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With four months left in the school year, five teachers at King-Chavez Community High School have resigned and two have been terminated. King-Chavez has a total teaching staff of 31 teachers, meaning the school now must replace more than 20 percent of its teaching staff midyear.
Teacher turnover is an ongoing concern at the charter school, which caters almost exclusively to low-income and Latino students.
It’s such an issue that King-Chavez CEO Tim Wolf took the loss of nearly a quarter of his staff in one year as good news. After all, 14 teachers left midyear last school year.
Five former teachers who resigned or were terminated from King-Chavez in the past two years described a hostile work environment and micromanagement from school administrators. The teachers, who asked we withhold their names so as to not jeopardize future job prospects, said administrators verbally abused teachers, in private and in front of students.
Wojciech Giezek taught PE at King-Chavez until last school year, when he said he was let go for a series of petty infractions, including a time when an administrator walked past his class and saw a student eating Cheetos.
“I think they try to instill fear in teachers where if they do something wrong, even something small, they’ll be fired. The kids don’t expect teachers to stay around for very long. When there’d be a (substitute teacher), they’d say the teacher had probably been fired,” said Giezek.
Wolf dismisses that his steady stream of departures has anything to do with the school’s leadership. He thinks it’s just a reflection of how hard it is to find solid high school teachers.
“It’s not easy to teach inner-city kids. They need a lot of time and attention and a lot of teachers either don’t understand that or aren’t willing to put in the work,” Wolf said. “We don’t serve traditional kids, and traditional teachers don’t always match well.”
Of the high school’s 524 students, 99 percent are Latino, making it one of the most ethnically homogenous schools in San Diego. Nearly all – 99 percent – qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a rough gauge of a school’s poverty level.
The high school is part of King-Chavez Neighborhood of Schools, a network of six charter schools and two preschools that serve 1,975 students, not counting the preschools. Most come from Barrio Logan, Logan Heights and Southeastern San Diego neighborhoods.
In January, the San Diego Unified school board renewed the high school’s charter, allowing it to operate for an additional five years.
By one standard, the school is doing well despite steadily churning through teachers. In 2016, the most recent data available, more than 90 percent of its senior class graduated. The school also boasts a robust internship program.
But there’s reason to be skeptical that students are learning as much as the school’s graduation rate suggests. State test scores are persistently low. In 2017, just 5.51 percent of students met or exceeded state standards in math – lower than traditional high schools in San Diego Unified. Just over 28 percent of students met or exceeded standards in English, barely edging out scores at Lincoln High, the district’s lowest-performing school.
Wolf said turnover has generally been more of a concern at its high school, compared to its schools that serve elementary and middle school students. But other schools have had their own staffing concerns. In 2008, seven employees at the King/Chavez Arts Academy were suddenly fired, representing a wholesale turnover.
Nationally, charter schools have a slightly higher teacher turnover rate compared to traditional schools – though research doesn’t explain the reason behind the trends. And while it’s widely accepted that high teacher turnover is disruptive to schools and harmful to morale, research is mixed on its academic impact. One study suggests replacing ineffective teachers with effective educators could have a positive impact on academics.
Regardless, turnover is common enough at King-Chavez Community High School that administrators plan for it by keeping a pool of trained substitute teachers who can slide into place when teachers resign or are fired.
“Teaching at King-Chavez takes a different kind of commitment, and not everybody has it. I don’t judge them. But don’t blame us if you don’t have the commitment,” said Wolf.