Lori Cunningham Credit: Joe Gallo

At a Chicago Public Schools teacher fair this summer, Lori Cunningham joined hundreds of principals and school representatives from across the city who were looking to recruit the best and the brightest to their schools.

Cunningham, a recruiter hired in January to work exclusively for 26 schools in one of the city’s toughest West Side neighborhoods, wants the best and the brightest, too. But she’s looking for other qualities as well.

“Are you interested in teaching high-risk students? Do you think all children can be educated? What do you know about North Lawndale?” she asks candidates.

Cunningham’s job—the only one of its kind in the district—was the novel idea of one administrator who oversees North Lawndale, where schools battle to hire and retain high-quality new teachers. “We can get teachers, but we don’t keep them,” says Area 8 Instructional Officer Rollie Jones, Cunningham’s boss.

Cunningham, a former human resources manager for an information technology firm, prescreens candidates to find those who have a strong desire to teach at-risk students and who are not afraid to work in a high-poverty, sometimes-dangerous neighborhood.

Cunningham’s duties also include helping new teachers resolve issues such as finding a place to live, overseeing a mentoring and co-teaching program for new North Lawndale teachers and supervising a newly created teacher retention task force that gives principals a forum to talk about retention and how to improve it.

“Right now, it is only made up of 11 principals, but what they learn and what they find effective will be trickled down to the whole area,” says Cunningham.

And, Cunningham conducts exit interviews with teachers who do leave, using a protocol CPS is planning to adopt system-wide this year.

“To retain teachers, there just can’t be one thing you do. A series of things is needed,” says Robin Steans, a trustee of the Steans Family Foundation. The foundation and the Chicago Community Trust pay Cunningham’s salary.

Knowing ‘culture of schools’

Principals say Cunningham provides personalized help.

“People at central office are good, but here is someone who can give us immediate assistance, who knows the culture of the schools. She looks for people who fit,” says Webster Elementary Principal Edith Allen-Colman.

Howland Elementary Principal Rae Smith agrees. “No one calls [from central office] to say, ‘Rae, I found a good fit for your school.’ They fax me a bunch of resumes. But Lori knows what we need. It makes a big difference.”

Cunningham helped Smith find a teacher of Mandarin Chinese. “That is a tough position to fill,” says Smith. “Between the two of us, I was able to grab resumes and we’ve narrowed it down to one candidate.”

Principal Shelton Flowers of King Elementary says Cunningham helped him fill a job for a physical education teacher in a couple of weeks, despite a system-wide shortage of teachers in that area. The new teacher, Dustin Covarrubias, told Cunningham he felt very strongly about wanting to teach low-income children.

Says Cunningham, “Dustin really wanted to work for Chicago Public Schools and not the suburbs. And he asked me not to send his resume to schools that are considered ‘easy.’ He was very sincere and enthusiastic, and said he wanted to work in a school where people needed him.”

Asking key questions

Cunningham relies on screening out lackluster candidates as much as finding good ones.

She asks teachers if they are familiar with the West Side, have any experience working with children who are academically at-risk and why they want to work in North Lawndale.

“They may say, ‘I really want to make a difference.’ But I want to hear a plan and if they recognize the difficulties,” Cunningham says. “A lot of people have grandiose ideas of saving the world, but no concrete idea as to how hard it may be.”

By asking teachers where they see themselves in five years, Cunningham gauges if they are likely to stay in the classroom or use the experience as a steppingstone to an administrative position. Other questions ferret out the extent of teachers’ instructional skills; for instance, by asking a prospective 3rd-grade teacher how she would prepare her students for the ISAT.

“I don’t want teachers who don’t plan on staying, or who think this is a last-ditch effort to find a job…or who say they aren’t sure they can work with our kids, or don’t think all kids can be taught,” Cunningham says.

Asking such questions is vital to finding the right teachers for high-poverty areas, says one educator.

“It is critical to find teachers who choose to work with the children in North Lawndale and have a clue of how to do it,” says Victoria Chou, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It is important that teachers in that area have high expectations for their students and know how to work with the kids, their families and the community.”

Cunningham’s job doesn’t stop with hiring. New teachers say the extra support she continues to give makes them feel more comfortable about taking a job in an unfamiliar community.

Covarrubias, who is from South Elgin, was new to Chicago and needed help finding a place to live. “I’d never had to find a place to live before and I didn’t know what to do. She’s like talking to a friend.”

“It makes the job easier, because the job is hard enough,” says Kevin Pearce, a new 5th-grade teacher at Bethune. “I think teachers leave because they don’t feel that kind of support.”

Teresa Dobson, a self-described “farm girl” from Springfield and also a newcomer at Bethune, was eager to take the job but had lingering concerns about working in North Lawndale. Family members told her she was crazy to teach in an inner-city school and warned her about getting “beaten up” on her first day.

Cunningham “was real with me,” says Dobson. “She admitted the school was not in the best area, but told me to use common sense, just like you are supposed to anywhere you go. She advised me to be aware of my surroundings, to use the people around me like security and not be afraid to ask for assistance. Knowing I have her, my mentor and my principal makes me feel comfortable and want to stay.”

Why do they leave?

To give schools a clearer picture of why teachers leave, Cunningham has been conducting exit interviews since March. She asks departing teachers whether they are leaving Area 8 for another CPS school or leaving CPS altogether; if they would consider returning to CPS; and if they felt successful at their job and supported by their principals and mentors.

So far, 25 teachers have participated and 20 of them cited lack of classroom management skills, a typical problem for new teachers, as the reason for their departure, Cunningham reports.

“We now have hard data to back up what we’ve always known,” says Jones.

CPS plans to modify Cunningham’s exit interview and use it with new teachers—those with five years’ experience or less—who leave the district starting this year.

“Before you work on retention, you have to figure out why people are leaving. And we recognize the power this information has to inform the district on how schools are doing,” says Veenay Singla, a master’s degree candidate from the University of Chicago and a consultant for the department of planning and development.

In the meantime, Steans says it is still too early to gauge whether Cunningham’s hiring will have the intended impact. “It will take a few years,” she points out. “Still, I am hopeful [retention] will get better.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.

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