Chicago faces snazzy competition

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The Chicago School Reform Board, with its new initiative to hire “fierce crusaders,” has undertaken a campaign that’s lifting it into the modern age of teacher recruitment. Yet when measured against more innovative methods in use elsewhere, the drive seems quaint.

Teacher shortages have forced districts to change, and lots have done so sooner than Chicago. “While many districts are still doing the same-old same-old, others are bringing coherence and comprehensiveness to human resources,” says David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers, a Boston-based consultancy. Haselkorn points to efforts that use technology to interview and screen candidates, that reach out winningly to the hottest prospects and that develop their skills once they’re on board.

The arsenal of recruitment weapons ranges from standbys such as campus visits and job fairs to newer ones that include newspaper ads and the Internet. Teacher-hungry districts approach candidates touting their own strengths—be they sunny climate or bonuses. They rarely sound an appeal to idealism, which is the core of Chicago’s approach.

Clark County, Nev., which encompasses 8,000 square miles centered on the City of Las Vegas, is among the leaders in the new world of teacher recruiting. With an ever growing thirst for more teachers, its advanced status has grown out of necessity.

With its student body growing at 6 percent a year—highest in the nation—and class size being reduced at 3rd grade, the 192,000-student district last year had to hire 1,800 new teachers. Given that the Nevada’s only two colleges of education produce but 400 graduates a year between them, Clark County has to go far afield for educational timber. Indeed, two-thirds of its new hires last year came from outside the state.

Aggressiveness defines the county’s approach. “Each year, we hit 40 states, making campus visits and doing job fairs,” says George Ann Rice, Clark County’s assistant superintendent of human resources. “We also advertise in local newspapers and set up hotel interviews at night and weekends for people who are already teaching.”

Where it’s impossible to visit a campus, Clark officials arrange interviews by video-conference. In addition, they keep in contact with hundreds of university placement officials and education deans by e-mail. “Our needs are listed on the Clark County web site, and prospects can apply right on-line,” says Rice.

Selling sunshine

If you think the glitz-and-gaming capitol of North America might seem unappealing to good-hearted education graduates, you’re right. In conversation and in its literature, Clark County downplays the raciness associated with Las Vegas, touting other pluses of the area instead.

“The region has sunshine 300 days a year, and the state has no income tax,” notes Rice. The district also hypes its access to Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made body of water, as well as Mt. Charleston (skiing) and Red Rock Canyon (hiking).

The district also stresses that Clark County appreciates education; four bond issues have passed in a decade, and schools are sprouting like cactuses. Contrary to Las Vegas’s reputation, the county displays an inherent conservatism. Condoms in the high schools? “That would never be tolerated,” stresses Rice. “Just because we have Las Vegas doesn’t mean we’re all sex, gamblers and dancers.” You can scour Clark County’s teacher recruitment brochure, entitled “Pattern for Performance,” and find no reference to the Las Vegas strip.

Prospects are actively wooed. A bank vice-president may call to urge a vacillating teacher to consider Clark County; a local teacher who came from out of state may phone to allay misgivings. A relocation guide is filled with tips. The sales pitch is compelling.

When Christina Ratatori graduated from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse as an education major in May 1998, she applied for jobs in her home state, plus in Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois and Clark County.

“I never had any intention of even visiting Vegas,” Ratatori says. “I’m not a big gambler, and that was my image of the place.” But she’d seen a notice on UW’s career-services bulletin board, and so she submitted an application by computer. Shortly thereafter, she had an interview.

“I went to career services at the university,” says Ratatori. “There was a camera set up on top of a computer, and soon I was talking to two principals back in Nevada. The wildest part was that everything was delayed, so I’d say something and get no reaction. It was goofy.”

By the time August rolled around, Ratatori was nearly committed to teaching in a Milwaukee Catholic school when she received a call from a representative of Clark County. “They hired me on a Monday, and a few days later my car was packed up, and I was heading out West,” she recounts. “My maternal grandmother thought this was crazy, but my other grandmother said, ‘Tina, this is the time in your life when you should go for it.'”

Shortage disputed

The push to attract the likes of Ratatori is driven by a heightened demand for teachers arising from burgeoning school enrollments, a record number of teacher retirements, high teacher attrition (especially in cities) and class-size reductions. The National Center on Education Statistics (NCEC), a federal agency, predicts the country will require 2.2 million new teachers over the next decade.

Whether the demand translates into an overall national shortage is debatable. Schools of education are pumping out more than 200,000 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral grads a year, says Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group. That’s enough to meet the need, she insists: “We aren’t under-producing qualified people to teach.”

But Jewel Gould, research director for the American Federation of Teachers, says Feistritzer is overestimating the brood of new teachers by some 40,000—that, indeed, the pipeline of education grads is running dry.

One hopeful sign: Interest in teaching as a career is up among college students. An annual survey produced at the University of California at Los Angeles shows that nearly 11 per cent of college undergrads indicate they envision a career in either elementary or secondary education, the highest level since 1972.

