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Urban districts struggle to find, keep teachers as school populations grow

GREG TOPPO, AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) – The way Martha Powell sees it, prospective teachers are everywhere.

The longtime principal of an elementary school in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood, Powell has hired waiters, actresses, butchers, writers and even a Navy chaplain. One of her favorite finds worked – unhappily, as it turned out – as a clerk in a flower shop. Powell, buying flowers one day, suggested she try teaching.

”I recruit from wherever I can,” the principal said.

Powell and others say there’s no shortage of smart, young people who want to teach. But as school populations grow nationwide, school districts – especially in big cities – are struggling to find ways to lure new teachers and keep them there.

Taking a page from business, school districts are offering moving expenses, signing bonuses, housing allowances, health club memberships – even tax breaks. A few school districts, such as Chicago, offer special visas to attract foreign candidates.

But the problem of too many students and not enough teachers persists.

U.S. Census data show a rising tide of school enrollment – a record 49 million students this year – that is due to grow over the next four years before leveling off. Meanwhile, the bulk of the nation’s teaching force is nearing retirement age, with most teachers in their mid-40s to early 50s.

A recent survey by Education Week showed that about 20 percent of new teachers leave the classroom after three years, while 50 percent quit teaching after five years. Education Department estimates show that public schools must hire as many as 2.7 million new teachers by 2009.

The problem isn’t as acute in many suburban areas, where shortages exist mainly for out-of-the-ordinary subjects, such as advanced mathematics, special education and foreign languages.

By contrast, most big cities need teachers of all types.

A January 2000 report issued by Recruiting New Teachers, a nationwide teacher recruiting agency based in Boston, found that nearly all major urban school districts urgently need teachers in at least one subject area, with more crucial needs in specialty areas. The report also said 60 percent of urban districts, such as Los Angeles, allow non-certified teachers in the classroom under emergency licenses, and hire long-term substitute teachers.

”The real question is: How do you get a teacher on the west side of Chicago in the classroom?” said Carlos Ponce, head of human resources for Chicago public schools.

Ponce and others gathered Tuesday in Washington for a forum on urban teacher shortages, with a focus on attracting potential teachers to where they’re most urgently needed.

Of the estimated 6 million people in the United States with teaching backgrounds or credentials, only 3 million are actually teaching, said Tom Loveless of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

”That’s a huge pool that’s currently untapped,” he said.

States and school districts nationwide are rushing to tap the pool, offering $2,000 or more in signing bonuses and even more in moving costs, plus hundreds of dollars teachers can spend on their own classroom supplies.

States are awarding scholarships to education majors who agree to teach in low-income areas, adding low-cost rental housing, affordable mortgages and financial aid for graduate-level tuition at state universities.

One program at California State University allows prospective teachers to take evening, weekend, Internet and summer classes to earn a teaching certificate while employed elsewhere. California, which in 1996 mandated smaller class sizes in lower elementary grades, needs about 300,000 new teachers over the next decade, or about as many as are teaching now.

Ponce and others said many teachers leave the profession not because of low wages, but because they’re unprepared for the workload or don’t get enough mentoring from experienced teachers.

Loveless, a former teacher, said many schools of education force prospective teachers to take irrelevant undergraduate courses while they should be giving them real-world training experiences.

”I’ve really taken a lot of education courses,” he said. ”Most of them were a complete waste of time.”

Shirley Schwartz of the Council of the Great City Schools said school districts must work with universities to help new teachers continue their education.

”I think we make a terrible mistake when we think that colleges of education put out a finished product,” she said. ”A new teacher is that: new. They’re a novice, and we’re not going to keep them unless we support them some way.”

Recruiting New Teachers: http://www.rnt.org

Council of the Great City Schools: http://www.cgcs.org/