In addition to raising teacher pay in the 2023-24 school year, Richardson ISD officials are looking to attract and retain talent with a new program for district staff.

At the beginning of the school year, RISD officials created the first Child Learning Academy for those in the Richardson High School feeder community. As the district looks to expand the program, Superintendent Tabitha Branum said the effort will not only benefit teacher and staff, but also students.

“For some of our teachers, it's just not feasible for them to pay for the level of day care that they were and also still teach,” Branum said. “[The program] means we're able to keep a highly qualified individual in front of our kids that is supporting them, teaching them, loving them in the very best ways possible. It's kind of a win-win: Not only does the employee benefit, but as a district we benefit.”

Two-minute impact

Created in part due to a demand from teachers and staff, the Child Learning Academies cater to children of full-time RISD staff from 6-week-olds to those eligible for pre-K at 3 years old. Tuition for those enrolled is $350 a month, which Executive Director of Communications Tim Clark said is below the market rate in the area.

“The key part is our board wanted it to be something that was very affordable to all employees,” Branum said. “Whether you are a bus driver, an instructional paraprofessional or a classroom teacher, ... it could be a service that everyone could manage and see as a real benefit.”

The Little Eagles Child Learning Academy, which serves the Richardson High School feeder community, is able to serve 57 students. When the Little Mustangs Child Learning Academy opens in January, it will serve 67 students in the J. J. Pearce High School feeder community. Branum said there are around 150 families on the waitlist.

Branum said the district plans to eventually open two more Child Learning Academies. She noted the academies could be set up by high school feeder patterns or be more strategically located by geography across the district.

“The emails that I have received [say] it's been a life-changing experience, that they feel so confident with where they're dropping off their kids and that we've hired really amazing people,” Branum said. “But [the emails also say] what it means for them in terms of their financial stability.”

The context

As part of a package of compensation-related efforts in the district aimed at attracting and keeping talent, the annual cost of around $700,000 to run the Child Learning Academy program is lower than the cost of filling vacancies, RISD trustee Eric Eager said when the district announced plans for the academies in June. He said district staff estimated the services provided at the academies could potentially save the district $1.5 million by avoiding new teacher training.

Branum said the district started the 2022-23 school year with about 140 vacancies. This school year, it started with 12 vacancies—something she said is difficult to do given the competitive nature of recruiting within the North Texas area.

How we got here

Branum and Katy Phinney, coordinating director of early childhood services, said they hope the Child Learning Academy program continues to bolster the district’s efforts with recruitment and retention. They noted the district has implemented other efforts recently, including the opening of a discounted acute care clinic for employees and raises for district staff.

“I don't think teacher retention or recruitment is just one thing,” Phinney said. “It is a bunch of layers of things that if you take the your eye off one ball, you risk moving in the wrong direction. It takes our entire team staying really centered around listening to teachers, listening to staff, and responding accordingly.”

As part of the district’s fiscal year 2023-24 budget, teacher salaries increased by 5% with starting teachers beginning at $60,000. For nonteaching staff, raises included a $3-per-hour increase for custodians and an increase of 3%-6% for other staff, depending on their position.

“Our board of trustees know the talent pipeline for educators is more shallow than it's ever been, and we have more educators leaving the profession at this time than we've ever had,” Branum said. “We knew we needed to do something that made us stand out. [The compensation package] is really focused on how do we retain the best of the best, then how do we position ourselves with a very competitive overall compensation so we can recruit when there is a vacancy.”