In the instant of a job change, Joshua Cook went from being one of the youngest teachers at Crenshaw High, a traditional school in Hyde Park, to nearly the oldest at Animo Justice, a charter school south of downtown Los Angeles.
He was 32, with two years of teaching experience.
Three years later, he had another distinction: He became one of the astonishingly large numbers of teachers who left a Los Angeles charter school.
Around 50% of teachers in charter middle and high schools left their jobs each year over a six-year period studied by UC Berkeley researchers, who released their findings last week.
Charter schools are independently operated and free from some restrictions that govern traditional schools, including the need to abide by a school system's union contracts. Many charter schools can boast of committed families and enrollment waiting lists. And many produce high test scores compared with nearby traditional schools.
The Berkeley study didn't track why teachers departed — it counts them whether they left on good terms or bad, content or burned out, leaving a school temporarily or permanently quitting the profession — or how that affected academic achievement. But the researchers note that previous studies point to the importance of stability for student success. And what kind of job has a 50% annual turnover?
L.A. Unified has more charter schools than any other school system in the country, accounting for up to 10.5% of enrollment and growing. And school districts, concerned about the competition, are pushing their schools to become more like charters — moving toward rules that make it easier to release teachers and that pressure principals to staff their schools with younger, less expensive instructors.
"I averaged 70 hours a week of work, no problem," said Cook, who oversees student teachers for UCLA. "The upside is that when you see positive outcomes, you feel like you are directly connected to them. But working 70- and 80-hour weeks is not sustainable."
Charter expert Priscilla Wohlstetter, a USC education professor called the turnover rate "not surprising."
"Charter high schools are usually considerably smaller than traditional high schools, which translates into teachers wearing many hats, serving on lots of committees and taking on way more responsibilities," she said.
"The real issue is the quality of people staying and leaving," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "Charters have more flexibility in making judgments about teachers. They are better able to let teachers go if they are not doing a good job."
Cook, who chaired his school's math department, didn't blame Green Dot Public Schools, the charter operator, for the workload. He recalled a sense of mission among the staff, although he also came to believe that Green Dot preferred to hire and retain younger staff: "Maybe it's not as malicious as 'Let's get rid of the oldies,' but from the rank and file, it sometimes looks that way."
Several teachers and charter operators noted that charters have hired heavily from Teach For America, a cadre of recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years.
Some young teachers find the intense, demanding charter experience more than they bargained for, suggested Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, a study co-author.
Charter teachers also may be leaving for better pay and benefits at traditional school districts, charter operators and experts said.
Schools invest substantial sums in teacher training, which walks out the door when teachers do, Fuller noted: "We don't have a pressing need to train more teachers. We have a pressing need to retain more good teachers."
Cook became part of the 50% statistic — and accepted a position at UCLA — when Green Dot decided to close Animo Justice, consolidating students and teachers onto other campuses during tight financial times. Green Dot cited the South L.A. school's underenrollment and low test scores, results Cook attributed to the relatively higher percentage of students learning English, a main emphasis of the school.
Green Dot Chief Executive Marco Petruzzi said the organization tends to hire teachers "in the three- to seven-years" experience range and makes no apology for seeking "mission-driven teachers."
"Attitude and values are important to us," he said.
An English teacher said she joined a charter at age 29 to escape larger class sizes and lack of support in a medium-sized urban school system. She became disillusioned and left, however, because of a lack of promised input into school decisions, an unceasing workload and few job protections. She asked that her name not be used because she may again need to seek work at a charter.
Kavita Papneja, a math teacher, joined an Alliance College-Ready charter several years ago and doesn't regret it. In her prior work at a traditional school, Gompers Middle School near Watts, "you have more behavior issues," she said. "Here, most of the time, we just have to worry about what we are teaching and what kids are learning."
As far as the charter workload, "if I have to spend extra hours, I will," said Papneja, 43, who believes she's the oldest teacher in her school. "It's not like they force me."
She and history teacher Stephanie McIlroy, who joined Alliance at age 21, also left a charter school; but in their case, the purpose was to follow Principal Howard Lappin from one Alliance charter school to a newly opened charter, the Alliance Environmental Science and Technology High School in Glassell Park.
Some former teachers at Alliance schools and elsewhere were less enthusiastic, speaking of pressure to produce high test scores and arbitrary management.
"We got in trouble for taking our sick days and personal days," said a history teacher who entered the teaching profession at a charter while in her 20s. She requested anonymity because she recently accepted a position at a different charter school. "Teachers feel so beleaguered because everything is presented to us as a problem we have to solve. But we can't fix all those problems, like when a kid misses 60 days in a semester."
Despite her former school's solid test scores, she said, the teacher departures matter.
"It has a huge effect on student morale," she said, especially for students who lack needed stability in other parts of their lives. "By the time students graduated from my school, there was not a single teacher who had been there the whole time."