Thursday, August 28, 2008

Small school superintendents must be creative to fill all teaching positions

By Mark Coddington
The Grand Island Independent
Posted Aug 23, 2008 @ 10:29 PM

When Superintendent Amy Malander advertised for an art teacher at Cedar Rapids public school in 2006, she didn't exactly get overrun with applications.

Actually, she didn't get any.

Not that it was much of a surprise -- it had happened a few years before with a family and consumer science opening. She advertised for a science teacher the same year as the art job and got a single applicant. This year, she got two applications for a math position.

So Malander improvised. She persuaded an elementary teacher certified to teach K-8 art to tack on high school art, too.

The lack of a certification certainly wasn't desirable to Malander or the state, but in a district with about 135 K-12 students and no other options, it would have to do.

Superintendents of small schools across Central Nebraska can rattle off survival stories like Malander's. It has always been difficult to recruit teachers for specialized positions such as music and industrial arts, they said, but never more difficult than it is today.

And the shortage of qualified applicants is hitting small districts, with their rural settings and lower salaries, the hardest.

"You used to have a job open in social studies, and you'd get 15, 16, 17 applicants," said Mike McCabe, superintendent of Ansley and Arcadia school districts, with 195 and 118 students, respectively. "Now you'd be lucky to get four or five."

At Hampton public schools, Superintendent Holly Herzberg considers herself largely insulated from a teacher shortage. Her 147-student district is close to Grand Island, Aurora and York, giving teachers several options of places to live and employers for their spouses.

She was excited about the number of applications she got recently for a vocational ag position: four.

To a man, the superintendents said they were still able to find high-quality teachers despite the shallow pool of applicants.

But they also described themselves as lucky for just that reason.

"We got some darn good people. We kind of came out of this (year) in excellent shape," said Bob Brown, superintendent of Sargent and Arnold districts in Custer County. "That's not always going to happen."

Social lives and salaries

One explanation for the shortage is simple: a generation of young people who have embraced higher salaries and big-city life in Lincoln, Omaha or outside the state.

It's essentially Nebraska's long-lamented "Brain Drain," played out in teaching.

McCabe said he has seen that older applicants with a spouse and family tend to find small towns appealing as a place to raise children. But recent college graduates tend to dismiss small schools out of hand, because as singles in their early 20s, they see rural areas as a social dead-end.

"I don't think they're looking at the school so much as they're looking at the town's environment and atmosphere," McCabe said.

John Poppert, superintendent of Giltner public schools, said he can understand that concern.

"They're 23, 24 years old," Poppert said. "There's not much to do in Giltner compared to Grand Island or Hastings."

The state's teacher's union, the Nebraska State Education Association, agrees that teachers are leaving the state for what seem to be greener pastures.

NSEA officials cite statistics from the state Department of Education that revealed that only about half of the people of who received teaching certificates from the state in 2005 were teaching here two years later.

But their explanation is different: Teachers are leaving the state not necessarily for more populated areas, but for higher pay, said Jess Wolf, NSEA's president and a former teacher and principal in Arlington.

Wolf noted that the state ranks 45th in the country in teacher pay and cited several examples of colleagues who left for higher pay in Iowa, Kansas or Wyoming.

Several superintendents acknowledged that their districts couldn't pay as much as larger districts -- let alone other fields.

"If you're graduating in math and the sciences, you're going into engineering and not into education because of the low salary," Malander said. "The business world is just outpaying us."

Wolf acknowledged, too, that fluctuation in small schools' state aid limits the amount districts, particularly small ones, could spend on their teachers' salaries.

Still, he said raising salaries significantly could be feasible.

"It takes some gut decisions on the part of school districts to decide where they're going to spend their money," Wolf said.

A proactive approach

This staffing shortage doesn't mean, though, that superintendents are relegated to advertising a position, then praying for applicants.

Many are diligent in building relationships with education departments in the state's colleges, then relentless in pursuing the graduating students in those departments.

Dan Bird, superintendent of Burwell public schools, said it's not unusual for him and his colleagues to call coveted students directly with a sales pitch for their district.

That's a significant change from years past, when the onus was more on candidates to make themselves stand out to districts.

"Instead of waiting for them to come to you, you're making the call, asking them to come," Bird said.

He said he also tries to determine early in the school year which of his teachers aren't planning on returning, so he can advertise earlier and get a better crop of candidates.

"Early" used to mean April, Bird said. Now, it usually means before Jan. 1.

Bird also partners with Burwell Economic Development to give out a recruiting CD highlighting the community's assets to potential candidates.

Others try to include incentives outside their salary limitations.

The Giltner district owns five homes in town that it rents out to young teachers for a low cost.

McCabe said he has reached an agreement with the local teachers' union to allow him to count years of experience that a new teacher doesn't have toward the state's pay scale.

Wolf noted that such arrangements are only legal if the local union representatives sign off on them. He said the NSEA generally disapproves of them, as they leave less funds for other teachers in future negotiations.

Other districts try a more homegrown approach. Malander said she's working to help a Cedar Rapids woman get a foreign language teacher's certificate through a University of Nebraska at Kearney program, and the brightest Cedar Rapids students are told about the opportunities to come back and teach in their hometown.

"You have to start doing your own recruiting," Malander said.

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