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Area Schools Struggle to Fill Jobs With Qualified Staff

  • Reading specialist Barb Griffin greets Rayna Kosakowski, 6, right, from her first-grade classroom before a session during which they would read a short play version of "The Gingerbread Man" to work on reading fluency at Samuel Morey Elementary in Fairlee, Vt., Friday, June 8, 2018. Griffin works one-on-one or in small groups with students at Samuel Morey for two half-days each week, and with larger groups at Westshire Elementary during the rest of the week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Reading specialist Barb Griffin splits her time between the Samuel Morey and Westshire elementary schools in the Rivendell Interstate School District. Griffin works with first-grader Brody Isaacs, 6, on phonemic awareness, the manipulation of sounds, and the spelling of words during a session at Samuel Morey Elementary in Fairlee, Vt., Friday, June 8, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2018

Keri Gelenian had put in a valiant effort to find someone for the job, a part-time, long-term substitute high school English teaching position. But eventually, the principal of Rivendell Academy in Orford had to admit defeat.

“A lot of things about that make it very challenging to fill,” Gelenian said. “I mean, we couldn’t find anybody.” So, finally, he bit the bullet and stepped up himself. He taught two ninth-grade English classes last year, on top of his regular workload, from mid-October to mid-December.

“I actually loved teaching the kids,” he recalled over the phone last week. At the same time, he recognized that juggling paper-grading with school board meetings was not a sustainable way to live.

School workforce shortages are neither new nor uncommon, though. In Rivendell Interstate School District alone, there’s a nurse who splits her time between the two elementary schools, special education staff who take whole days off just to catch up on paperwork and a long-term substitute in lieu of a middle school counselor. Filling job openings often come down to “dumb luck,” Gelenian said. Even the superintendent, Elaine Arbour, is part-time “only on paper,” she laughed, though she was not joking.

As small districts turn to cutting staff hours and positions as a way of saving money, schools are forced to “get creative” with their workforce, Arbour said, meaning that many job openings involve some combination of part-time, temporary or multi-site work. But as the opioid crisis and other social ills cause students to exhibit more acute and complex issues, Upper Valley school officials are facing the question of how to support these needs while keeping payroll costs within budget and while often struggling to find the necessary personnel.

“The New Hampshire Department of Education knows there is a teacher shortage and we are all working to try and find solutions to the staffing issues,” wrote Anthony Schinella, director of communications at the N.H. Department of Education, in an email this week. “It is a national issue, not just a local or state issue.”

According to data from the United States Department of Education, all 50 states went into the 2017-2018 academic year facing teacher shortages, and most have reported at least some shortage areas since data started being kept in 1990. The number and extent of the shortages have increased in recent years in the Twin States, among others, which Upper Valley school officials have attributed to factors such as low pay, poor morale and less desirable positions, such as the part-time, long-term sub position Gelenian was trying to fill last year.

But specific shortage areas vary from district to district, said Aaron Cinquemani, who is just finishing his first year as principal of Charlestown Middle School and North Charlestown Community School, after working in the Claremont and Lebanon school districts.

“We’re very fortunate, here, to have a history of veteran staff (in Fall Mountain Regional School District, which comprises the towns of Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole) who really love being here,” he said. Even so, the district “shares many employees, between many buildings, between many students,” including arts, P.E. and music teachers, occupational therapists and speech and language pathologists.

These shortages often boil down to budgetary concerns, said Schinella, in a phone call last week.

“Everything’s part-time. Nobody’s hiring full-time. Instead you have a .4 (FTE) here, a .6 there,” he said. “I can say that just from my own perspective, without even looking at what data we have on it. Everybody’s trying to save money.”

As a result, Gelenian said, would-be applicants may not be attracted to the positions that are available.

“I think the big answer is that teaching is a very difficult, demanding profession,” he said. “It’s undervalued and underpaid, and it’s hard to find quality people,” particularly when certain positions might require special training or certification.

Most recently, Rivendell Academy has been having trouble finding a literacy specialist, a position that calls for a background in reading assessment, and one that Schinella said is a “huge” shortage area in the Granite State. In the three months that the position had been open, Rivendell Academy saw as many interested candidates. The first two didn’t work out.

“The last person we interviewed was phenomenal,” Gelenian said. “And I just found out today, just two minutes ago, that she accepted.” The excitement was audible in his voice; he feels “incredibly lucky” and relieved to have found a qualified candidate, rather than just having to hire somebody by default — or worse, having no one to hire at all.

Barb Griffin, a reading specialist who’s worked in the Rivendell district since its inception in 1998, splits her time between Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee and Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee. She said the breakdown of her hours, and the age groups of the students she works with, has varied over the years depending on need, but also “very much” on funding.

This year, she spent 80 percent of her time at Westshire, working with K-4 students, and 20 percent at Samuel Morey working with students in kindergarten and first grade.

This was not the breakdown she would have chosen. Not only does she feel that spending only two half-days per week at Samuel Morey can shortchange some students who “need more consistent, regular instruction,” but she also said she’s not able to spend as much time preparing for each age group as she’d like, since the different approaches for younger and older students makes for “a lot of gear-switching.”

She submitted a proposal for next year, which she has learned was accepted, that will tweak this arrangement: Griffin will spend half her time at each school, working exclusively with K-2 students, an age group that she finds a better match for her personal and professional strengths.

Meanwhile, another reading specialist — a relatively recent hire — will work with grades 3-6, which Griffin said is also a good match.

But three years ago, before this other specialist came along, Griffin didn’t have the option of which grades to work with: There simply was no reading specialist for Westshire and Samuel Morey students in grades 3 through 6.

“It was just a funding thing,” she said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we get to keep this level.”

Griffin has a theory as to why, as Schinella noted, literacy specialist positions can be hard to fill: People would rather be classroom teachers instead. “The pay is the same,” she said, but it requires less training and is far more rewarding to work with the same group of kids all day, every day. The relationships are stronger. It’s easier to tell what certain students might need.

And these needs, she said, are greater than she’s ever seen them, while funding has not risen to match these needs.

“Kids are coming to school needier. I think the traditional family is changing. Parents have a lot of pressures, whether financial or work or other things that are hard to balance,” with substance abuse often being a “big piece” of those challenges, she said.

Like Griffin, Cinquemani has noticed the ways in which social and family issues have affected students. Because of what he sees as a paucity of accessible support services and a widespread failure to properly discuss and address issues such as mental health, there are “more and more expectations on schools” to provide for students’ emotional, social and psychological needs that, in an ideal world, might also be supported by more pocket-heavy institutions, he said.

“We’re seeing the fallout happen to kids who are exposed (to) and live in those difficult situations,” he said. “I think I would expect, based on what I read in national research and stuff, that everybody is in the same boat. Society is changing, as it always has. If I look at just this area specifically, a lot of social things have impacted kids and families.”

He pointed, specifically, to the need for more school psychologists, more “highly qualified” school nurses and more special education staff. But if, for example, he wants to increase a school psychologist’s hours to full-time, “I have to make cuts somewhere else to be able to afford it.”

“When you have increased needs in any given community, and you have to share resources, and if indeed that’s the expectation of the community for a public school to be all of those things … there’s the question of quantity and quality,” Cinquemani said.

“And then therein lies the challenge.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.