At N.J. charter schools, teachers grow with the students

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Kipp NJ’s Lanning Square Primary School located in Camden.

Teachers at Kipp New Jersey’s charter schools not only love being educators, they love being continually educated.

And that – ongoing training, as well as a shared passion for teaching — are the reasons that Kipp NJ staffers say they relish working at the nonprofit, which made its first appearance on our Top Workplaces survey this year.

“We have professional development once a week, which is unheard of in any other school I’ve ever been at,” said Shenika Branch, a teacher at Kipp Lanning Square Primary in Camden. “We’re always in the position to learn and we’re in the position to teach.”

Kipp NJ, based in Newark and operating charter schools there and in Camden, has 117 employees in the Delaware Valley.

The nonprofit offers its staff members generous benefits. Most are eligible to receive bonuses ranging from $500 to $10,000 for referring candidates for teaching jobs. Kipp NJ will also match a portion of the pre-tax dollars that employees contribute to an optional 403(b) plan, and all teachers are enrolled in the state’s pension plan. Staff members can join the company’s phone plan for roughly $65 a month, and each staffer receives a laptop.

This bevy of benefits isn’t common for teachers, said Vince Marigna, chief people officer for Kipp’s Garden State operation, adding, “I would say we are pretty cutting edge on that.”

But according to Marigna, those are not the primary factors that attract staff members to Kipp NJ.

“People are first and foremost drawn to the idea that they will be able to grow, they’ll be in an environment where they will be developed as a teacher or as a leader,” Marigna said. “Then I think all those other things are secondary.”

Kipp NJ’s approach is apparently succeeding in keeping its workforce happy: 84 percent of its teachers stay with it year-to-year, and 46 percent of its staff moved up to leadership roles, according to the company’s website.

According to Tyler Middleton, a math teacher at Kipp Whittier Middle in Camden, teachers constantly receive feedback, support and coaching on the job.

At the suggestion of his principal, Middleton recently traveled to one of Kipp’s high-performing schools in Newark to observe its fifth grade class.

Several weeks ago, three members of Kipp NJ’s teaching and learning team observed Middleton’s classroom. After class, they offered helpful suggestions.  

Professional development is built into Kipp NJ’s teachers’ schedules. At Branch’s school, students leave at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays, allowing time for teachers to have their own learning sessions.  

There are also content-team meetings, Branch said, where a teacher will go through a lesson with his or her peers and managers for feedback. They sometimes do role-playing, where a colleague or manager will “ask questions kids would ask, misconceptions kids would have, just so we can troubleshoot through them,” Branch said.

Kipp NJ staff members also lauded the nonprofit for recruiting dedicated professionals who view teaching as a calling — not a job — and are invested in their students’ future. Middleton and Branch said that creates the kind of atmosphere they, and children, thrive in.

“Working for Kipp has allowed me to be with a lot of like-minded people who have high expectations and will do whatever it takes,” Middleton said. “And even though the days are really long and hard, you’re able to say at the end of the day we did what was best for kids. It was a lot of fun. We saw growth. We saw achievement.”

Branch expressed the same kind of enthusiasm for Kipp NJ and her school.

“I love my job,” she said. “The work’s not easy. The hours aren’t short. It’s a long process but they make it even better by making sure we like each other.”