IN DEMAND: Area ISDs scramble to overcome state teacher shortage

School districts are looking at ways to bring in — and keep — teachers as they, among others, battle a statewide teacher shortage.

A statewide teacher shortage has school districts scrambling with the start of the next school year a short four months ahead.

“The market is more competitive,” Aledo ISD Superintendent Susan Bohn said. “It’s just getting more competitive, not less so.”

Bohn’s 5A school district hosted a job fair on a recent Saturday, hoping to fill vacancies across its roughly 850 staff, about 500 of which are teaching positions.

“It was really good,” Bohn said. “We had around 350 people through the doors. Those were mostly teachers, but not all of them. … We set up a lot of interviews for the next couple of weeks.”

That’s good news, especially against the backdrop of double-digit percentage declines in the state’s teacher pool every school year since 2011-12 — with the exception of the 2020-21 school year when 9.34 percent of teachers left the profession.

A quick glance at Weatherford ISD’s current job openings this week showed at least 50 open teaching positions at various campuses — and that’s just for certified positions, not taking into account administrative and maintenance/operations slots.

In February, a survey by the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers found that two-thirds of educators here have at least considered changing careers.

“I’ve seen those statistics, too,” Bohn said, without referencing a specific poll or study. “I think we’re fortunate (here) in that we’re not seeing a disproportionate number leaving the classroom.”

A pay raise last year that bumped Aledo into the top 5 starting teacher salaries among Dallas/Fort Worth districts certainly helps Bohn and her staff recruit more Bearcats.

The superintendent said Aledo hires both experienced educators and newly minted ones from college from teacher pools to her east and west.

Some of those newly certified teachers come from Stephenville, where Tarleton State University graduates 200 to 250 teachers annually.

“Enrollment in Tarleton’s teacher education program has increased slightly over the past few years,” said Chris Sloan, associate dean of Tarleton’s College of Education and Human Development. “Surrounding school districts employ many Tarleton trained educators, recognized as some of the best in the state.”

Sloan acknowledged that it’s not uncommon for new teachers to choose the private or charter school route.

“However, increased pay offered by many public schools due to the teacher shortage in Texas is hard to ignore,” he added.

That’s a strategy that appears to be working for Mineral Wells ISD. State lawmakers in 2019 passed House Bill 3, which among other education reforms included pay hikes for educators.

“We took almost all of that revenue and plugged it into teachers,” Mineral Wells ISD Superintendent John Kuhn said, explaining that first-year teacher pay in the district rose by $10,000. “But we tried to reserve some of that fund to direct it to 20-year teachers.”

The move boosted that starting pay level to $45,000. It also quelled what little competition the district has from local private schools.

“Private schools, first of all, aren’t required to hire certified teachers,” Kuhn said. “I don’t know that we’re fishing in the same pond for teachers.”

Mineral Wells ISD had 11 elementary teacher vacancies and two at the secondary level, out of 257 teacher positions, as of the middle of last week, Assistant Superintendent David Tarver said.

“It’s about average” for this time of year, Tarver said. “Our principals do a good job of getting on vacancies early and getting them filled.”

Asked whether COVID affected the annual search for teachers, Tarver said the pandemic had less of an effect on recruitment than it did on staff already in place.

“I feel like we would be in the exact same spot with or without COVID,” he said. “I do think the biggest impact of COVID on teachers was stress. … When we have legislative mandates without funding, and they are expecting teachers to do more work, more paperwork, more testing without resources, that’s where that comes in.”

Tarver said Mineral Wells faces two obstacles to attracting teachers, one unique to the district and one that all rural school administrators understand.

“Some people really want to live in a bigger city and have all the amenities that come with that,” he said. “And the second (obstacle) for Mineral Wells is available housing.”

That includes a lack of both homes for sale and rental options, making it fairly common for Ram teachers to commute from districts with different mascots.

Both Kuhn and Tarver are encouraged on that front by a 486-lot housing development that broke ground last last year. At that ceremony for The Wells, the city’s first planned housing development, one speaker identified herself as a former teacher for the district who had commuted from Granbury.

Mineral Wells does better than many districts on establishing a bullpen of substitute teachers, Tarver added.

“We’ve heard all across the state, all across the region, people are struggling to get subs,” he said, adding the district raised daily pay for substitutes recently to $100. “Once we upped our pay, that made a big impact.”

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged the statewide teacher shortage earlier this year in creating the Teacher Vacancy Task Force. The 28-member panel has met once, but days after that March 10 meeting 24 teachers were added.

The original membership included two teachers, 16 superintendents and 10 human resources and operations officials.

“They did a great job of knowing it and seeing that teachers have a seat at the table,” said Josue Tamarez Torres, a Dallas ISD teacher and task force chairman. “That task force is going to look like Texas. We’re trying to represent every single part of the state — not only urban districts, suburban districts, but rural districts.”

That first meeting was closed to the public, and it is unclear whether the public will be allowed at the second meeting, on June 2.

Torres was not at the first meeting and was unaware it was closed to the public.

He said the group will examine factors discouraging people from becoming teachers and that drive teachers to leave the profession. Pay levels, the certification process, campus morale and other elements are all up for discussion, he said.

The goal is to agree on three to five recommendations to the 88th Legislature when it convenes in January 2023.

“What do we see coming as the main trends?” Torres asked. “What do teachers think are the main reasons for the teacher shortage? … I am really hopeful, because there are so many teachers from across the state, so many school leaders, that we will come up with some of the main reasons and present something to the legislature that they can work with.”

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