Published Online:
Published in Print: January 27, 2016, as Nev. District Fighting Shortage Trends

Faced With Deep Teacher Shortages, Clark County, Nev., District Looks for Answers

Kindergarten teacher Doris Velasquez works with student Jelisa Gastelum during a spelling lesson at Mervin Iverson Elementary School in Las Vegas. Velasquez, who was a stay-at-home mother and parent volunteer at the school, is in her first year teaching at Iverson.
Kindergarten teacher Doris Velasquez works with student Jelisa Gastelum during a spelling lesson at Mervin Iverson Elementary School in Las Vegas. Velasquez, who was a stay-at-home mother and parent volunteer at the school, is in her first year teaching at Iverson.
—Ronda Churchill for Education Week
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If the teacher shortages that fanned out across the country this fall had an epicenter, it was likely the Clark County school district in Nevada.

At the start of this school year, officials in the 320,000-student district encompassing Las Vegas were scrambling to fill nearly 1,000 classroom vacancies. By the end of December, the system still had more than 700 open positions, with unlicensed substitutes filling the gaps in many schools.

How this staggering shortage evolved and what the district is doing to address it have become matters of national attention, especially since many other areas are facing similar—if so far less drastic—trend lines.

The factors that observers say led to Clark County's staffing gaps are both unique to the district and reflective of larger, nationwide patterns. They include local demographic changes, especially a growing Hispanic population; student-enrollment surges; a string of state budget cutbacks; a wave of teacher retirements; and—perhaps most centrally—a weak regional pipeline of new teachers.

"There just aren't nearly as many people anymore who choose to pursue a career in education," said Kim Metcalf, the dean of the education school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a primary supplier of Clark County's teachers.

The problem is exaggerated in Las Vegas, Metcalf said, because the city is surrounded by areas that are sparsely populated. "There aren't enough people here to generate enough qualified candidates—if we look only locally," he said.

Shrinking Pipelines

A number of the states reporting teacher shortages issued fewer initial teaching credentials over the past few years. Generally, those states have also seen declines in state teacher-preparation enrollments.

While the declines are likely the result of a multitude of causes, analysts say key factors include state budget crunches during and following the recession of 2007 to 2009, growing media attention to the testing pressures in schools, and teachers’ perceived lack of professional prestige and empowerment. Some observers also note that the recovering economy has provided more employment options to some young people.

Indeed, in 2013, education schools in Nevada produced only 771 teachers, according to federal data. That's far short of the estimated 2,500-plus new educators needed annually in Clark County alone.

Faced with numbers like those, the district—along with state lawmakers and other stakeholders—has had to experiment with a number of increasingly urgent initiatives designed to tap new pools of potential teachers.

"We are being systematic and strategic," said Meg Nigro, the district's executive director of recruitment and development. "No one approach is going to solve this."

Among the initiatives put in place in the past year:

• The district has launched a large-scale national marketing campaign—under the banner of Calling All Heroes—to bring attention to teaching opportunities in Las Vegas, including fast-track-certification options for career-changers.

• It has created four recruiter positions to "get boots on the ground" in school systems and education schools across the country and increase contact time with prospects, Nigro said.

• With funding from the state, the district has established a $5,000 hiring incentive for new teachers who agree to work in low-income or low-performing schools. About 1,100 teachers have received the bonus so far, Nigro said.

• The district also expects to benefit from a related state measure that provides nearly $5 million in scholarship money for students who enroll in teacher-preparation programs at select Nevada colleges, with an initial emphasis on alternative-licensure routes for those who already have bachelor's degrees. (UNLV, which recently expanded its alternative-licensure programs to 12, expects to be able to train 50 to 100 additional teachers through the scholarship program this academic year, Metcalf said.)

• School leaders are working to enroll long-term substitute teachers in the district's own alternative-licensure program, under which candidates can work toward full certification while continuing to teach.

• Finally, the district recently forged a new contract with the Clark County Education Association that is intended to boost starting teacher salaries from $34,600 to $40,000, create incentives for teachers who take positions in hard-to-staff schools, and build other growth opportunities into the teacher-salary schedule, though some veteran teachers have reportedly questioned the impact of the changes.

Funding for the salary increases would come from cuts in other areas, including to a planned human-resources and payroll-systems upgrade and school maintenance projects, a district spokesperson said. The county school board was scheduled to vote on the contract this month.

Courting Millennials

Such efforts are beginning to make a dent. According to Nigro, the district has hired 216 more teachers this school year than last, an increase of 14 percent, and enrollment in its alternative-licensure program has increased dramatically.

But major uncertainties remain, including in connection with the district's growing reliance on quickly trained teachers.

Meanwhile, local officials acknowledge that even broader changes will be needed to address the district's teacher-supply gap over the long term.

UNLV's Metcalf says the district and its stakeholders—including education schools, business leaders, and lawmakers—are increasingly focused on ideas to reconceptualize and market teaching in Clark County as a "good job" that will have greater appeal to millennials from other states.

"Millennials don't just want a job," he said. "They want a career path—they want flexibility, the ability to grow and pursue multiple options during their career. We have a real opportunity to say to folks, 'Come here and build your career in education.' Not just, 'Come here and be a teacher.' "

Vol. 35, Issue 19, Page s2

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