Tuesday, March 10, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Antionette Gray is not technically a teacher yet, but her students don’t know that.
They file in to her science classroom for last period, sit down and take out their worksheets as she dims the lights and turns on a projector.
“The average star spends about 10 percent of its life slowly burning hydrogen,” Gray says.
The 26-year-old is a long-term substitute, hired by the Clark County School District to fill one of Canyon Springs High School’s handful of vacant teaching positions.
At Canyon Springs, in the heart of North Las Vegas, the teacher shortage is worse than in any other school in the county.
Ten classrooms are without fully credentialed teachers, and around 20 percent of the faculty either quits or transfers out each year. Districtwide, the average turnover rate is 9 percent.
While the shortage affects schools all across CCSD, it has been particularly destructive in low-income communities in the north and east valley, both enclaves for the city’s black and Latino populations.
Of the 626 empty full-time teaching positions in Clark County, 80 percent are in Title I schools like Canyon Springs.
At least 40 percent of students must be eligible for free or reduced lunch for a school to qualify for federal Title I benefits. At Canyon Springs, 70 percent of students qualify.
“It’s the stereotype,” said Gray. “When people hear ‘Canyon Springs,’ they think ‘bad school.’”
Of the 16 schools in the district with six or more classroom vacancies, nearly half are in North Las Vegas. All of those schools have majority Latino student populations and high numbers of English language learners.
With the shortage as bad as it is, the district gives new hires a choice on where they want to work. Otherwise, “they would say, ‘fine, I’m gonna go work in L.A. Unified School District,’” said CCSD human resources chief Staci Vesneske, the administrator tasked with filling the district’s vacancies.
In class not too long ago, Gray asked her students whether they planned to go to college.
“Not many raised their hands,” said freshman Jordan Clark. “They feel like if it’s too hard, they can’t do it.”
Schools like Canyon Springs also tend to have disproportionately high numbers of new teachers. With many obstacles and little in place to keep them, veteran educators in Title I schools often retire or transfer out to easier, more affluent schools.
“Kids in poverty do require a lot of attention,” said Vesneske. “It can be a whole lot of work for teachers in those schools. More emotionally draining work as well.”
The lack of experienced teachers is bad for any school, but research on the subject shows that the problems are exacerbated at underperforming schools.
A study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education concluded that high turnover in underperforming schools corresponded with a general drop in academic performance that was even more pronounced for black students than any other race. At Canyon Springs, black students represent a third of the student body, among the highest percentage in the county.
Research has also shown that teachers with three years of experience or less are usually less effective at improving student reading and math scores than their experienced counterparts.
When a teacher quits, it can trigger a shakeup in class assignments that leaves students without a familiar face and extra work for the teachers that stay.
That can foster a sense of dissatisfaction and uncertainty, which in turn fuels more teachers’ decision to retire, transfer or leave the profession entirely.
In other words, it’s a vicious cycle.
Some county education advocates say schools can start by rewarding Title I teachers who go above and beyond. Incentives can range from more money for taking on more work to creating a more positive work environment.
“In times of high stress, it becomes even more clear who picks up more of the slack,” said Victor Wakefield, director of Teach For America in Las Vegas. “But our systems aren’t designed to recognize that.”
For one, CCSD teachers who informally pick up the slack are not compensated extra.
Angela Silva, dean of students at Canyon Springs, said a system of differential pay would make sense. A teacher who works in an at-risk school would be paid, for example, $5,000 more a year than one who teaches elsewhere.
“If you work more, you get paid more,” Silva said. “That makes sense to most people.”
Vesneske said she would love to see a system like that in place, but it will have to be made a priority by the teacher’s union and district administration.
A recent report co-authored by two state think-tanks argued that Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $16 million plan to ramp up efforts to recruit new teachers and provide professional development for current ones should be prioritized.
A consortium of county education officials and advocates have endorsed the measure, though the problem is still a long way away from being fully addressed.
Canyon Springs already has an extensive training program. Silva said new teachers often go through it only to be snatched up by other schools.
“We train them up and then they leave,” Silva said.
Exit interviews could go a long way in pinpointing exactly why teachers are leaving, but the district currently only has the resources to interview teachers who quit after their first year.
The biggest issue cited by teachers leaving after their first year is classroom management, Vesneske said. The second is a lack of support. Both are common complaints among educators working in at-risk schools.
Gray, who has so far only ever worked in struggling schools like Canyon Springs, said she feels it’s not as hard as it’s made out to be.
“I have 183 students. Sometimes it does get frustrating, you think they’re not listening,” she said. “But I don’t see it as being harder work, I just think we have to understand their background and see where they’re coming from.”
Below is a map of CCSD schools with teacher vacancies.