School Choice & Charters

Teacher Need Hits Private Schools Hard

By Catherine Gewertz — May 23, 2001 10 min read
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It used to be something Ned Fox could count on each year, sure as the seasons: a stack of 600 applications from teachers who wanted to work at Charlotte Latin, the private school he heads in Charlotte, N.C. In the past few years, though, that stack has shrunk to 200.

Mr. Fox used to have no trouble assembling a strong staff by the time the new grass appeared each spring. But with the dwindling pool of first-rate candidates, he says, the hiring process now often stretches into August.

He is hardly alone. All over the country, heads of schools and leaders of private school associations report an ever-lengthening list of teacher vacancies and a shrinking number of applicants.

“It’s on everyone’s radar scope,” said Patrick F. Bassett, the president of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, which represents private schools in 15 Midwestern states. “For the last two years, it’s been our number-one strategic issue.”

Private schools, both secular and religious, are contending with the same teacher-shortage issues as public schools: difficulty finding teachers for inner-city schools, trouble attracting teachers who can earn much more in the business world, expanding student enrollment, and the first ripples of an enormous wave of retirements as baby-boomer teachers age.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects that at least 2 million additional public school teachers and 525,000 private school teachers will be needed in the next decade. But private schools, which enroll 10 percent of the nation’s K-12 students, are feeling a particular pinch as the massive public school system steps up its efforts to secure teachers, offering salaries—and sometimes generous signing bonuses—with which most private schools cannot compete.

Public school salaries average at least 25 percent more than private school pay, according to a 1996 study by the federal statistics center.

Blurring Boundaries

Mary Fitterer has taught science at St. Joseph High School, a Roman Catholic girls’ school with 820 students in Lakewood, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, for seven years. She loves her job, but she’s leaving next school year for a teaching post in the nearby ABC Unified district, where she will earn $57,200 a year, a full $20,000 more than she earns now.

“I have two kids who will be starting Catholic school next year, and we are trying to save to buy a home,” said Ms. Fitterer, who attended Catholic schools through college. “It’s been a very difficult decision for the family. I keep thinking how much I’m going to miss the prayer services.”

Private schools are struggling for teachers in part because of the shifting dynamics in the education world, said Pearl Rock Kane, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the president of Associates for Research on Private Education, a research group based at Brigham Young University in Utah. Public schools increasingly are offering advantages that private schools have boasted of, and they’re competing for the same types of teachers, she said.

More public schools are now searching for candidates with broad, liberal arts backgrounds, which have been a hallmark of private school hires, Ms. Kane said.

And many teachers traditionally have been attracted to private schools because they have not required certification, she said. But increasingly, public schools are allowing teachers into the classroom with emergency or alternative certification because of the teacher pinch.

Private schools also have offered a more personalized teaching setting, including the authority to help shape the curriculum, but that advantage is also becoming available in public charter schools.

“The boundaries between public and private schools,” she said, “are becoming more blurred.”

A ‘Hot Issue’

With its varied affiliations and associations, the private school world is a fragmented one, and there is little research examining such schools’ overall teacher shortage. But it’s not hard to find signs of difficulty.

At the Association of Christian Schools International, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group representing 3,800 religious schools, the shortage shows on the job board, which is posted on the group’s Web site and published in a monthly bulletin. As of last week, 469 schools had posted one or more openings—and only 33 teachers had posted their résumés, said ACSI President Ken Smitherman. Six years ago, it was a far different picture: 143 schools with openings and 152 teacher résumés.

As the school year began in 1999, Catholic dioceses nationwide opened with as many as 400 teacher vacancies. The Rev. Joseph O’Keefe, an associate professor at Boston College’s school of education who conducted a mail survey of 180 dioceses that year for the National Catholic Educational Association, said that 94 percent of the respondents reported a teacher shortage. Twenty-one dioceses reported 10 or more openings. The single most frequent reason departing teachers gave was to make more money, he said.

A recent mail survey of “hot issues” facing members of the National Association of Independent Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for about 1,000 private schools, including many of the nation’s leading college-prep schools, is still being tabulated.

But every single one of the responses returned so far lists a lack of teachers as “a major resource issue,” said Donna Orem, the director of products and services development for the NAIS.

It’s not only full-time teachers that are hard to find. Private schools report great difficulty finding substitute teachers, a problem exacerbated by the public-private pay differential.

Barrett Luketic, the principal of Brethren Christian Junior & Senior High School in Huntington Beach, Ca., which enrolls 475 students in grades 7-12, said he can’t snag substitutes for $75 a day because nearby public schools pay $95 to $145.

Salaries and Tuition

Schools are responding to the shortage in a variety of ways. Some are attacking the compensation problem directly, by upping teacher salaries and then raising tuition to finance the heftier payroll.

