But first-year teachers are key to filling Elmhurst’s vacancies. The most coveted teachers, those with more than four years of experience and a passion for urban schools, are also the most likely to get picked up by higher-paying charters like Aspire or to be promoted to administrative positions within the district.
So this year, in another first, Betlach and the hiring committee looked at the experience level of the teachers on each grade-level and subject area team to determine which positions would receive the most support. Sixth-grade history was one of those positions. Knowing that, and knowing Ullman had another offer on the table, they moved quickly. After calling her references, they offered her the job a few days after her in-person interview.
Despite how worried she’d been on her interview day, Ullman—who was impressed by the school’s climate and strong leadership—said the intense process had helped convince her that Elmhurst was the right place for her to work.
“I was relieved that they were doing some sort of a hiring process,” she said later, “and not just, ‘Oh God, who will work for us?’” She said the other Oakland middle school from which she received an offer “was desperate and [they] literally hired me within the opening interview.”
Betlach has heard about that kind of hiring. It annoys him—and not just because he’s concerned about the students whose teachers are selected that way. Those schools beat him to candidates like Ullman.
“When I’m being ungenerous, I’m like, ‘You’re not even trying!’” he said in March. He paused, sat back. “Or maybe they’re just super smart. They see a resume and they’re like, ‘I’m not going to let this person get away.’”
By some measures, the relentless teacher turnover—despite the disruption it causes—is the least of Elmhurst’s problems. “On the scope of fairness, there’s a lot of things that are far less fair,” he said in August. He started listing them: limited school funding, neighborhood violence, lack of safe and affordable housing, lack of integration. A pause. “A fair is a place where they weigh pigs,” he said. “There is no fair.”
An hour later, at a logistics meeting held in a sixth-grade-science classroom, Betlach was discussing both the new electronic grade book and how to deal with any broken furniture left in classrooms. Teachers cracked jokes and asked questions.
Then the static of police radios and the whir of helicopter blades became the meeting’s discomfiting background soundtrack. It happened so fast, I had seen Betlach pull out his phone to call the front office and several teachers jump out of their seats before I consciously heard anything new.
In what was clearly well-rehearsed choreography, the returning teachers sprinted for the open doors, closing each one until the sound of the radios and the copter blades had been blocked out. Then they returned calmly to their seats, and Betlach moved on to instructions about what to do with old desktop computers.
But first, he took a minute to tell new staff not to worry. They’d have lots of practice at perfecting lock-outs this school year. Training, he reminded everyone, would be on Friday.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.