KINGMAN - For two years, Kingman Unified School District Superintendent Roger Jacks has heard the bad news about the growing teacher shortage situation in Arizona.
In December, he finally got the good news about it.
"There's definitely been a teacher shortage crisis here in Kingman for several years and we've had difficulty hiring special education and STEM teachers," said Jacks. "But the good news is that the state now recognizes the crisis and is making immediate changes to help alleviate the pain."
Those changes at the state level include rearranging teacher certification rules so the same educator can teach grades six through 12, instead of just seventh through 12th grades. Teachers at the middle school levels, which run sixth through eighth grades, found they needed two certifications in Arizona because of the cut-off grade.
Also, the state board in December announced it would automatically approve long-term substitutes beyond the traditional 120 days in a single classroom so they can teach there longer. The new limit is three times longer than the old one.
Jacks, who serves on the Arizona State Board of Education and travels to Phoenix for monthly meetings, received that message at a meeting in December. Members of the board's Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force presented a detailed report on the statewide problem.
The report was written in response to rising concerns about the shortage of effective teachers and the high turnover rates of educators in Arizona schools and districts. It detailed the problem and recommended action that could be taken at various levels, from district to legislative.
According to the report, there were 60,588 teachers in Arizona schools in the 2013-14 school year. A total of 62 percent of the school districts responding to a statewide survey had more than 700 teacher openings in October. As of now, 42 percent of the districts responding still have openings.
During the same time, 938 open teaching positions were filled by substitute teachers, for a 29 percent increase in long-term substitutes from the previous school year. That number will grow, as 24 percent of the state's education workforce is eligible to retire in the next four years.
Jacks has seen the shortage firsthand in his own district, where 6,922 students are receiving an education from about 350 teachers in 12 schools. Of those teachers, 70 were hired at the beginning of the school year, mostly from out of state. Five teaching positions remain open at KUSD.
The district in December filled seven open positions with teachers from the Philippines, the only place where they could be persuaded to move to Arizona. They are teaching at Black Mountain School, Kingman Middle School, and Lee Williams and Kingman high schools.
The teachers are Anna Lou Cabato, kindergarten, and Vilma Amo, sixth grade, Black Mountain; Conan Gavan, special education, Kingman Middle School; Roda Mongen, biology, and Roderick Francisco, math, Kingman High School; and Renely Casera, special education, and Alejandro Dogma, biology, Lee Williams High School.
Teachers are on the battle lines, said Jacks, and must deal with high levels of stress, long days, bad behavior from students and low pay. They easily could go into other professions and make more money, especially in STEM courses, which are the state's core educational disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"The state board has been very transparent, saying, 'here's the situation in Arizona,' and trying to offer solutions," said Jacks. "But we have to take on the challenge in our own school districts and fight it. We'll happily take whatever resources the state provides, but where it falls short, we have to figure out what to do and get it done ourselves."
Leeann Jones Wieser, president of the Arizona Federation of Teachers, agreed, noting "We don't have much of a choice right now. I think school districts are needing to be as creative as they need to be to find teachers to fill their classrooms."
According to the report, factors negatively impacting teacher hiring and retention in Arizona are low pay, lack of professional support, inadequate teaching materials, little community support and respect, and negative school climate.
The report noted that 224 percent of first-year and 20 percent of second-year teachers left the profession in Arizona. Also, the reported stated administrative costs and per-pupil expenditures in Arizona are below the national average. The state is well below the average per-pupil funding at $6,680, resulting in a 46th national ranking.
Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, agreed that districts have been forced to seek out alternatives because of state budget cuts that have created a teacher shortage. Morrill blamed salary cuts, freezes and benefit reductions for driving so many Arizona teachers to leave the profession.
"Districts who must have people in their classrooms to teach students are resorting to things that they normally would not," Morrill said. "It is an indicator of how far we've fallen in our support for the education profession."
Teacher shortages have "been a problem since the economy went downwards," said Heidi Vega, director of communications at the Arizona School Boards Association. "It's difficult for school districts all across Arizona to attract and retain good quality instructional staff when there are no salary increases."
According to the National Education Association's Estimates of School Statistics 2012-13 report, Arizona ranked 47th in the nation in average teacher salaries at $47,600. The top five highest-paying states were California at $69,324, Connecticut at $69,766, District of Columbia at $70,906, Massachusetts at $73,129 and New York at $75,279.
Arizona ranked 10th lowest in the nation for average starting teacher salaries in 2012-13 at $31,874. The top five highest-paying states were Wyoming at $43,269, New York at $43,839, Alaska at $44,166, New Jersey at $48,631, and District of Columbia at $51,539.
The state board's report noted that in the last 10 years, the minimum wage has increased 53 percent, while teacher salaries have only increased by 20 percent. A total of 54 percent of districts report that salaries are a major obstacle in out-of-state recruiting.
New teachers need ongoing, job-embedded professional development and mentoring support, according to the state board's report. And they need school climates that are encouraging, nurturing and supportive, not only from the students attending classes, but also from the administration and other teachers.
Another key factor is community support for teachers and the important but difficult jobs they do. Jacks, who served in the military, said he would like to see teachers given the respect now afforded to veterans who have returned from active service or war.
"To say that the community doesn't support KUSD is totally wrong," said Jacks, noting donations pour into the district and its schools throughout the year. "But we have to be able to translate that support to our teachers better so they know we appreciate them."
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