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How Washington County has surpassed the state in teacher retention

School classroom with blackboard
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The Washington County School District has the highest teacher retention rate of all public districts in Utah with more than 200 teachers.

The pandemic has raised concerns that a mass teacher exodus could be coming, as schools confront increased learning and behavioral challenges while at the center of contentious political debates.

It doesn’t so far appear to be a major issue for Utah, but state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said recruiting and retaining “effective” teachers and school leaders has become a priority for the state board of education.

The average retention rate in Utah is 56%, according to USBE data that looks at teachers employed in state schools from the 2016 through 2021.

The North Summit District had the highest retention rate of any public district in the state, retaining 46 of its 57 fully-licensed teachers. Logan City had the lowest rates, with only 47% of its teachers staying over the five-year period.

Of districts with more than 200 teachers, however, Washington County had the highest retention rate at just under 73% — 948 teachers are still at the district, out of the 1,303 who were there in 2016.

Most of those who left did so because they were retiring or had family obligations that forced them to move, said WCSD human resources director Lyle Cox.

“We don't have a lot of turnover,” Cox said. “We track it very closely. So if we have a teacher who resigns, we ask them the reasons behind it.”

The secret to Washington County’s success

Dickson said Washington County’s retention success prompted an investigation into what it was doing differently. After visiting several schools there, she said she was impressed by the “culture of feedback” she witnessed, in which teachers supported each other, worked closely with parents and looked consistently for ways to improve.

Cox said creating opportunities for educators to learn and grow has been part of a concerted effort over the last 15 years. Now, every school in the district has a dedicated learning coach whose primary responsibility is mentoring teachers.

They help with lesson plans and classroom management, which has become increasingly important as more students in recent years are coming to school with behavioral challenges, Cox said.

Critically, he said, mentors do not evaluate or discipline teachers. That’s a responsibility left to principals. Educators can then feel comfortable going to their mentors during hard times and are not afraid to ask for help.

“It's probably our number one investment is making sure that the teachers have the tools they need and somebody to mentor and help them,” he said. “It changes the whole culture in a school. You're not isolated. You don't work in a vacuum.”

Cox said hiring full-time learning coaches is not something districts often prioritize within their budgets, but it’s something they’ve found saves money in the long run. He said turnover is expensive, but mentors and other professional development opportunities have helped schools run more efficiently and, ultimately, serve students better.

As pay is often cited as a major factor contributing to teacher shortages, Cox said the district is also one of a handful in the state that has moved away from traditional salary schedules. Normally teachers are put into different “tracks” based on their experience and education level — each with a finite number of promotion opportunities. But he said the district instead has moved to a “one-lane” schedule.

Teachers get a guaranteed pay bump every year, regardless of their education level, though earning another degree can double the raise for a particular year. Cox said that helps keep the focus of professional development on improvements that can have the most impact on the classroom rather than a teacher’s salary.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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