At Charlotte Latin School, Mr. Fox persuaded the school board to raise starting teacher salaries from $22,000 to $30,000 over two years, and raise tuition 6 percent for each of the next two years. At Castilleja School, a day school in Palo Alto, Calif., that enrolls 385 girls in grades 6-12, teachers received a 10 percent pay increase last year and will get another this year. The school also will give teachers $10,000 bonuses starting next spring if they sign contracts for the following year.

“We’ve had a lot of turnover,” said Joan Z. Lonergan, Castilleja’s head of school. “But since we put this package in place, we haven’t lost one faculty member.”

Castilleja raised its tuition nearly 10 percent, from $16,550 to $18,120, to pay for the raises, Ms. Lonergan said, and launched a $5 million fund-raising drive to finance the bonuses.

Both Ms. Lonergan and Mr. Fox said there was virtually no objection to the tuition increases because school officials emphasized that higher salaries were critical to attract and retain good teachers.

Many private schools have traditionally priced tuition below the cost of educating students for fear of pricing families out, but that formula produces financial strain.

“It’s frustrating to run a school on car washes and candy sales,” said Mr. Smitherman of the Christian schools’ group.

He and other private school leaders are urging their schools to set tuition closer to the actual cost of educating students, a move that would generate the money to make financial aid available to those who need it, he said.

In some schools, though, such an approach is not seen as possible. Sister Dominica Rocchio, the secretary for education and the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., which serves 62,000 students in four counties, said too many families would be priced out if tuition were raised to match the cost.

Instead, the archdiocese is using an increasingly popular religious-school strategy: targeting potential teachers willing and able to trade a higher salary for the spiritual satisfaction of teaching. The archdiocese started placing notices in parish bulletins and local newspapers this spring to attract midcareer professionals and retirees, hoping that older people, with children already grown and pensions in place, might be able to afford such a choice.

Newark’s work echoes a theme being employed by Catholic schools nationwide. Earlier this year, the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Washington, launched a teacher-recruitment campaign with the theme “Reach Your Potential by Helping Students Discover Theirs.” The association produced 100 packets for dioceses, containing ready-made print advertisements and radio spots that can be customized locally. Within three months, 59 of the $300 kits had been sold.

Flexible Approaches

Some private schools are retooling their recruitment procedures in other ways. The Independent Schools Association of the Central States has begun “e-staffing,” in which applicants can be interviewed online and even screened for “emotional intelligence,” Mr. Bassett said.

The association also has formed alliances with online teacher-placement agencies, encouraging member schools to sign up with those agencies in exchange for the display of the association’s logo and links on the agencies’ Web sites.

In an attempt to increase the flow of teachers in the pipeline, other schools have begun “grow your own” programs. Jonathan Woocher, the president of Jewish Education Service of North America, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that studies and serves Jewish day schools, cited the Jewish Educators Corps as one example.

The program, begun this year in Columbus, Ohio, San Diego, St. Louis, and Providence, R.I., identifies college students interested in teaching and offers them part-time experience in after-school and Sunday Jewish programs—along with a seminar, mentorship, and a stipend—in the hope that they might pursue teaching in Jewish day schools.

The University School in Cleveland, which enrolls 850 boys in grades K-12, runs a program with nearby Ursuline College in which undergraduates from other colleges and universities around the country pay $18,000 to spend a year teaching at University School and being taught by its faculty, while earning their teaching certification and master’s degrees.

University School, which receives a portion of that tuition, benefits by being able to watch candidates up close and cream off the best. Headmaster Richard A. Hawley now counts 15 or more of those graduates among his faculty.

The Diocese of Cleveland is dipping down even further to curry new teachers for Catholic schools there. Its Future Catholic Teachers Club, set to begin next school year as a pilot in 27 of the diocese’s 167 schools, plans to train teachers to identify and encourage promising future teachers as young as elementary school.

The seasoned teachers will form clubs, offering youngsters a chance to try out their teaching wings by being peer tutors, teaching “mini-lessons,” or—for older children—student-teaching, said Mary Lou Toler, an educational consultant to the Cleveland Diocese’s office of education.

Some schools, meanwhile, are trying to eliminate employment barriers for working parents. Catholic schools are establishing partnerships with local parish day-care providers and offering more flex-time and part-time employment so that parents can more easily consider teaching jobs, said Father O’Keefe of Boston College. Jesuit high schools, which have long discounted tuition for the children of staff members, are more widely publicizing that benefit, he said.

Even as schools struggle to fill out their teaching ranks, some see a beneficial outcome from the mounting efforts both by the public and private sectors to produce and retain good teachers for American schools.

“I think this whole effort could really reposition teaching in the American consciousness as more respected and better rewarded,” said Mr. Woocher of the Jewish Education Service. “The shortage may be a problem, but the response may well prove to be an asset.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teacher Need Hits Private Schools Hard


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