With 26 new teachers, Warhill turns over a new staff

JAMES CITY – In a given school year, it's routine for new teachers, aides and guidance counselors to replace those who have retired or resigned. When students at Warhill High School return on Tuesday, they'll meet those new faculty members – of whom about one in three will be new to the school.

An examination of personnel actions taken by the Williamsburg-James City County School Board since March reveals that two dozen teachers, aides and guidance counselors – all of whom have regular contact with students, have resigned or retired.

Of those 24, fully 16 were general education teachers. The School Board has approved 26 new appointments in those areas to start the new school year, including 20 general education teachers.

Going by the number of teaching staff lost, Warhill's turnover rate has ballooned to 28 percent. That's well above the 18 percent turnover at the school that School Board chairwoman Ruth Larson cited in June.

Tim Baker, who was appointed in July as the school division's senior director of talent management and organizational development, said in an e-mail Friday to the Gazette that teachers chose to leave for a variety of reasons.

"A recent sample of reasons given include retirements, moving out of the area, accepted other positions/promotions in the region, personal or family health issues, and several did not provide a reason," he wrote.

Reports of teachers' unhappiness came to light in May, when one student – joined by several peers who stood with him – told the School Board that many teachers were feeling frustrated and demoralized, and said students had noticed a troubling atmosphere at the school. Later that month, dozens of students participated in a walk-out to show support for their teachers.

The changes in staff are noticeable.

"What a shame to go to Open House at Warhill and find that even more wonderful teachers than we previously knew of have left," Warhill parent Fran Pinizzotto said in an e-mail to the Gazette. "I'm glad that one of my children has already graduated and is in college, succeeding with the superior skills she gained from her outstanding AP teacher who was with her most of the years through Warhill. It's a loss to my other child that he won't have her as a teacher."

School Board personnel actions show between mid May and early June four teachers and one guidance counselor were transferred to Warhill. Within a few months three of those who received transfers had resigned from the division altogether.

Two of Warhill's four guidance counselors are new to the division. In two departments, world languages and health and physical education, only one teacher from last school year returned.

WJC Schools employs a total of 309.5 elementary teachers, 153 middle school teachers, 189 high school teachers, 100 special education teachers, 13 gifted education teachers, 18 media specialists, 31 preschool teachers, 2 adult education teachers and 28 guidance counselors. During a recent orientation for new teachers, the division saw 114 teachers, some of whom are part-time, take part.

In a phone interview Friday, Larson said she had not seen updated figures from the division's human resources department.

"I can't speak to Warhill specifically, but I do know that over the summer things happen where people move, get a job in another division, maybe decide to go back to school, leave teaching altogether," she said. "I do know some central office staff were down at Warhill conducting staff development this week. Everyone they encountered was fully engaged and very positive about the school year."

She added: "I hate to see another negative story come out about Warhill because I think we've got a lot of good things going on. I know we have a good school division."

While Warhill had the most turnover, it was far from alone. Rawls Byrd Elementary, Norge Elementary and Berkeley Middle School – which have new principals at the helm – also show significant changes in teaching staff.

"While teacher attrition is up at several schools, that is not unexpected with any change in leadership," Baker wrote in his e-mail. "My experience has been when you have new leadership, employees will often decide to make a change as well. This is something that we will continue to monitor and anticipate that those numbers will level off in the near future."

An Oct. 13 report in The Atlantic cited a University of Pennsylvania researcher who has shown that nationally, between 40 and 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and about 15.7 percent of teachers leave their posts every year.

Sampson can be reached at 757-345-2345.