Six years after Minneapolis schools broke the iron grip of seniority in filling teaching positions, the disparity in teacher experience remains as wide as ever, with the least-experienced teachers still concentrated at the city’s high-poverty schools.

At Bethune Elementary on the North Side, nearly two-thirds of the teaching staff is in its first five years of teaching. The average experience among teachers there has dropped from 18 years to nine, making it one of four high-­poverty elementary or K-8 schools where the staff averages fewer than 10 years of experience. The 44-teacher school has absorbed 28-plus new teachers in the last six years.

Bethune and schools like it are a tough places to learn on the job. All of Bethune’s kids are from families of limited-enough incomes to qualify for lunch subsidies, and student turnover is high.

“You are thrown into the most difficult environment when you are fresh out of school,” said Mauri Melander, a second-year principal at Lucy Laney, a K-8 school in north Minneapolis.

A Star Tribune analysis of teacher experience data by school found that, if anything, the experience gap between high- and low-poverty schools has widened since the change in how teachers are hired or assigned to schools.

Lucy Laney now averages seven years of classroom experience per teacher, the least among district schools with elementary grades, down from 12 years before the change in how teachers were assigned to schools.

In contrast, the higher-income Dowling Elementary in southeast averages 22 years of teacher experience.

“Teachers must now look at what they can best do for this city, rather than where is their job the easiest,” said former City Council Member Don Samuels, a school reform advocate, when told of the findings.

High-poverty schools also generally have high minority populations, and the link between schools with high poverty and low teacher experience has long been criticized by minority and North Side advocates, who say they don’t want their schools to be flooded with the least-experienced teachers. It’s an issue that plays out in urban districts across the country, with studies finding a systematic relation between high poverty and low teacher experience.

Melander said that the change in the teacher contract that freed up principals from having to hire the most-senior applicants may actually have hurt schools like hers. Under the previous decades-old system, more senior teachers were given priority in school assignments.

That changed starting for the 2008-2009 school year after then-school board members made it their top priority in negotiations. Instead of interviewing only the 10 most-senior teachers for an opening, principals and a school interview panel could interview the five most-senior interested teachers and five other applicants.

The board and some principals hailed that for helping them make sure that the teacher most skilled in a particular school’s approach, such as an open school or a math/science specialty, could get the job, instead of the most senior. Some community members critical of the old system’s concentration of inexperience in classrooms with the greatest needs also applauded the change.

But Melander said the new system also allows teachers with little seniority to seek jobs at other schools after less time in high-poverty schools, adding instability to schools like hers. Those teachers, she said, often tell her that they’ve applied for a new job and that “maybe” they’ll come back to the North Side sometime.

Poverty up, experience down

The Star Tribune analysis found that the gap in the 2007-2008 school year between average teaching experience at the highest- and lowest-seniority schools analyzed was 14 years. That’s the last year before the hiring change. But that gap is now 15 years. That analysis also found that six schools with poverty levels well below the district average still average 20 or more years of faculty experience, the same as in 2007-2008.

The two schools with the least seniority back then averaged 11 years of experience; today there are four extreme-poverty schools with a faculty average of fewer than 10 years. The analysis covered 31 K-5 or K-8 schools, excluding those that had major program or grade-level changes during the period.

“I think you’ve hit on something that we’re really wrestling with,” said Maggie Sullivan, the district’s executive director of human capital. “We think having such an unequal distribution of new teachers is not an effective strategy for the district.”

The district pushed during just-concluded teacher contract negotiations for the right to use incentives to hire and retain teachers in the 16 district schools designated as high-­priority schools, generally those with the highest number of students in poverty. The Star Tribune found that among the 11 schools where the poverty rate rose by five percentage points during the analysis period, faculty experience dropped at all but one. The drop at those 10 schools averaged four years, compared to an average drop across the district of only one year during that period.

The district and union agreed in the proposed contract to collaborate on incentives to attract and keep teachers in struggling schools. The proposed contract also lowers the class-size targets for these schools. District leaders say they hope that will attract more-experienced teachers.

Principals face the same issue

The union has argued that one strategy for improving struggling schools is for the district to stop placing inexperienced principals there. It said that teachers avoid struggling schools for several reasons, including ineffective leadership, lack of help with troubled students, and high staff and student turnover.

Melander, in her second year as a principal, feels keenly the inexperience of both her staff and herself. Seventeen of this year’s Laney teachers are in their first year in the building, and 31 of her teachers are probationary and seeking tenure.

She said she takes seriously who she hires, but called it a “travesty” that such high-needs students are taught by teachers still trying to get their teaching legs. “It’s the last group that should be tried out on,” she said.

Melander hasn’t filled out the district questionnaire that asks principals whether they prefer to stay or move next year, and said she’s been praying over whether she can continue to handle the toll of what she calls an emotionally charged job.

Meanwhile at Bethune, fourth-year Principal Melissa Jackson said only five of her 22 classroom and specialist teachers are tenured.

Despite the challenges, Jackson is hopeful the school can raise its teacher experience level with the right incentives.

“It’s hard to go deeper in our work when we’re always starting ground-level,” she said of staff turnover.