Upper Valley school districts trying to be creative in face of hiring shortages
|Published: 08-23-2023 5:22 PM
CLAREMONT — To adapt to a teacher shortage this year, Bluff Elementary School will have two multi-grade classes and larger class sizes than usual.
The Claremont school has been unable to fill third- and fifth-grade teacher positions since it began advertising for them in April, Principal Christine Baker said. The school has received some applications and conducted some interviews, but the best applicants have options.
“We offer, but they’ll take a different position somewhere else,” Baker said of the search process so far.
The average teacher salary in Claremont last school year was $51,491, which was well below the average for the Dresden School District, including middle and high schools in Hanover, of $84,570, but still above Newport, where the average salary was $47,368, according to data from the New Hampshire Department of Education.
As a result of being unable to fill those two teaching positions, instead of two classes in each grade as usual, Bluff will have one second grade, one third grade and one 2/3 combined class, as well as one fourth grade, one fifth grade and one combined 4/5 class.
Baker pitched the multi-grade model as a way of offering a “more personalized learning experience for students” in a letter to families earlier this month. But she also acknowledges that the model isn’t ideal.
“I think we’re going about it the right way,” Baker said. But it “is more challenging for planning the instruction.”
Also among the challenges is the fact that class sizes will grow from the hoped-for 15 to 16 students to 18 to 22. The single-grade classes will have the larger number of students, between 20 and 22, while the combined classes will be closer to 18, she said. Last year, Bluff averaged fewer than 15 students per class, according to state data.
While Bluff has seen a recent increase in enrollment, the challenge of finding teachers is more widespread. SAU 6, which includes schools in Claremont and Unity, had 25 teaching vacancies as of Monday, according to its website.
A critical shortage list maintained by the New Hampshire Department of Education, based on a survey conducted last winter, includes a couple dozen types of teachers and instructional specialists, including early childhood educators, middle and high school English teachers, English as another language teachers, health educators, middle- and upper-level math teachers, high school physical science teachers, middle and high school social studies teachers, special educators and technology and engineering teachers, as well as French and Spanish teachers.
Steve Appleby, director of the Division of Educator Support and Higher Education at the New Hampshire Department of Education, said that while there are some positions that are hard to fill and struggles in certain geographic areas, schools overall are able to find the teachers they need. He noted that this year’s critical shortage list is shorter than last year’s and that five years ago the state’s list was substantially longer.
“Science and math have been perennial challenges,” he said, noting that people with bachelor’s degrees in those fields have other, higher-paying opportunities available to them in the private sector.
Special education positions also are difficult to fill, and rural areas are more likely to struggle than more populous ones, he said. While the number of applications for other positions, such as elementary school teachers, have declined substantially, he said, the state is “still graduating more elementary ed teachers out of our colleges than we have spots for currently in New Hampshire.”
In Newport, the hiring situation this year is better than last year, according to Superintendent Donna Magoon. Last year when Magoon arrived in July, she said she had to fill nearly 30 teaching vacancies. This year, she had just about a dozen teachers leave.
Every teacher who leaves cites pay as the reason, Magoon said.
“I can only wish them luck and say you always have a home,” she said.
To assist in recruiting, Magoon has offered a $1,000 incentive payment to employees who refer new teachers.
“Our positions are filling up quickly,” she said.
One vacancy that remains is a sixth grade math teacher. The previous teacher, who is part of a four-person team, resigned last week. The three remaining team members, who teach social studies, science and language arts, have agreed to also teach one section of math this year, at least until a new math teacher can be hired, Magoon said.
The result will be larger class sizes, but fortunately the sixth grade is small, so even with larger class sizes, they will have just 13 or 14 students at a time.
Magoon said she’s hopeful the district will find a sixth grade math teacher during the school year, as it found language arts and science teachers last year.
“I have faith that it’s going to be sent to us,” she said. “I’m actually feeling pretty good about our start of the year.”
Other vacancies in Newport include special education teachers, paraeducators, a seventh grade language arts teacher and family consumer science teachers for both the middle and high schools. But interviews were scheduled on Tuesday.
“It changes daily,” Magoon said.
The areas most affected by teacher shortages in Vermont are in the Northeast Kingdom and southern Vermont and along the borders, said Andrew Prowten, assistant director of the Education Quality Division at the Vermont Agency of Education.
In Chittenden County, schools are mostly fully staffed as the year approaches, but they’ve had fewer people apply for open positions and they’ve become more reliant on provisional licenses, Prowten said. Such licenses allow people with a bachelor’s degree in the content area but without a teacher’s license to teach as they work toward licensure.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency has seen a near-doubling of the number of people seeking provisional licenses to teach, from 300 to 640 in 2022 and more than 550 last school year.
Elementary educators — which have “never been identified as a shortage area nationally or in Vermont” — are becoming harder to find and retain, Prowten said.
He said he suspects that is at least in part because elementary teachers are often paid less than secondary teachers because they tend to start with bachelor’s degrees, not master’s. The agency is working with the state Department of Labor to create more pathways to become an elementary teacher and to help retain teachers once they begin.
The state also is seeing a shortage of special educators, which Prowten said is especially challenging because caseloads for those who remain grow, increasing stress and burnout.
The Orange East Supervisory Union, which includes Bradford, Vt.-area schools, has had good luck through word-of-mouth recruitment this summer, Superintendent Randy Gawel said. OESU, which has more than 400 employees, was down to 4.5 teacher openings as of last week.
“It’s funny: With all of the technology we have, a number of the positions were just someone knows somebody,” Gawel said.
The supervisory union is still recruiting for paraprofessionals and long-term substitutes.
Overall, Gawel said, the district is in a better place staffing-wise than in the recent past. The district did not lose any administrators this year, he said.
“It has not been as much a rush or a push to hire as maybe two years ago,” he said. “With COVID … retirements sort of peaked at that time.”
Gawel, like Baker, said the teacher shortage is a national one and that fewer people are going into teaching than in years past.
“It’s a hard job,” Baker said. “We need to as educators (be) bringing the profession up instead of bringing it down.”
Baker attended a conference earlier this summer in which the speaker encouraged the educators gathered to keep their social media posts positive, she said.
At Bluff, Baker plans to keep the third- and fifth-grade teaching positions open until filled. If someone happens to come walking through the door this year, she said they won’t change the model, but add a co-teacher, and shift back to the single-grade structure next year.
The “goal is for next year (to) continue to look and search and have those positions filled,” Baker said.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.