This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in August 2015.
Grandview Public Schools is a statistical anomaly in the Kansas City metro.
On average, teachers in Grandview have 15 years experience, which is on par with suburban districts like Blue Valley and Lee's Summit. Likewise, the district's proportion of new teachers (those with five years experience or less) is also small: less than 20 percent, compared to a metro-wide average of nearly 30 percent.
But Grandview has achieved this level of expertise while also serving a student population that — at least by federal measures — is one of the poorest in the metro. Grandview is one of five public school districts in and around Kansas City that has more than 75 percent of its students labeled free and reduced-price lunch. (The average for Kansas City's more than 20 charter schools is also well above 75 percent.)
Of these low-income districts, Grandview has the most experienced teachers and also the highest test scores, as well as some of the highest graduation rates. So, why is Grandview a magnet for veteran teachers?
A 'sweet spot'
Rebeka McIntosh is entering her 21st year teaching in Grandview. She now works as a K-5 instructor at the district's alternative school. Here, she teaches students who, for one reason or another, have not found success in more traditional classrooms.
Many of her students have anger issues and are severely behind in their academic work. It is challenges like these that often lead teachers in high-needs schools to burn out. McIntosh, though, loves her job.
"It's the hardest work I've ever done," she says. "You laugh every day; you cry every day."
McIntosh says Grandview is in a 'sweet spot': small enough to feel like a close community but large enough to also give teachers the sense that they are having a major impact.
"I really feel like I've lucked out," she says, "being in this district my entire career."
She admits she has tough days ("I mean, I've already changed a kid's pair of pants today."), but she has found other responsibilities in the district to give her an "outlet" outside of class.
She heads the Grandview Missouri National Education Association, the state teacher's union, and has played a key role in annual contract negotiations.
"That allows me to meet other teachers, feel responsible, get my head above just my classroom," she says.
McIntosh says the district has allowed her to voice her opinions and take on extra duties in a way that pushes her professionally.
"You have to do something outside of class," she says, "or burnout can be real."
Feels like 'family'
There is evidence that not only is Grandview keeping teachers like McIntosh but also enticing veterans from other districts.
In the week before school began, Grandview's 30 new teachers toured the district's facilities, including a stop at Grandview High School. Though these teachers are new to Grandview, most of them are not new to teaching. The group has an average of nine years teaching, which is higher than some nearby districts' overall average.
Some of these veterans, like Brenda Clayton, have quit their old jobs specifically to work in Grandview. Clayton has "worked well more than 10 years" in other districts in and around Kansas City.
"I am very excited to be a part of this family," she says. "I really feel they are teaching kids the 21st Century skills needed to be successful."
She says the district's test scores bear this out. Indeed, Grandview's annual MAP scores are significantly higher than neighboring districts Hickman Mills and Kansas City and also outrank most KCMO charter schools.
Jo McCormick is a 12-year veteran coming from Kansas. Her reasons are different but equally as pointed as Clayton's.
"It's great to work in a district that finally supports funding its schools," she says. She will be teaching high school science this year and notes her lab "looks wonderful."
"This is the one high school in the district," she says. "You can feel the community, all students will funnel through here. It's neat."
Undoubtedly, Grandview's pay helps draw veteran teachers. The district has one of the best salary and benefits packages in the region. Its average pay is third highest on the Missouri side of the metro (behind only suburban Lee's Summit and Park Hill).
"It has been our goal to be in the top third in pay around the metro," says Lori DeAnda, Grandview's Human Resources director. "And we have achieved that for the most part the past 25 years."
But DeAnda says veteran teachers need more than this to be happy. She argues the district's reputation earned through consistently high test scores shows outsiders that it will be "hard work" teaching in Grandview.
"We continue to ask a lot of our teachers," she says. "This is not the place to come if you just want to sit and collect your money."
Will this stay true?
But as successful as Grandview appears to be in attracting veteran teachers, keeping teachers is a different challenge. Last year, the district saw a slight uptick in the number of teachers leaving Grandview. (Though more than 90 percent of all teachers, excluding retirees, returned this year.)
McIntosh says she has seen too many younger colleagues leave the profession. She notes that at least a few of her former co-workers had to leave because they were burdened with student debt.
"These are talented people," she says, "and it's extremely frustrating. They feel forced out of the profession."
She also says teachers of all generations have to struggle through their first few years on the job.
"After you get over that initial rookie-ness," she says, "you then face the bureaucratic, paper-work side of the job, and that can be very daunting. You have to push through."
She says she has reached a point in her career where she is intellectually challenged and professionally satisfied. She often feels that she has lucked into her job at Grandview's alternative school and even sounds, at times, like she is not looking forward to retirement.
"I don't know if I'll be able to return to real life after doing this," she says.
Many districts would want their veteran teachers to have that feeling.
This story is part of KCUR's 'Teaching It Forward' project, which looks deeply at the changing nature of the teaching profession in the Kansas City metro.