Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014 | 2 a.m.
This year, Clark County School District officials fought tooth-and-nail to fill a shortage of around 2,000 full-time teachers. Next year, they say that number could be as high as 2,600.
A consortium of local education groups, experts and district leaders crunched the numbers in September and found that about 2,000 of the open positions for next year could likely be filled by hiring locally and from out of state.
But that still leaves around 600 empty positions, a number the district says will force it to get creative.
“I think now more than ever my team members are really focused on how to find those teachers,” said Staci Vesneske, district human resources chief for the Clark County School District.
Solving the shortage crisis is so crucial to CCSD that Vesneske has put the full weight of her office behind it. Staff are even formed into teams and compete against other to see who can fill the most vacancies.
“Teacher shortages are not new to Las Vegas,” she said. “It has just become harder because all of the states are experiencing a decline in teacher candidates.”
The statistics back her up: The share of students across the country graduating with degrees in education dropped from 21 percent in 1970 to just 6 percent in 2012.
In California, where CCSD has frequently turned to hire new teachers, enrollment in credentialing programs fell from 52,000 in 2006 to fewer than 20,000 in 2012.
An effective short term solution has been the district’s alternate route-to-licensure program, which puts candidates without teaching licenses through professional development courses and then requires they pass a test. In the past, Vesneske said the program produced around 40 teachers each cycle. Now it churns out around 200, she said.
The district is also stepping up its marketing efforts and is preparing to launch a big campaign in early January.
But short term solutions can only go so far. The real problem is the inability of the state to produce enough teachers. Officials agree that long term investment in the state’s education colleges is the key.
“Even if we hired every single candidate, it still wouldn’t be a third of our needs,” Vesneske said.
Teaching candidates tend to stay in the state they were educated, but Nevada simply doesn’t have enough. Not only that, but shortages in nearby states means CCSD now has to compete for those teachers as well, and it’s a losing battle.
Vesneske envisions the problem like a pie. There are only so many teachers to go around, and Nevada’s share is dwindling. She said young candidates that do entertain coming to Clark County are often put off by the low starting salary, which is typically around $34,000. District officials have a handy phrase: “The Magic 40,” referring to the ideal $40,000 salary that they feel would do a lot to attract qualified full-timers.
“It makes a big difference to someone in their twenties,” Vesneske said.
The lack of these teachers in classrooms threatens the stability of schools, especially those in poor areas, which currently suffer 75 percent of the vacancies. When the district can’t hire a full-time teacher, they are forced to turn to long-term substitutes.
Enter outside groups like Teach For America, the non-profit that has a running contract with CCSD to provide a steady stream of new teachers each year. For every $1 the district gives to TFA, the organization raises $9 from philanthropic sources — including high-profile gaming and resort corporations on the Strip — to support its operation. The organization produced 130 new teachers last year, making it the third largest source in Southern Nevada behind UNLV and CCSD itself.
Earlier this month, TFA’s contract with CCSD was renewed for three years instead of the usual one, partly with the expectation that it churn out an additional 50 teachers a year. It’s an ambitious goal, according to Victor Wakefield, executive director for Nevada’s TFA branch.
“The district’s demand is so big and the shortage is so large,” he said. “I fear that the challenges are going to get harder before they get easier.”
Wakefield said they will know by March how many TFA graduates will be ready in time for the start of the school year next fall.
But if the district comes up short again, consequences will be felt by students, faculty and administrators alike.
He said to think of it like this: Multiply the 600 vacant teacher positions by the number of students that are supposed to be in those classrooms, and then imagine the strain it puts on faculty in those schools to pick up the slack.
“I think that as a community we haven’t been able to size up the challenge,” he said. “This hits every layer, from parents to teachers to policy makers, and it’s something we have to solve.”