Desperately Seeking Educators

By Erik W. Robelen — February 20, 2007 10 min read
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New Orleans is looking for a few good teachers. And principals. And charter school operators.

As state and local officials struggle to rebuild the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina 18 months ago, they’re facing a severe shortage of talent willing and able to educate the fast-growing student population.

“Students are coming back, but they’re not bringing teachers or principals with them,” said Leslie R. Jacobs, a member of the state board of education. “We need 10 new teachers a week to keep up.”

The problem is especially stark in the schools operated by Louisiana’s Recovery School District, since that state-run system is largely responsible for taking the steady stream of new students who show up each week.

Officials say that an average of 50 new students enroll in the recovery district each day. The teacher gap in the state-run schools, as of last week, was 75. The overall enrollment in public schools in New Orleans, also as of last week, was nearly 26,000. Recent estimates forecast a student population that could reach 40,000 by next fall.

The recovery district has had to increase class sizes in many of the state-run schools to accommodate the influx of students, with classes in some cases rising above 30 students. The shortage of teachers and facilities also spurred a waiting list of some 300 students in January, although the recovery district has opened two new schools and pledged that all students who enroll this school year will be immediately placed.

The hiring crunch has made it hard to ensure all classrooms are led by high-quality teachers. Although state officials say they won’t put any teacher in a classroom who is not up to the task, about one-third of teachers in the state-run schools are not fully certified.

To recruit staff members, the state is turning to some local and national nonprofit groups, including New Leaders for New Schools and the New Teacher Project, both based in New York City.

But those efforts are likely to fall far short of the need, especially for teachers. So, state officials also plan to expand their own efforts and offer new incentives to entice candidates, such as signing bonuses, housing allowances, and help in paying moving expenses.

Meanwhile, the state last week gave preliminary approval for the creation of nine new charter schools in New Orleans for the 2007-08 academic year.

Several organizations that already operate charters in the city were given the nod to expand, and a few new entrants are expected to set up shop, including a school run by the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. of New York City and another by the Chicago-based UNO Charter Network, which mainly serves Hispanic students in its five Chicago schools.

Lack of Housing

Probably the biggest obstacle to attracting educators to New Orleans is a lack of adequate and affordable housing. Rental prices, for instance, have skyrocketed. Analysts say recent reports of rising crime in the city may also be a deterrent.

State officials emphasize that the labor shortage cuts across professions, not just education.

The Recovery School District also has been the subject of growing criticism and unfavorable publicity, over the waiting lists for enrollment, schools’ inability to serve hot lunches, a shortage of textbooks and teacher supplies, and other problems.

“Katrina was such a major disaster that you are in fact building a system from scratch,” said James C. Brandt, the president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a watchdog group. “The expectations were sky high,” he said, for the pace of the schools’ recovery, and were unrealistic.

“I think the RSD, to a large degree, has lost community support,” Mr. Brandt said, “when problems of cold lunches and waiting lists surfaced, and they didn’t seem to respond quickly enough.”

Robin G. Jarvis, the superintendent of the recovery district has talked recently about resigning soon, citing fatigue, separation from her family, and a lack of community support. In an e-mail last week, Ms. Jarvis, who previously was an assistant superintendent at the state department of education, said she had not made a final decision, but had “assured my staff that I will not leave them without the support they need to succeed for the children of New Orleans.”

Recovery district officials outlined growth plans last week for the coming school year. They said the RSD would open as many as 27 new schools by the fall, including new charters. Up to six of those buildings could open later this academic year. The additional campuses would increase the recovery system’s capacity to about 43,000 students, RSD officials said.

As of last week, the Recovery School District directly operated 20 schools—far more than initially anticipated after the storm. That figure includes two elementary schools that opened this month. The city also has 31 charters, including 17 that are independently operated but part of the RSD, and five schools run by the Orleans Parish school board.

Scott S. Cowen, the president of Tulane University, a private institution in New Orleans, said he believes that not only are the state-run schools short-staffed, but that the central office for the RSD is also. The structure of the segmented school system also presents problems, he added.

For the most part, charters and schools run by Orleans Parish are filled to capacity and not taking in new students, leaving that responsibility largely to the state-run schools. “It becomes the place of last resort,” Mr. Cowen said of the recovery district.

To the Rescue

New Leaders for New Schools was tapped this month to help bring as many as 40 new principals to New Orleans over the next several years. The New Teacher Project and Louisiana officials last week were in final negotiations over plans for the nonprofit group to recruit 100 to 125 alternatively certified teachers for the RSD for the fall.

Another group also based in New York, Teach for America, aims to bring 100 new teachers to the area by this summer, with 60 to 75 to work in state-run schools. The group intends to recruit another 100 teachers each year until at least 2010, it said.

