Julia Guy worried that remaining a teacher might be difficult once she started a family, and staying fit already posed a challenge — so she eagerly filled out a survey seeking suggestions on how to keep teachers in the profession.
Her employer, Bright Star Schools, reviewed the results, crafted a proposal, and on Friday won a $250,000 grant to improve teacher retention, which is a major problem in education and can be especially challenging for charter schools.
With the funding, teachers at seven Bright Star schools will get additional family leave as well as fitness activities at school, better snacks in the teachers' lounge and advice from a nutritionist.
The organization hasn't abandoned charter growth but says its current goal is to replicate successful schools of any kind.
Holding on to talented teachers is part of the puzzle, said Myrna Castrejón, the group's executive director.
"We know that teachers are the most important factor within a school, and that keeping great ones in the classroom can have an immediate and profound effect on students," Castrejón said.
Charter schools are publicly funded but free from some rules that govern traditional campuses.
Recent, comprehensive data are hard to come by, but an early study of Los Angeles area charters, published in 2011, found that they were having to replace on average 50% of their instructors every year.
To qualify for a grant from Great Public Schools Now, a charter operator had to meet certain academic performance parameters. It also had to have lost no more than 30% of its faculty since the last school year. That's still well above the state average of 10.6%.
Like some traditional schools, certain charters have characteristics associated with higher turnover, such as their location in low-income communities and hiring of younger, newer teachers, said Leib Sutcher, research associate at the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute. And now there's the added problem of a statewide teacher shortage.
Overall, 87% of L.A. Unified teachers returned to the same school as last year, and 94% continued working for L.A. Unified, even though turnover has been a problem at some campuses.
Local teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl said teachers in traditional schools, who are represented by unions, have an edge: better job security and frequently superior working conditions.
"This is partly due to collective-bargaining agreements, but also state laws that guarantee such benefits as paid sick days, extended medical leave, and maternity leave, which charters are not required to provide," said Caputo-Pearl, head of United Teachers Los Angeles. "Most importantly, our members have due-process rights … one of the key factors in teacher retention."
Besides Bright Star, other grant recipients include: Environmental Charter Schools ($200,000), PUC Charter Schools ($105,000) and Aspire Public Schools ($153,000).
Teach Plus, a foundation-funded nonprofit associated with some school-reform efforts, pledged to provide a variety of supports for teachers in the local area and got $90,000.
Bright Star's revamped, family-friendly portfolio will include time off for teachers to go on field trips with their own children, a $2,500 stipend for day care and lactation pods on every campus. Bright Star already offered extended parental leave — four weeks paid at 55% and up to eight additional weeks without pay. The grant now will cover those costs.
"It's time to stop perpetuating the myth of the teacher martyr and start creating working conditions that allow instructors to make teaching a lifelong career," said Melissa Kaplan, Bright Star's chief academic officer.
In all, the successful applicants identified about 150 teachers as irreplaceable to their organizations.
One winner came from within the L.A. Unified School District: the Business Entrepreneurial Technology Magnet at Nightingale Middle School in Cypress Park. Its application had a twist: The magnet coordinator and two teachers who submitted the application identified themselves as "irreplaceable." It's a description their principal, Rafael Gaeta, wholeheartedly endorses.
The team has worked extended days and weekends to bring a high school curriculum for developing formal business plans down to the middle school level. Their students have done well in competition against high-schoolers.
Their $65,000 grant will help pay for these teachers to step outside their own classrooms part of the time to support such efforts and to help other teachers and schools set up similar programs.
"We believe that these programs have found creative and common-sense ways to help teachers do what they do best: inspire students to reach their full potential," Castrejón said of the grant winners.
Editor's Note: The Times receives funding for its Education Matters digital initiative from one or more of the groups alluded to in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.
4:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the teachers union and an educational researcher.