Both Gould and Feistrizer agree, though, that many new graduates get diverted from teaching. Of newly hired teachers, only 42 per cent have fresh diplomas, according to the latest NCEC study on staffing; the remainder are either delayed entrants or former teachers returning to line. Haselkorn suggests that education graduates turn their backs on teaching over “salary and working conditions and broader opportunities they have—they are lured away by other careers and by child-rearing.”

Authorities find the fall-off troubling. “We must do something about the discrepancy,” says Feistritzer, who suggests tying teacher-preparation programs more closely to the type of vacancies districts have. Haselkorn says the solution should start with careful recruiting of education students and extend to professional development of veterans in the field.

At any rate, today school districts at both ends of the economic spectrum are crying shortage. By and large, poor city and rural school districts are unappealing to prospective teachers. “These are urban systems where working conditions are difficult, where facilities aren’t good and where students come to school with lots of problems,” remarks Richard Murnane, an economist and professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “These are rural districts where educated people don’t want to live, where there’s nobody to marry and where there isn’t a nightlife.”

In Mississippi, where the average starting salary is $25,000, 43 districts across the state report teacher shortages. Detroit, where the latest reform wave immediately smashed into a teacher strike, requires 8,300 classroom teachers, yet had only 7,750 slots filled midway through 1998-99; the gap was being plugged with substitutes. By summer, the 172,000-student system anticipated a 1,000-teacher shortfall.

School districts in Illinois fish for up to 10,000 teachers a year. “In general, people are gobbled up like crazy,” says Rob Sampson, professional preparation administrator for the Illinois State Board of Education. “But in southern Illinois, a vacancy may get one or two applicants—or none.”

Monied, suburban systems find themselves under ever greater pressure to keep pace with growth in the student population and with parental expectations. The Fairfax County, Va., school system, which stretches through upscale suburbs of Washington, D.C., saw its enrollment double in just the last five years and is having to lay on 1,500 teachers for the coming year—more than Chicago.

Across the country, the need is greatest for special education, bilingual education, math and science instructors. In those areas, studies confirm a national shortage that shows no signs of diminishing. A study by the National Association of State Boards of Education shows that in 1995, education schools produced a measly 2,580 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math education, some 1,100 in learning disabilities and fewer than 400 in bilingual education.

Video conferences

If the shortages have forced a battle for teachers, Clark County and a smattering of districts nationwide have responded with pioneering efforts that rely on technology or incentives.

For example, New Haven Unified School District, a small, heavily Hispanic and Asian system in suburban San Francisco, maintains a web site heaping with information: board policies, teacher contracts, school profiles, offerings of student art works. “We have thousands and thousands of pages,” boasts Jim O’Laughlin, New Haven’s associate superintendent for personnel. “It would take you a week to get through it all. This is our brochure.” Prospects who inquire about New Haven are sent a one-page notice that refers them to the web site.

Candidates are encouraged to apply on-line. New Haven receives up to 2,500 job bids a year this way, all for a maximum of 120 openings. Intriguing candidates who reside too far away for an in-person interview only need hie themselves to a local Kinko’s for a half-hour video conference with a principal, a district personnel aide and an assistant principal or teacher back in California.

A hot prospect gets acted upon in a flash. “In California alone, there are 30,000 openings, and it’s not getting any better,” says O’Laughlin. “When you find somebody who is good, you want to move on it.” Late last August, New Haven posted a middle-school science vacancy on its web site. A teacher in Seattle saw the notice, had a phone interview, faxed her references and underwent a video-conference. New Haven hired the woman on the spot, completed the process in just two days.

With its classes bulging, Fairfax County, Va., has taken technology a step further. Finding itself overwhelmed with paper resumes, transcripts and references, the county set up an electronic assembly line three years ago. First, resumes are scanned into a computer, where special software categorizes them by words and phrases. “It’s more than just word recognition,” says Sutherland, Fairfax’s recruiting specialist. For instance, if you say you live on Harvard Street, work for Harvard Graphics and attended Harvard University, only the university credential will register as noteworthy, he says.

Meanwhile, applicants are asked to call a phone number and respond to a series of automated questions, which were developed by the Nebraska-based Gallup Organization. For example: Have you been arrested? What are your attitudes toward children?

If an applicant passes the resume analysis and the automated interview, a 30-to-45-minute phone interview is arranged. Sutherland declines to go into detail about the Gallup-concocted questions except to say they look to discern if you are empathetic, display a positive outlook, have a “high sense of mission” and can be classified as a lifelong learner.

Sutherland insists that a phone conversation is preferable to an in-person chat “because when I’m not focused on nonverbal things, I’m listening more carefully to your answers.” But Sutherland admits that some candidates are discomfited at being deprived of face-to-face contact. “Ma’am,” said one young man when he was invited to add a comment at the end of the interview, “as I’ve been answering these questions I have been sitting in my den in a three-piece suit looking you straight in the eye.”

