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THE NATION

Nation's School Districts Beating the Bushes for New Teachers

Education: There is a critical personnel gap as demand rises and older instructors retire.

July 01, 2001|ALISA BLACKWOOD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Peggy Larson bypassed the booths at a job fair for seniors and took her resume straight to a recruiter from a local charter school.

Larson, 76, a retired teacher from Cottonwood, Ariz., learned she was just the kind of candidate they were looking for: eager, certified and ready to return to teaching --a profession in desperate need of qualified applicants throughout the country.

"I'm much older, but I'm a good teacher," Larson said. "And they have a shortage of teachers."

Turning to nontraditional candidates--seniors among them--is just one of the tactics school districts across the nation are using to fill gaps in their fall teaching lineups.

In Las Vegas, the Clark County School District for a while displayed signs at McCarran International Airport, advertising the community beyond the casinos.

"Elvis has left the classroom; we have a vacancy," read one.

Other school districts offer cash bonuses or housing allowances, or recruit teachers from other countries.

Whatever the method, the competition for talent is stiff, and schools say they cannot get more qualified teachers into their classrooms fast enough. Some administrators are feeling desperate.

"I've heard some recruiters say they're just looking for warm bodies until they can meet the demand," said Mildred Hudson, chief executive of Recruiting New Teachers, a recruitment research group in Belmont, Mass.

The group estimates that during the next decade, U.S. schools will need to hire 2 million teachers to meet rising enrollment demands and replace an aging baby boomer teaching force.

But schools are finding that the usual methods--college job fairs and Internet postings--are not enough to fill their needs, forcing them to get creative in their recruiting.

Jane Vert, assistant principal at the Paradise Education Center in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, diversified her recruiting this spring by attending the seniors job fair, where she met about 25 interested retirees, including Larson.

"We want the best possible candidates, and I don't want to be forced into the position of hiring the first person who walks in the door," Vert said. "The retirement pool is an incredible pool of people. There's a lot of talent there."

As evidence: The Alaska Legislature passed a law that allows retired teachers to reenter the work force without losing their pension benefits.

First Lady Laura Bush has been active in pushing a program aimed at bringing retired military personnel into the classroom. The Department of Defense program Troops to Teachers has placed nearly 4,000 retired military men and women in teaching positions since 1994.

Las Vegas' tongue-in-cheek approach is partly due to the Clark County School District's tight advertising budget of $14,000 a year, which makes finding innovative recruiting methods essential, said George Ann Rice, an assistant superintendent. A local advertising agency provided the Elvis ad and other airport ads free of charge.

Like many school districts, Rice also recruits actively on the Internet and at out-of-state job fairs.

"We're dreaming them up faster than we can implement them," Rice said, adding that her district needs to hire 1,600 new teachers by August.

Georgia Salaries High

The Georgia Department of Education's Web site lists more than 2,100 open jobs for the 2001-2002 school year. The situation is not expected to get better anytime soon, despite Georgia's boasting the highest average teacher salary in the Southeast--$42,216.

Massachusetts, South Carolina and California are upping the competition by offering signing bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 over four years. Many prospective candidates argue the bonuses have too many strings attached, such as requiring recipients to teach in low-performing schools or earning special certifications.

Some school districts have joined with local businesses to offer teachers discounts on apartments, gym memberships and even restaurants, said Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers' union.

Boston Public Schools has had some of its best luck finding qualified teachers in foreign countries.

"The people we have coming are extraordinary," said Ed Joyce, who hired six math and three science teachers from the Philippines for Boston public schools. "First, they know their math and science. Secondly, they have incredible techniques. . . . I wish we would have offered positions to more."

School districts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Illinois and California also have hired math and science teachers from India or bilingual teachers from Mexico, Costa Rica and Spain.

"We're not opposed to that practice, but it's not a solution to the fundamental teacher shortage problem. It's at best a short-term fix," said Segun Eubanks, teacher recruitment and retention specialist for the NEA.

No-Shows a Problem

The alternatives can be troubling.

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