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October 18, 2018

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If teacher shortage persists, ‘we’re all going to sink’


AP Photo/Scott Sonner

Gov. Brian Sandoval signs into law on Monday, June 8, 2015, a measure creating millions of dollars in incentives to combat the state’s teacher shortage as his daughter, Maddy, watches in the library at Reno High School, where she is a senior.

CARSON CITY — Nevada's two largest school districts this week said they'd hired hundreds of first-time teachers over the summer with the help of recruiters, billboards and even a Clark County superintendent zip-lining through downtown Las Vegas in a superhero cape.

But when it was Nevada Board of Education President Elaine Wynn's chance to speak about the nearly 1,000 teacher positions statewide that still remain vacant and are being filled with stopgap measures such as long-term subs, she didn't mince words.

"I don't think I've ever been this alarmed in my job as I have been today," Wynn said at a board meeting Thursday, calling the situation a human resource crisis. "We're going to all sink. This is horrific."

Nevada is suffering an acute teacher shortage as its student population rises and its primary supplier of educators — California — deals with a shortage of its own. Colleges there are producing fewer teaching graduates, and Nevada colleges are far from being able to churn out enough homegrown education graduates to meet the state's needs.

Some blame the shortage on low pay, especially for first-year teachers, and a general lack of respect for the profession.

"Education has taken a pretty broad public flogging and that may be ... why some of our graduating seniors may not be interested in the education arena," said board member Dave Jensen, who's the superintendent of the Humboldt County School District. "How do we change that perception?"

Whatever the causes, the shortage threatens to undermine a slate of new multimillion-dollar initiatives, supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature, aimed at improving the state's bottom-ranked education system. Most of the teacher vacancies are concentrated in the state's poorest and lowest-performing schools — precisely the ones targeted by the infusion of new money approved this spring.

"Despite all the excellent work that we've just accomplished in these past legislative sessions," Wynn said, "if we don't have the warm bodies who are skilled in delivering all the things we are teeing up, it will not work."

The state has taken steps to ease the shortage, mainly with a legislatively approved program offering $5,000 signing bonuses to new teachers willing to work in poorer Title I schools. Wynn urged districts, which are responsible for hiring, to leverage that money and market it aggressively.

"To consider that that's just an add-on or a gesture would be very inappropriate," Wynn said. "Because we've got such high accountability linkage to that, we are counting on you to really use your best efforts to make those things work."

The state is also working to develop a pipeline of future teachers through the new Teach Nevada scholarship program. Colleges have until Oct. 16 to apply to administer the money, which is earmarked for students studying education.

Districts are already drawing a significant number of new teachers from Alternate Routes to Licensure programs, which put people with degrees outside of the education field on a fast-track to getting a teacher's license.

But there were still questions about how to stanch the outflow of teachers. Clark County School District said it lost 1,650 of its 18,000 teachers last year, and while 900 of those were retirements, the district doesn't know why one-third of that group left.

Click to enlarge photo

An August 2015 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.

Board members underscored that the districts can't stave off the teacher shortage alone.

Kevin Melcher, who's also a regent for the Nevada System of Higher Education, suggested recruiting the spouses of workers who move to Nevada for jobs with the new Tesla battery factory under construction east of Reno.

"Is there a way we can work with these new industries ... to help them recruit for us?" he said.

Wynn, who co-founded the Wynn Resorts casino company with her ex-husband Steve Wynn, said districts could learn from professionals in the casino industry who fill positions and attract throngs of people to nightclubs.

She also called for making the teacher shortage a recurring item on state board agendas.

"We can't be satisfied to let this continue," Wynn said. "To take comfort that it's a national emergency — that's not the Nevada way."

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