- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2022

D.C. charter schools desperate to stave off teacher burnout and an anticipated record number of departures from the profession are offering perks such as yoga lessons, spin classes and mindfulness exercises.

The publicly funded, privately run schools have turned to programs such as Stride K12 and Spark by Gabby to provide perks and benefits commonly seen at Big Tech firms to help teachers manage personal and professional stress amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A D.C. State Board of Education survey in March found that D.C. teachers have a higher “intention to quit” during the pandemic, making them even likelier to leave than in past years.

“Teacher burnout during this challenging time is real in D.C. and around the country,” said Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. Council member who now serves as president of the online education company Stride K12. “We all must find creative ways to meet teachers where they are emotionally in order to keep them motivated.”

Mr. Chavous said his firm’s program encourages teachers to step away from their screens to participate in offline “passion projects” like community service, yoga, painting and marathons. He said local teachers have felt pushed to their limits by online and hybrid instruction — and they have been pining for human contact again since outbreaks of the omicron variant of the coronavirus forced schools back into virtual learning.

“The key is to engage teachers directly during this time, listen to them and offer them support that extends beyond the classroom,” he said.

Stride, the largest online education provider in the nation, works with more than 1,000 U.S. school districts and nonprofit charter boards to provide online and blended classroom instruction. It currently runs a hybrid learning program for Friendship Public Charter School in Northwest Washington.

Meanwhile, 11 schools in the Center City Public Charter, Capital City Public Charter, Digital Pioneers Academy and KIPP DC’s New Teacher Cohort networks have purchased institutional subscriptions to Spark by Gabby, a virtual wellness program that costs about $2,000 per school.

“We offer a space that’s completely for [teachers] with an opportunity to reset, build strength, and empower themselves internally,” said Gabby Lubin, a former preschool teacher who founded the program.

The 11 schools participating in Spark by Gabby’s livestream and recorded video workouts: Petworth, Brightwood, Shaw, Capitol Hill and Trinidad (Center City); Congress Heights and Lower School (Capital City); Upper School and Lower School (Digital Pioneers Academy); and Upper School and KIPP DC’s New Teacher Cohort across multiple campuses.

Several of the schools also are hosting informal Apple Watch competitions, a monthly day for teachers to go home early, Sweetgreen posts on campus that let employees order healthy salads without delivery fees, and food trucks.

D.C. Public Schools recently offered an Educator Wellness Technical Assistance Grant to public and charter schools that applied before an Oct. 29 deadline.

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The $500,000 grant addresses “the root causes of educator stress” during the pandemic through a four-tiered wellness program that asks teachers to build trusting relationships with school leaders, confront challenging job expectations, exercise autonomy in school-level decisions and develop “social-emotional learning competencies” that “better manage stress and well-being.”

The two-year grant program, which surveys teachers to identify the wellness needs of each participating school, started Nov. 15 and is scheduled to end Sept. 30, 2023.

At its monthly meeting on Dec. 15, the D.C. State Board of Education hosted a panel discussion by educators and health specialists to “better explain the dimensions of teacher wellness problems in the District, identify best practices being employed in schools, and how the State Board can support and expand these practices to promote greater educator wellness and retention.”

The board reported in March 2020 that the pre-pandemic turnover rate of 25% for teachers in the District was above the national average of 16% between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 academic years.

The board has not yet said how many teachers quit in 2019-20.

But the board’s All-Teacher Survey in March noted that “teachers in the District were also noted to have a higher ‘intention to quit’” during the pandemic. On a scale of 1-9, with 9 indicating “agree strongly,” the survey found that D.C. teachers had an average response of 6.73 to the statement “I find teaching to be stressful.”

During the 2018-19 academic year, D.C. Public Schools’ turnover rate among teachers was 21% and the public charter schools rate was 26%.

Nationally, a Rand Corp. survey found 25% of U.S. teachers said they likely would quit after the 2020-21 school year.

New teachers are particularly vulnerable: A 2018 landmark study by Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania found that 44% of all teachers left the profession in the first five years of their career even before the pandemic.

At the same time, a Brookings Institution study found that while more teachers want to leave the profession, they are staying in the classroom for now until the economy improves — leaving open the possibility that schools might be able to retain them.

Emily Allen, a literacy interventionist at KIPP DC, said she prefers the more workout-oriented programs for her mood and stress management: “I love working out with fellow teachers because we are there to support and motivate each other, especially through the challenges of this pandemic.”

Jordan Daugherty, a dance teacher at Center City’s Petworth campus, praised the “whole-body standpoint” of virtual workouts.

“As a dancer, I had tried virtual fitness classes throughout the pandemic, but I missed the community and embedded competition of in-person classes,” she said.

Kelly Sloan, an education policy fellow for the Centennial Institute think tank at Colorado Christian University, said the more creative approach tends to reduce stress better than the traditional public school approach of grant-funded faculty in-service discussions.

“I think it does show that the benefits of charter schools and other school-choice avenues extend beyond the students to include teachers as well,” Mr. Sloan said. “It’s difficult to see something this innovative and potentially useful come from the staid environs of the public system.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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