NORTH LAS VEGAS — Crystal Nunes spent a decade as a government air quality inspector with decent pay, but she said she often looked back most fondly on a job she had before that as a substitute teacher.
It wasn’t until this summer that she finally took the leap, quitting her job and joining a fast-track teacher training program with help from the state’s Teach Nevada scholarship. That gamble is expected to pay off — her five-week program isn’t even over and schools are already interviewing her for some of the approximately 525 positions the Clark County School District still needs to fill by fall.
“I wanted to do something where I felt I was making a bigger impact,” Nunes said Wednesday, on a break from teaching a math class in a summer enrichment program for junior high students. “I’m a lot happier. I look forward to this more than my past job.”
Nevada is struggling with a chronic teacher shortage that mirrors problems in other parts of the country as fewer students enroll in teacher training programs. At the Washoe County School District, the state’s second largest behind Clark County, administrators are trying to fill 156 teacher jobs.
Experts point to a variety of causes for the waning interest in teaching, including relatively low pay, less teacher autonomy as schools try to meet rising government standards and a lower public opinion of the profession.
Clark County School District started last year with nearly 900 teacher vacancies after they were unable to find enough qualified candidates. Many of those vacancies remained throughout the school year, filled by long-term substitutes, including retired teachers brought back into service.
Michael Gentry, the district’s chief recruitment officer, said a new contract with the teacher’s union has raised the starting salary from about $35,000 last year to nearly $41,000 this year. He’s using that to try to lure teachers away from their jobs in lower-paying states, especially in areas with a high cost of living relative to Las Vegas.
“I think teachers care about salary just as much as everyone else,” Gentry said.
State leaders also created more incentives for prospective teachers, fearing that the shortage could undermine other new financial investments the Legislature made in English language learners, children in poverty and other at-risk groups. They authorized bonuses worth up to $5,000 for teachers starting in needy schools and created the Teach Nevada scholarship program, which funded 146 awards this year for people studying education.
That scholarship money is targeting Alternative Routes to Licensure programs, which enroll people who have already completed a bachelor’s degree and may have work experience in another field but don’t have all the credits they need for a teacher’s license. Clark County School District expects 200-250 candidates from the various ARL programs in Nevada.
One of them is Rebel Academy, a project spearheaded by UNLV’s College of Education to give prospective teachers hands-on experience during the summer. About 160 junior high students are enrolled in the five-week, non-credit enrichment program hosted on the campus of the Somerset Academy charter school in North Las Vegas.
They take lessons in English, social studies, science and math from 13 teacher candidates who are pursuing their licenses, and get free breakfast and lunch provided by the Three Square food bank. Mentor-teachers watch the candidates and offer tips and critiques.
In its inaugural run last year, the program had 20 teacher candidates, two-thirds of whom successfully completed the coursework, certification exams and their first year in the classroom. Some decided after they started teaching full-time that the profession wasn’t a good fit.
But one of this year’s prospective teachers is confident he’s making the right decision. That’s Israel Alvarado, who recognizes the state’s teacher shortage improves his chances of landing a job once the program is over.
He researched illnesses affecting honeybees before getting his Ph.D. in life sciences, but tired of the long-lecture style of teaching at the college level. He’s now pursuing a career as a science teacher after moving on from his most recent job — tasting and testing Klondike bars and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for Unilever.
“I definitely couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life,” he said.