one-third to one-half of their teaching staffs every year -- totals that Richard Ingersoll, a leading teacher retention researcher, called "disastrous." During that same 10-year period, 30 HISD schools have cycled through at least five principals.
"We have 50 years of research that shows good schools have a sense of community and strong bonds," said Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "The good schools, it's not like a factory. It's more like a family."
Educators and researchers agree that replacing lower-quality educators can benefit students, but long-term instability can have multiple negative consequences: teachers know less about their students' academic and behavioral needs; campus leaders spend more time and money on recruiting, hiring and training staff, at the expense of other needs; families become less active in their children's education when they have fewer long-term relationships with school staff.
In 2012, researchers from the University of Michigan, Stanford University and University of Virginia analyzed elementary-school performance and turnover rates in New York City public schools over a decade, finding teacher churn has a significant and negative effect on student achievement in math and English language arts. Black students and low-performing students were particularly harmed.
The conclusions mirror results in HISD. Twenty-eight of HISD's 37 schools with annual teacher turnover rates exceeding one-third have been rated "improvement required" in the past decade due to poor academic performance. Roughly 5% of Texas schools receive the label each year.
Schools attended by majority-black student populations -- which are four times more likely to receive an "improvement required" rating than other HISD campuses -- annually replace about 30% of teachers. Campuses that are not majority-black report a 20% teacher turnover rate.
In addition, many schools with high staff turnover serve student populations that already suffer from instability in their home lives. Campuses with high rates of "student mobility" -- which measures movement of children in and out of schools, often for poverty-related reasons -- are significantly more likely to be taught by educators with less experience on their campus.
HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan acknowledged community frustration with chronic staff turnover at some campuses. Lathan said the district has implemented leadership training for principals, sought out campus leaders willing to stay at their schools for at least three years and offered financial incentives to retain staff in low-performing campuses.
Those efforts, however, have been complicated by leadership upheaval and the possibility of dramatic state intervention tied to chronically low-rated schools, Lathan said.
"We are working to stabilize our principal leadership, we are working to stabilize teachers at campuses, making campuses more attractive for people to stay longer than one to two years," she said. "We're still working on it, but it's extremely hard right now. There's a lot of things going on -- the instability in our district and the environment."
For decades, the nation's largest urban school districts have grappled with higher-than-average teacher turnover, which likely contributes to achievement gaps when compared to more affluent suburban districts. Using national staffing data from 2012-13, Ingersoll found schools in high-poverty urban districts lost about 19% of their teachers, while campuses in low-poverty suburban areas replaced 11%.
The phenomenon is particularly acute in the Greater Houston area. In recent years, schools in three of the region's highest-poverty districts -- Aldine, Houston and Spring ISDs -- have experienced average annual teacher turnover rates of 25% to 30%. Schools in the area's most affluent suburban districts -- including Clear Creek, Conroe, Katy and Pearland -- typically replace about 15% to 20% of their teachers each year.
None, however, have struggled with the issue at low-rated schools like HISD.
On the city's south side, three schools located within 2.5 miles of each other -- Attucks Middle School, Woodson PK-5 and Worthing High School -- all replace more than 40% of their teaching staffs each year, on average.
On the city's northeast side, two schools annexed in 2013 by HISD from the now-defunct North Forest ISD -- Elmore Elementary School and North Forest High School -- have swapped out nearly 50% of their teachers annually.
In exit surveys of teachers leaving the district, nearly half said school leadership and campus culture had a "large" or "certain" impact on their decision. Issues with student conduct, recognition and respect, workload and career advancement each were chosen by about 35% to 40%. About 30% selected compensation.
"It's the stress of dealing with the emotional baggage that some children bring to some of our campuses," Lathan said. "Having to deal with all the demands of teaching (and) all of the expectations not only pushed out from central office, but pushed out from the state."
While HISD leaders sometimes lament teacher losses to wealthier suburban districts offering higher salaries, those defections totaled about 350 employees following the 2017-18 school year, a small portion of the district's annual teacher loss. About 1,600 HISD teachers stopped teaching in Texas public schools, nearly 800 left their campuses for other HISD schools and about 225 joined local public districts with high levels of student poverty.
For the past two school years, HISD has offered $5,000 annual stipends to teachers working in about 50 of the district's lowest-rated schools, many of which suffer from chronic turnover.
Educators and researchers largely agree that reducing chronically high staff turnover begins with hiring principals who create strong campus culture.
Yet over the past decade, HISD has cycled through principals at many of its longest-struggling schools.
On the city's southwest side, Bonham and Tinsley elementary schools each employed seven principals in 10 years. Four other campuses have had six principals during that period. Another 23 campuses have gone through five principals.
Of those 30 campuses, only one has had an average teacher turnover rate below 25%.
Josephine Rice, executive director of the 500-member Houston Association of School Administrators, lauded HISD for its investments in grooming potential principals but said the district should foster more stability in its leadership ranks. Rice said some HISD officials and board members have worked unfairly to oust principals, who work on one-year contracts, for arbitrary and personal reasons -- a perception Lathan said administrators are trying to dispel.
Rice added that HISD administrators also have shown impatience with some leaders of chronically low-performing schools.
"I think the demands are such that the folks who supervise those schools want to see results, and they want to see them fast," Rice said.
Gladys House, a Fourth Ward community activist who volunteers at Gregory-Lincoln, said HISD too often pulls highly-regarded principals from needy schools and plugs them into long-struggling campuses or central office positions. In the past decade, Gregory-Lincoln principals left the school to lead North Forest and Booker T. Washington high schools, while a third joined the administrative ranks as a school support officer.
"When people here see things changing every two years, they say, `Y'all don't even respect our students,"' House said. "You just want to see more longevity. Don't just get it to the point of improvement, because the students are just getting confident in you."
To stem losses, HISD has offered stipends of up to $20,000 to principals who work in hard-to-staff campuses and $25,000 to principals assuming extra leadership responsibilities.
Dale Davidson, who serves on a decision-making committee at Sugar Grove Academy on the city's southwest side, said staffing churn has had a compounding impact on her neighborhood campus.
As Sugar Grove constantly changes staff and repeatedly scores poorly -- five principals in 10 years, average teacher turnover rate of 37%, four "improvement required" ratings this decade -- families lose confidence in the school and turn to school choice, Davidson said. Over the past five years, the number of children zoned to attend Sugar Grove who transfer to other HISD schools or charter schools has grown from 925 to 1,200.
"My biggest beef is that they're not looking at a systemic approach of trying to bring the neighborhood into the school, and then retaining the leadership that you have in there," Davidson said.
Pruitt, the mother of two daughters at Gregory-Lincoln, echoed the call for HISD officials to address instability at her neighborhood school as new leadership takes the helm.
"I feel like they push Lincoln to the bottom of the barrel, that it's not a concern to them," Pruitt said. "They need to just clean it out and start fresh, with people that are here to stay."