After a follow-up conversation with a principal—and, if the applicant wishes, a visit to the district—the administration may offer a contract. Overall, Fairfax County funnels more than 10,000 resumes a year into its scanner for 1,500 job openings—a 15 per cent chance of getting hired for a job that pays $30,000 to start.

Critics say that the Fairfax approach sucks the life out of the hiring process. “It’s technology for efficiency’s sake, leaving out the educator’s judgment,” says New Haven’s Jim O’Laughlin. Acknowledging the carping, Sutherland says, “People are least pleased with the automated phone piece. But there’s no other way we can respond to so many applicants.”

Other districts focus more on monetary incentives than speeding the process. Through an agreement with the municipal credit union, the Baltimore City Schools will loan a new teacher $1,200 for relocation or for the down payment on a residence. Anyone who elects to move into the city can get a $5,000 loan to put down on a house, the balance of the principal forgiven at the rate of 10 percent per year.

The Dallas school system pays a $1,500 signing bonus for new teachers. This summer, recruiting director Hector M. Flores says, “We’re going to ante the pot right away” in certain areas. Bilingual instructors will get a $3,000 salary boost; math and science teachers, up to $1,000. This summer, interim Detroit CEO David Adamany authorized a $1,000 signing bonus to help plug the gap there.

Likewise, states have entered the inducement game. Under the 1988 Critical Teacher Shortage Act, Mississippi will shoulder college costs at any local institution, public or private, for anyone who promises to teach afterwards in a poor, isolated district for three years. Out-of-state teachers who pledge to relocate to one of those districts merit $6,000 toward closing costs on a home, plus moving expenses.

Beginning with New Jersey in 1985, 41 states have enacted laws that enable people with bachelors degrees in fields other than education to take short courses in teaching and then take over classrooms with provisional certification, often under a mentor-teacher.

In arguably the nation’s flashiest recruiting act, Massachusetts has combined alternative routing with incentives. This year, the commonwealth’s Department of Education scoured the country, including appearances at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, in search of 50 top graduates or career-changers. The 50 are to receive six weeks of summer training, take a certification exam and then begin to teach as they are further mentored and receive more education. In exchange for a four-year commitment to one of 13 Massachusetts cities, notably Boston, Worchester and Lawrence, they get a $20,000 signing bonus.

State authorities toss aside criticism that they have sparked a bidding frenzy. “We’re in the market for the best and the brightest,” says Alan Safran, the education department’s chief of staff. “If we’ve caused a bidding war, I say terrific. It’s time there is a bidding war for teachers, just like there is for athletes.”

Free tuition

Another magnet that school systems use to draw teachers is post-hiring support. “You can pay young teachers the compliment that you desire them,” remarks David Haselkorn of Recruiting New Teachers, “but are you going to respect them in the morning? Young teachers are going to hit classroom shock when they realize it’s different from what they’ve read about.”

With a high attrition rate among teachers in their early years, some districts lavish educational opportunities on neophytes. The school system in Columbus, Ohio, offers free tuition for master’s degrees at Ohio State University and three other local institutions. “That’s been a major draw here,” says Janet Kearney, Columbus’s supervisor of personnel administration. “Increasingly, it’s our way to deal with a dire shortage of teachers.”

With support from a local foundation, Baltimore schools are renovating 40 apartments with an idea toward creating “academia village,” a colony of new teachers seasoned with old salts to consult for advice. The complex should be ready by early next year.

As in Chicago, Clark County, Nev., conducts orientations and workshops for new teachers. But it also pays assists with personal transitions. It distributes packets that include maps, utility options and lists of apartment complexes offering rental deals and stages a “getting to know your community” day the first weekend of the school year. Lapel ribbons designate what section of the nation teaches are from, hastening connections. Religious organizations and rock-climbing clubs put on displays; a mountain bike is offered as a door prize at a picnic lunch. “Every month or so, there’s a different workshop during the week, at which you get to regroup with people you met at the first orientation,” says Joann Vaccariello, a new teacher from New York.

It’s little wonder that Clark County ends up with a fat and happy corps of young teachers. “Here I am, it’s the middle of winter, and I can go out and lay by the pool in 68-degree weather,” says Vaccariello. “You can live in a $675-a-month apartment with a gym, a pool and a carport, where back on Long Island I’d be paying $850 for a basement. People out here come from all over—why, I have two girlfriends from Palatine.”

Christine Ratatori has gambled only once, playing the slot machines for a few dollars. Instead, she rejoices in hiking Red Rock Canyon and in teaching 3rd grade in a Clark County middle school, where the class size is only 20. “I share stories of what life is like back in Wisconsin, and my kids’ eyes grow big when I tell them how good brats taste,” says the $26,000-a-year instructor. “They give me a hard time when I call the water foundation a bubbler.’ I take dance classes, though it’s not that kind of dancing—oh, my grandmother would freak out if she thought that. It’s jazz and ballet. I don’t have any regrets.”