Ian Whitaker, Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015 | 6 p.m.
In her first year at John Park Elementary, Miriam Benitez found herself sounding less like a principal and more like a real estate agent.
This summer she called more than 100 potential teachers trying to persuade them to take a job at the school.
“I didn’t beg, but I really tried to sell the school,” said Benitez, who came to the school at the start of last school year after working in the Clark County School District’s central office. “I would say stuff like, ‘We’re centrally located.’”
While it’s normal for some staff at a school to leave when a new principal takes over, Park Elementary has a bigger problem. It’s one of the dozens of inner city schools hit hardest by the ongoing teacher shortage.
At the beginning of school last year, Park was missing five full-time teachers. This year, the school is missing 10.
The long-term substitutes the district uses to fill the positions are a quick fix, but research has shown that teachers with less than three years of experience aren’t as effective in the classroom as those who’ve been teaching longer.
An examination of the Clark County School District’s list of vacancies by school revealed that teacher shortages in the valley’s at-risk schools have continued to get worse while schools in wealthy neighborhoods have largely remained unscathed.
Vacant teaching positions at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, where the student body is 69 percent Hispanic or Latino, exploded from four last year to 20 this year. At Jeffers Elementary, where 100 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, vacancies rose from just two to 17.
By comparison, Twitchell and Bonner, the two highest-performing CCSD elementary schools located in Henderson and Summerlin respectively, have zero vacancies this school year.
Out of the 62 schools with five or more empty teaching positions, all but seven are located in the valley’s poorest neighborhoods around downtown, North Las Vegas and the east valley.
When Benitez was calling teachers, there was one word she made sure to never mention.
“You definitely don’t want to say that you’re downtown,” she said.
At first glance, you wouldn’t know why. The school is named after the historic John S. Park neighborhood, where it’s nestled on a quiet street surrounded by quaint one-story homes and tall trees.
But the school district, with its new marketing campaign designed to draw in teachers from out of state, is now finding that those same teachers are avoiding the schools that need them the most.
“People have the Internet, and they can log on to different websites that will tell you what the best parts of town are to live in,” Benitez said. “Even without being local or moving here yet, they are able to be very selective.”
That’s because the district’s current policy is to let new teachers choose where they want to work. If a school has space for them and the principal feels they are a good fit, the process goes fast and a new teacher can get a job relatively quickly.
“The reality of what happens in a year where we are hiring 1,700 teachers is that, almost as soon as a candidate gets in the pool, we are referring them out to principals,” said Staci Vesneske, CCSD’s human resources chief.
She estimated that about half of the 1,700 new teachers this year came from out of state. And when they arrive in Las Vegas, they tend to settle down in wealthier neighborhoods, far from inner city schools, she said.
“There is an added expense for teachers to work in inner city schools because most don’t live in that area,” Benitez said. “They have to pay for more daycare for their kids, the extra mileage, and they don’t get anything in return.”
The district could start assigning teachers to schools, but officials are afraid it would scare potential teachers away.
“What we find is that millennials and Gen-X’ers want choices and they have choices about which school districts [they work at],” Vesneske said. “When we’re in the midst of a teacher shortage, we can’t really afford to lose any candidates.”
A short-term solution has been to offer incentives to teachers who agree to work in at-risk schools. This year Gov. Brian Sandoval signed SB511, a bill that would give up to $5,000 to new teachers who work in low-income schools. But that program will expire in two years, and Vesneske said it’s too early to tell whether it’s been effective this year.
In the meantime, principals like Benitez have had to take matters into their own hands. They fill the empty positions with long-term substitutes, beef up school websites, and even recruit school staff to lobby potential teachers. But in the end, there’s no guarantee it will work.
“They are able to kind of shop and hold out,” Benitez said. “In years past, if you got offered a job you took it right away because you didn’t know if you’d get another.”