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Valor Academy Elementary school teachers relieve stress at kickboxing session

Kickboxing, yoga, Zumba dance classes, healthy snacks and nursing pods for new mothers are all an integral part of an unusual approach adopted by a charter school network in Los Angeles to tackle the near-universal problem of stress and isolation that teachers cite as major reasons they leave the profession.

Since August 2017, Bright Star Schools, a network of charter schools in the central, south and San Fernando Valley sections of Los Angeles, has been offering programs and benefits designed to improve the health and work-life balance of their teachers. The programs were developed after Bright Star teachers cited the stresses of the job, its impact on their health and lack of time to spend with their families as major retention issues.

With a one-year $250,000 grant from Great Public Schools Now, a Los Angeles nonprofit that funds school-improvement initiatives, Bright Star is providing two family friendly benefits. It gives its 140 teachers two additional personal paid days off. In addition, it has installed a “nursing pod” — an oval-shaped structure with a door — in each school for teachers with infants, providing them a private space to pump and store their breast milk while on the job.

Bright Star is also using the grant to offer teachers an opportunity to participate in wellness workouts three days a week, voluntary sessions that are scheduled after classes during the last hour of their regular work day. For example, teachers can take part in Zumba sessions, kickboxing workouts, muscle-strengthening classes called “boot camps” and two types of yoga — Vinyasa and Kundalini — in large, empty rooms on each Bright Star campus.

Under the program, they also have access to free healthy snacks such as carrots, fruit and protein bars.

“Stress hurts a teacher’s performance in the classroom, creates health problems and contributes to teacher burnout — and that prompts many to leave the profession,” said Melissa Kaplan, Bright Star’s deputy superintendent. “We want to create a work environment where self-care is valued and supported by management.”

Unlike retention programs that focus on new and less experienced teachers — those most at risk of dropping out of the profession — Bright Star’s efforts are aimed at all teachers, said Nicole Wellman, the charter network’s vice president of people development.

“We want to retain our experienced teachers to support their continued development as teacher leaders and we encourage them to take part in the wellness classes because they also experience stress,” Wellman said.

Teacher stress is a well-documented fact of life in the classroom. For example, a 2013 Gallup Poll report said teachers report high levels of stress, second only to physicians, with 47 percent saying they experience it daily.

Typically, schools try to keep teachers in the classroom through a range of initiatives, such as providing professional development workshops, increasing salaries and other benefits, providing mentors for beginning teachers or encouraging collaboration with other teachers.

It is too soon to know whether Bright Start’s unusual retention program, which has barely been in place for six months, will keep teachers in the profession longer. Some school districts help subsidize exercise programs to improve employees’ health and reduce their insurance costs. Leading researchers on teacher attrition say they had not heard of a wellness program being used primarily as a tool to retain educators, but that it is an approach worth exploring.

“Considering that Bright Star is responding to specific needs that its employees identified, it makes sense to give this a try,” said Raegan Miller, research director at FutureEd, a Georgetown University education think tank.

In an interview with EdSource, Myrna Castrejón, executive director of Great Public Schools Now, which funds the initiative, said her organization will conduct evaluations of the program this spring, about one year after Bright Star launched the program. After the assessments, the organization will decide whether to fund the program beyond the initial year.

Funded by Eli Broad and other philanthropists, Great Public Schools Now was founded in 2016 as a substitute for a controversial plan proposed by Broad’s foundation in 2015 to raise $490 million to enroll half of L.A. Unified’s students in charter schools over eight years. After a backlash from teachers, administrators and others, the organization in 2016 announced that it would work with the district to help all schools — charter schools and district-managed schools. Castrejón said her organization aims to fund “innovative” proposals for improving education outcomes in Los Angeles.

“In this case, we’re providing incentives to schools to find out what will help teachers stay in classrooms — and the ideas on how to address this came from teachers,” she said.

Richard Ingersoll, another leading researcher on teacher retention, said the Bright Star program represents a novel approach to tackling the problem. Ingersoll, a professor of education in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said giving teachers an opportunity to help determine how to address attrition is a retention-boosting practice in itself.

“In our research we found that the whole issue of ‘voice’ is very important because teachers want to have more say in the workplace,” said Ingersoll, who is himself a former high school teacher. “Research also shows you can build best practices communities by seeking input from teachers.”

In addition, the yoga and other classes bring the teachers together regularly, which could boost morale and camaraderie, Ingersoll said.

“Teaching can be a lonely, isolated job but this [Bright Star] approach creates a more family-like culture,” he said.

Teachers at Valor Academy Elementary, a Bright Star school in the Northridge section of the San Fernando Valley, frequently used terms such as “family” and “bonding” to describe how they felt about the wellness classes. 

For example, Amy Weng, a 1st-grade teacher, talked about bonding with her colleagues during yoga classes, her favorite wellness class.

“The class has helped me manage stress,” said Weng, who has been teaching seven years. “There is a lot of camaraderie and bonding because we’re encouraging each other to do well during the exercises.”

For Elyssa Arroyo, a kindergarten teacher in her third year in the profession, the kickboxing sessions are therapeutic.

“I feel better at the end of the sessions — it’s like hitting a reset button — especially if I’ve had a tough day or tough week,” Arroyo said.

Victoria Antico, a 1st-grade teacher, said she especially values the two additional personal paid days off. Antico is in her first year of teaching.

“I was floored that an organization would think of teachers as whole persons and seek our input on our needs,” she said.

About 80 percent of Valor’s 205 students are Latino, 47 percent are English language learners and 65 percent qualify for a free or subsidized lunch. Currently a K-2 school, it will continue to add one elementary grade each year over the next several years.

In an additional benefit to the culture of a school as a whole, Bright Star administrators and other non-teaching staff can also participate in the wellness classes and use the nursing pods. Of the 344 Bright Star employees, 175 participate in the voluntary wellness program.

Even Valor Academy Elementary’s principal, May Oey, takes advantage of the program’s offerings. “For me, kickboxing is fun and I can feel the stress ease when I hit the bag,” she said.

Hrag Hamalian, the charter network’s executive director, takes part in the muscle-strengthening boot camp sessions whenever he can. He believes the wellness program has been so beneficial thus far that he will try to find other ways to finance it if Great Public Schools Now does not extend funding beyond one year.

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