Help wanted: California school districts scramble to hire teachers

Video: Tips for new teachers

As school districts engage in a hiring frenzy, veteran Luther Burbank High School English teacher and education blogger Larry Ferlazzo dishes out advice to fledgling teachers.
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As school districts engage in a hiring frenzy, veteran Luther Burbank High School English teacher and education blogger Larry Ferlazzo dishes out advice to fledgling teachers.

A growing teacher shortage has California school districts offering subsidized housing and signing bonuses in an effort to woo potential recruits.

The hiring frenzy is a reversal from the recession years that left 32,000 California educators unemployed and college students too discouraged to enroll in teaching programs.

Additional state tax revenue has enabled schools to reduce class sizes and restore programs that were eliminated during the economic downturn. That has led to sudden demand for teachers that the college pipeline is struggling to meet.

“With fewer fully credentialed teachers available to take over classrooms, the number of teachers hired on substandard permits and credentials has nearly doubled,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and co-author of a report on the teacher shortage released this month.

California has hired 7,700 teachers with temporary permits, waivers or on intern credentials over the past two years. A third of all new credentials issued in 2014-15 fit into this category, according to the report titled “Addressing California’s Emerging Teacher Shortage.”

Special education, math and science teachers are especially hard to find, with an increasing number working without full credentials, according to the report. California districts were able to find less than half of the fully qualified special-education teachers they needed in 2014-15.

In response, California school district officials have gotten creative. In the Bay Area, where middle-class workers face high costs of living, some districts are building subsidized housing for teachers. The largest districts in the Sacramento region have developed aggressive marketing campaigns and sent recruiters to out-of-state job fairs and professional conferences.

In the North Sacramento area, the Twin Rivers Unified School District offers signing bonuses of up to $5,000, said Bill McGuire, the district’s deputy superintendent. The district of 31,000 students started the school year with 38 unfilled teaching positions.

Folsom Cordova Unified also offers signing bonuses, but only for particularly competitive and hard-to-fill positions such as speech and language pathologists, and psychologists, said Daniel Thigpen, district spokesman.

Some school districts are trying to get ahead of the competition by hiring early in the year. Sacramento City Unified and Natomas Unified are offering “open contracts” to Sacramento State teaching students preparing to graduate, said Stephanie Biagetti, teaching credential chair at the university. Such contracts guarantee graduates a job but not a particular school or grade level, avoiding conflicts with teachers that have seniority rights.

Districts are recruiting with a fervor that hasn’t been seen before, Biagetti said. Some districts have asked the university to host recruitment events at their district headquarters before the annual Sacramento State Education Expo recruitment held each spring.

Last year, more than 50 of the university’s graduates had contracts by the time they graduated, Biagetti said.

The California State University system, which educates half the state’s teachers, is trying to help meet the demand by doing a little recruiting of its own. Five campuses, including California State University, Sacramento, will be part of a pilot program this fall that will identify students who might make good teachers.

“It is a way to recruit students within our universities who may never have thought of teaching as a profession,” Biagetti said. “We want to identify those students as freshmen and sophomores, and move them through the pipeline as efficiently as possible.”

Enrollment at Sacramento State’s teaching college is on the upswing from its all-time low of 370 candidates for credentials in 2013-14, less than half of what the university had seven years before. University officials couldn’t provide more recent information about the number of students graduating with a credential.

“We expect the trend to continue given the economy and media coverage on the teacher shortage over the past year,” Biagetti said.

Many students were discouraged from entering the teaching profession during the recession, as California slashed funding for education. Districts laid off staff members, and younger teachers often suffered most under rules that prioritized educators with seniority.

The field still has a reputation for being demanding and paying relatively low salaries despite the improved hiring picture.

“Teachers are so needed and they are so important, and they are paid nothing and they work so hard for their children and, hopefully, somewhere along the line people will realize that,” said Chantal Harper, 46, who is completing her bachelor’s degree and plans to start her credential program next school year.

Only a third of teachers who leave the profession each year are retirees, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Many others leave because they are dissatisfied with their jobs. Once hired, teachers need strong training, support and mentoring programs to keep them in the profession, education experts told the Senate Education Committee at a hearing last week.

Matt Smith, 45, said he receives solid mentoring as a student teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.

“I’m really kind of buoyed with confidence, especially with the experience I’ve gained in the program,” he said.

The Burbank program rotates student teachers through different classrooms to expose them to different subjects, including special education. Each Friday, student teachers meet with administrators for a weekly seminar and to visit classrooms in a session modeled after medical rounds. On a recent Thursday, Smith worked alongside veteran teacher Larry Ferlazzo in his class for English-language learners.

During the recession, teachers were lucky to land any position they could; now, they can be pickier when choosing their employers. Harper said she will seek schools that care about teachers and students.

She remembers watching her mother struggle when she worked as a teacher in an unsupportive school district, which “made me realize how important it is to have people around that support you.”

Smith, who will complete his teaching credential program this summer, said he is looking for a school where he feels he can have the biggest impact. He also said he will look at pay and the proximity of the school to his West Sacramento home.

“No matter what we are doing, the goal is to educate students,” Smith said. “So, really, you just want an environment where you can make the biggest difference possible in the most supportive environment possible.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert