HOLYOKE — During its March 12 meeting, the School Committee was visited by the Teacher Retention Working Group, who shared its recommendations report with the district.

The group’s work is part of the district’s efforts to be the best-fit school district for educators and staff where they can grow professionally, feel supported and make meaningful impacts on students’ lives.

In the working group’s opening letter and executive summary, it discusses the groups intentions and how the district can better retain its teachers. The report shared a summary of the leading recommendations for the district in finding a path toward improved retention rates.

Presenting on behalf of the retention working group were Assistant Superintendent Stephen Mahoney, Holyoke High School English language development teacher Carolyn Monteiro and E.N. White Elementary Special Education Teacher Jill Beyer.

“We want to be the best fit district for educators, and we want to be able to put together a plan to increase teacher retention because that is a really clear and present challenge for Holyoke Public Schools,” Mahoney said during the meeting.

The executive summary points out that the annual teacher retention rate in the city has fluctuated between 71% and 81% since 2014, with the most recent rate being 77% from September 2022 to September 2023. Through concerted efforts, the working group report said they were proud and fortunate that the percentage of teachers of color has increased from 13% in 2015 to 29.8% in 2023.

Monteiro explained that the district has yet to consistently hit retention rates at the same clip as pre-receivership outside of the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic which saw a spike to just over 80% retention.

“This past year, our retention rate was 77% which is relatively high compared to other years, but I think to try and put that into real terms for everyone, what that really means is that one out of every five teachers left last year. One out of every five, and that’s a much more real number to me than saying 77% were retained,” Monteiro said. “It’s a little mind blowing and seems like a lot when you think of it in term of real numbers.”

Monteiro said the working group has been looking to get to the bottom of the reasonings behind the data. Overall, Holyoke’s retention rate is lower than the state average and many comparison districts, outside of Southbridge and Lawrence who are both currently also under state receivership.

Another piece of data helping paint the picture of the district’s receivership status was that more than half of district teachers have less than three years’ experience in the city, indicating many don’t stay around teaching in the city long.

“We were surprised when we looked at these raw numbers to see that 288 teachers this past year were in their first three years of working in Holyoke Public Schools,” Monteiro said. “It really shows how many veteran teachers just aren’t here anymore and the cumulative impact of the kind of turnover that we are trying to prevent.”

Another surprising data point found by the working group was that when looking at the number of teachers to leave the district between 2021-2023, 151 teachers left by the end of their first year.

“We looked at that and we really talked about, what does that mean? And we agreed that we’re not adequately supporting teachers in the district, they are leaving for some unknown reason, or we’re struggling to hire the right type of teachers from the get go,” Monteiro said. “We know there’s a shortage of teachers everywhere and so it’s really hard to be super picky when you’re faced with a teacher shortage.”

When surveying current teachers, the retention group asked if teachers had considered leaving the district and if so, which factors are the most significant. With 21 different options to choose from, the top five reasons were workload and/or work life balance (48% of responses), student behavior (46%), salary/pay (38%), district leadership (31%) and work hours (31%).
The working group then followed up for more specifics to try and illicit more anecdotal information to better understand the data they were seeing.

“We want to point out that the district leadership answer, we found, really came from teachers feeling like the district leadership could do more to help all those other things. Could do more to help with student behavior. Could do more to help teachers with work life balance and not feel so pressured,” Monteiro said.

When surveying former teachers on why they left the district, out of 50 responses, 66% said school leaders as the top reason. Student behavior (34%), workload and work life balance (30%) and district leadership (22%) were the next top reasons listed.

When answers were explained to the working group, the response was focused on the response that school leaders had in really challenging situations, particularly involving student behavior.

“Teachers felt like they weren’t being supported necessarily in that way by school leaders and it was that feeling of lack of support that had them put up school leaders,” Monteiro said.

Following presentation of the data collected by the working group, they then shared recommendations for how to move forward in addressing these areas needing improvement. The two primary strategies listed in the report are create and foster a work environment where teachers are and feel supported, valued, appreciated, fairly compensated and successful, and also to strengthen school cultures, and students social emotional learning and support systems.

The working group also recommended the next steps forward for the district which starts with the teacher retention recommendations report being shared with audiences to solicit feedback, input and ideally action. These audiences include the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Holyoke School Committee, Holyoke cabinet leaders and school leaders, Holyoke teachers, families and community members.

After receiving feedback, Holyoke leaders can then begin action planning based on the recommendations. Superintendent Anthony Soto is planned to release finalized actions and an action plan by mid-May, and if any important decisions or actions are able to be released sooner the district says they will be.

Soto expressed appreciation for all the educators who participated in focus groups, meetings and surveys.

“I am especially grateful to the Retention Working Group and Teacher Advisory Group members for your leadership in the development of the report,” Soto said. “Your report contains many strong recommendations.”

To review the full report and recommendation break downs, visit the district website. The full presentation and discussion with the School Committee can be viewed on the Holyoke Public Schools YouTube channel.