But state officials say such efforts won’t be enough. They predict the state-run schools may need nearly 600 additional teachers in all for the fall.

State officials are completing plans for an expanded campaign of their own with some extras thrown in, promoted nationally, and perhaps internationally.

“We’re developing a very aggressive recruiting package that would give some additional incentives,” said Rodney R. Watson, and aide to the state schools chief “It would be a signing bonus spread over a couple of years; we’re looking at a housing allowance to help ameliorate the cost of housing, … [paying] moving costs.”

Some critics say state leaders themselves are at least partially to blame for the difficulty finding teachers. When the state enacted legislation in the fall of 2005 to take over most public schools in New Orleans, whose formerly 65,000-student district had been beset by academic and financial woes even before the hurricane, it required former employees to reapply for their jobs and did away with the collective bargaining agreement that had covered them.


“You don’t pick up and come back when you’ve been mistreated, disrespected, and fired,” said Brenda Mitchell, the president of United Teachers of New Orleans, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Mitchell said teachers found insulting the new basic-skills test all applicants to state-run schools must pass, and she warned that many teachers may be reluctant to come to New Orleans without collective bargaining. “You don’t know if you’re going to have [a job] from day to day,” she said.

Recovery district officials say about 30 percent of teacher applicants have failed the basic-skills test, and that 86 percent of teachers hired for state-run schools previously worked in the Orleans Parish system.

Karen A. Bryan, who taught for a decade in New Orleans before Katrina struck and recently returned to teach 5th grade at Live Oak Elementary, a state-run school, said Ms. Mitchell’s complaints don’t bother her.

“I was a member of the union, but I believe that if you are qualified and certified, that reapplying for a job is no problem,” she said. “I really, truly had a desire to come back to help the students.”

Some experts worry that the pressure to fill classrooms may be pushing the state to lower its sights.

“The Recovery School District and many schools are just happy to have a teacher in the classroom,” said James Meza, the dean of the college of education and human development at the University of New Orleans. “There’s a quality question.”

Mr. Watson said the state is doing the best it can under extreme circumstances.

“We’re not just putting people in classrooms without consideration of what they’ll need to teach,” he said. “We match their degree as close to their content area as possible.”

Beyond the skills assessment and other screening measures, he said, the state is working hard to support incoming teachers. The school day has one hour of professional-development time built in, he said, and teachers who lack certification are enrolled in programs at local universities.

“We’re growing our own,” Mr. Watson said.

Meanwhile, the state continues to look to charter schools to help serve the students of New Orleans. On Feb. 13, Louisiana’s board of elementary and secondary education gave preliminary approval to nine new charter schools for next year. That’s out of 17 applications for 28 schools in all.

The state has been using what’s widely regarded as a rigorous selection process, tapping the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers again this year to manage the application process and make recommendations to the state.

The choosiness is generally applauded, although it means the state once again will be operating more schools itself than officials had hoped, given the enrollment projections for next fall.

Leaders with charters in New Orleans say it hasn’t been easy for them to find good staff members for the publicly funded but largely independent schools, and the problem will continue as some seek to expand or open new charter schools.

“It’s tough right now finding teachers,” said Jonathan C. Bertsch, the development director for KIPP New Orleans, which is among those getting tentative approval to open a new school in the fall, and also is expanding the grade levels at two existing schools. But he suspects the Knowledge Is Power Program’s national reputation may help. “Our KIPP schools have a little bit of a leg up,” he said.

Salary Wars?

The state-run schools offer salaries that are among the highest in Louisiana. Under the salary schedule, an entry-level teacher with a bachelor’s degree would earn about $37,000 a year.

Brian Riedlinger, the chief executive officer of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, which oversees eight charter schools and received tentative approval last week for one more, said salaries at his schools aren’t quite that high.

“I had a meeting with teachers last spring, and told them, ‘If some of you need the extra [money], go. Do what you have to do for your family,’ ” he said. “The only frustrating part for me is when it happens during the school year.”

“It’s a very competitive market,” said Mr. Meza of the University of New Orleans, which operates three charters. “The good news for teachers is, there’s a salary war basically going on.”

Anthony Recasner, the chief executive officer of Middle School Advocates, a New Orleans nonprofit group that operates two charters, said his salaries have gone up as a result of the higher salary schedule set in the Recovery School District.

“We’re all short in some key roles,” he said. “Librarians have been really hard to come by, special education teachers, reading specialists.”

Mr. Recasner said he sympathizes with the RSD, as it opens new schools in midyear.

“Think about it. You don’t start schools in the middle of the year,” he said. “You’re certainly not going to get the best staff, because usually those people are already employed somewhere.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Desperately Seeking Educators


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