The Page Unified School District is in a much better place today compared to where it was three years ago. Three years ago, teacher morale from K-12 was at its lowest point in years. It was low enough that several teachers quit in the middle of the semester.
Teacher turnover for school year 2014-2015 hit its lowest point in decades with 29 percent of the district’s teachers leaving without renewing their contracts. The teacher retention rate was pretty high in the years leading up to the 14-15 school year too. Teacher turnover for the 2013-14 school year was 23 percent and the year prior to that was 24 percent.
As the school district struggled to recruit and retain school teachers, one of the inevitable results was that many classes were being taught by long-term substitutes, many of whom didn’t have teaching certificates.
Concerned parents, worried that their children weren’t receiving a proper education, met to discuss the viability of forming their own charter school.
Rob Varner was hired as Superintendent of Page Unified School District in 2015 and he has implemented some significant changes since then, which address where he wants the school district to be by the year 2020 and it details how he plans to get there.
With teacher retention at an all-time low one of Varner’s first priorities was to address that problem. The next school year, 2015-16, teacher turnover dropped from 29 to 19 percent. It stayed at 19 percent for school year 2016-17, and Varner believes it will be even lower than that this year.
“We’re starting to turn the corner,” he said.
The Arizona state-wide average for teacher turnover hovers around 27 percent yearly, said Dr. Terry Maurer, PUSD’s Human Resources Director. “Teacher turnover isn’t only a Page problem, it’s just the state of the profession,” said Dr. Maurer.
Varner interviewed for the superintendent position in March 2015, just weeks after three teachers quit mid-semester. He started as superintendent on July 1, 2015.
After Varner was hired he laid out ambitious goals that he wanted his school and students to achieve by the year 2020, which he called the 2020 Vision. Varner’s 2020 Vision started by identifying the school districts strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement, and from that he developed a strategic plan that laid out the path to get there.
Part of Varner’s plan was to bring in some fresh leadership. Since 2015 the school district has hired three new school principals. When hiring his new principals Varner looked for people who also had a drive to improve the school district. He didn’t want people coasting along until they could retire.
“lt’s not a mistake that we have three new school principals,” said Varner.
With his goals established Varner then broke down how they achieve them and established his strategic plan.
“The strategic plan is who we want to be,” said Varner.
With his strategic plan in place Varner then began implementing an integration action plan, which lays out the nuts and bolts of how the strategic plan will get implemented, he said.
“The ultimate goal of all this is to graduate students who will be successful in the workforce,” said Varner. “We’re focused on student achievement, learning a in a safe environment, equity with excellence for all, career and college readiness, effective and efficient use of resources, communication and collaboration with the community.”
Varner says he hopes to take his plan to the school board for approval in May.
One of the school district’s big successes came from an ambitious teacher recruiting trip two years ago when Varner and former Superintendent Jim Walker visited several universities in the Midwest where schools graduate more school teachers than there are positions available.
Their recruitment trips also took them to rural areas where they sought teachers who would be more likely to enjoy a city like Page, which provides a lot of outdoor opportunities, but few city-life, nightlife type of opportunities. And third, they encouraged students who had grown up in Page, who already had connections here, to return here to teach.
As mentioned above, the teacher retention rate went from 71 percent to 81 percent the following two years.
Varner has more teacher recruitment trips planned later this year, some to the four-corners area and one to Minnesota.
“It’s so cold up there and they’ve got to be tired of shoveling snow and cracking ice,” said Varner. “I’m going to tell them about Page and see if they want to try a place where they don’t have to do any of that. Plus, if they’re from Minnesota they’re probably already into the outdoors. Page might really appeal to them.”