Despite ongoing concerns about a national teacher shortage, the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) began classes this week with nearly all of its staff in place thanks to an early hiring push, more aggressive recruiting tactics and financial incentives for hard-to-staff positions.
With more than 7,400 employees, MCPSS is the largest employer in the area, and with retirements, school changes and people leaving the profession early, making sure thousands of teachers are in place and qualified to teach can be more challenging than it might seem.
According to MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips, the district made strategic efforts to get out ahead of that challenge going into the 2019-2020 school year. As a result, more positions were filled by May and June than July, which data indicates is a change in MCPSS hiring trends.
“We had a big push for that this year, and we have to commend our principals for this, because we encouraged them to start making offers and hiring teachers for this school year earlier and they have,” Philips said. “As of Aug. 6, we’re only reporting 22 teaching vacancies systemwide and nine of those were for people who resigned or changed position within the last two weeks.”
Philips told Lagniappe those teaching vacancies include 10 at local high schools, three at middle schools, seven at elementary schools and two at special-programming schools. However, of those, there are only four vacancies in core subject areas — one in science, two in math and one in social studies. The rest are special educators, grade-level teachers and instructors of electives.
With 3,800 certified teachers leading instruction at MCPSS, Philips said those vacancies amount to less than half a percent of total teaching populations and also are improved from previous years when the district started the school year looking to fill even more positions.
A vacancy doesn’t mean students aren’t getting instruction at all, though it likely means that — at least for the moment — those positions are either being filled by a long-term substitute or a teacher who isn’t certified or might be provisionally certified. In some cases, administrators will take over classroom duties until a position can be filled.
Philips said MCPSS would be actively working to fill those positions as the school year continues.
“It’s a continuous process, and those hires will have to go before the [Mobile County School] Board,” she said. “We do have measures in place to try to get them on the job faster, but they still have to be interviewed, hired, go through background, get drug tested and those things.”
In addition to finding seasoned educators to fill positions, MCPSS has also gotten more aggressive about recruiting new teachers right out of college. Earlier this year, Michele McClung, director of the Teaching, Learning and Assessment division, said that has been a strong push recently.
Administrators have been working directly with human resources to help make strategic, smart hires, and according to McClung, her division is also being more proactive when it comes to recruiting education majors during job fairs and other events at universities in the state.
“We’re out there meeting people and trying to sell our schools,” she said. “We want to find teachers for particular areas that we’ve got or that we believe we will have a shortfall in. For instance, we knew Williamson [High School] would need math teachers so we were out there before graduation at [the University of South Alabama] and we able to basically offer some of those students a job on the spot before they’d graduated and guarantee them a job.”
The push for strong recruitment comes at a time when concerns about a national and statewide “teacher shortage” are continuing to grow. In the 2017-2018 school year, Alabama saw over 1,700 secondary teachers working on emergency certifications or teaching “out of field” — meaning they do not have a major or minor in the field in which they are teaching.
According to a report from the School Superintendents of Alabama, some of the driving factors behind the decline in available teachers are the low number of graduates pursuing a career in education and the number of current teachers leaving the profession before retirement. The report pinned both of those to decreased job security, salary and compensation in the field.
The state has tried to address the issue through measures like including a 4-percent raise for teachers in this year’s legislative budget. Yet the problem is expected to get worse as the current pool of teachers continues to age out and retire.
Like many things, the weight of the teacher shortage has fallen mostly on rural school systems in Alabama, which have a harder time selling college graduates on the idea of relocating there and have fewer local tax dollars to supplement teacher salaries than systems in large cities.
In Mobile, Superintendent Chresal Threadgill has focused on making sure schools struggling academically — typically among the most difficult to staff — have a full roster of teachers as early as possible. That includes the nine identified as “failing” by the Alabama Accountability Act in 2018 — meaning they ranked in the bottom 6 percent of state test scores last year.
Improving those scores is something Threadgill has publicly identified as a top priority, and according to Philips, MCPSS has tried to help bring highly qualified teachers into those schools by offering financial incentives for those with a certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in their respective subject areas.
In addition to that, for the first time this year, MCPSS offered a $10,000 “signing bonus” to certified teachers who agreed to take a job at those schools in their specialized subject area for the next three years. Just seven teachers received the bonus this year — all of whom went on to fill vacancies at Williamson High School, Chastang-Fournier K-8 School and Pillans Middle School.
“We offered these $10,000 signing bonuses at certain hard-to-staff schools, but they’ll be given out over a three-year period,” Philips said. “That’s because we want them to come to these schools but also to stay and to commit to schools and continue to be a positive influence there.”
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