If you have traveled on Southwest Airlines in recent months, you may have seen the ads asking you to “Teach. Vegas” and join the Clark County School District.
If you’ve stayed in a hotel lately, you might have seen a muscled superhero on the back of your hotel room keycard as part of the district’s “Calling All Heroes” campaign, beseeching you to become a teacher in Nevada’s largest school district.
And you may have spotted Internet ads for the district’s virtual job fair on April 9 during which the district hoped to find qualified candidates to fill one of the 2,600 teacher positions it says it needs for the start of the 2015-16 school year. (The virtual job fair was hosted by TopSchoolJobs, a K-12 career resource provided by edweek.org.)
In case you did not get the message: The Clark County school district needs teachers.
The district, the nation’s fifth largest with an enrollment of 318,000 students, has embarked on a massive, all-out blitz to fill its classroom vacancies, upping the ante for 2015-16 after years of a perennial teacher shortage.
Last year, with two weeks to go before the start of school, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, still had 650 open teacher slots after putting out a call earlier in the year for 2,000 teachers.
The district relied on its growing pool of permanent substitute teachers—a pool that includes about 5,000 bodies—to make up the difference.
And with the district expected to add 4,800 students in the coming school year, the need for more teachers just continues to grow.
Staci Vesneske, the district’s chief human resources officer, is hoping to fill those positions permanently and reduce the reliance on substitutes.
Because the district has relied so heavily on its substitute-teacher pool in the last few years, it’s started to invite long-term substitutes to sessions that it would normally reserve for new teachers, such as on-boarding training sessions and mentoring opportunities.
“Obviously having a well-trained teacher in every classroom is what we are shooting for,” she said. “We have been very fortunate to be able to get high quality substitutes in classrooms, many of them with bachelor’s degrees. Or they are excellent substitutes that principals know. So, thus far, we have been very lucky.”
Reasons for the Shortage
The Clark County’s teacher shortage has its roots in the county’s rapid growth in the 1990s. As casinos and the entertainment and gaming industries proliferated, houses and schools followed. The district has built more than 100 schools since 2000 to accommodate the growth and has scrambled most years to hire enough teachers to meet demand.
Beginning around the mid-90s and continuing through the 2006-07 school year, the district’s enrollment growth was explosive, with jumps of more than 10,000 students annually. In the 1994-95 school year, the student population grew by 11,021 over the previous year, for example. In 2000-01, enrollment grew by 13,986 students from the previous year, according to district enrollment numbers.
The teacher crunch in more recent years has been due to a national decline in the number of education majors, along with mandates for smaller class sizes that has increased the demands for elementary school teachers in particular, Vesneske said.
Further, the district cannot rely on filling its vacancies with certified teachers produced in the state. Nevada’s schools churn out fewer than 1,000 teacher candidates each year, she said. Even if Clark County hired all of them—and that’s unlikely—it would still have a gap of more than 1,000.
And Nevada’s other large district—Washoe County, with 63,000 students—is also competing for those teachers.
Clark County had relied for years on California and Oregon as its main recruitment centers, but those states are also seeing their teaching pool dwindle, she said.
The number of teaching vacancies is also a moving target that is influenced by retirements. This school year, for example, Clark County started with about 650 classroom substitutes. It filled over 500 positions during the year, but still ended the year with 630 vacancies, Vesneske said.
To reduce the impact of retirements, the district is also running a campaign called “Keeping All Heroes” to try to hang on to more veteran teachers by working with them to give the district advance notice of their retirement plans and encouraging them to retire at the end of the school year.
One challenge in attracting candidates is wages. The starting salary for teachers there is just under $35,000, less than the national average and lower than other similarly sized urban districts. (The 2012-13 national average teacher starting salary was $36,141.) But that number may appear deceptively low, Vesneske said, because district employees do not pay for Social Security withholdings—the district covers those costs—and there are other financial perks that may make the salary worthwhile, she said.
The need for teachers is more crucial in the elementary grades, but the district is looking for candidates in high-need areas such as math, science and special education, Vesneske said. Of the 2,600 teacher candidates the district is seeking, at least 1,000 will be elementary teachers, she said.
“We are still looking for quality,” she said.
The ‘Calling All Heroes’ Campaign
Given all of those factors, the district is casting its net nationally, holding both virtual and physical career fairs across the country in a no-holds-barred approach to find qualified candidates. (The virtual careers fairs are cheaper and allow for deeper conversations between potential candidates and human resources officers, so the district is increasing its reliance on those, Vesneske said.)
To help pay for its new hiring campaign, the district’s recruitment and hiring budget got a nearly $1 million boost over last year. Two new recruiters were hired. Employees can get a $110 bonus for every candidate they recommend who is eventually hired by the district.
(You can watch clip of Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, dressed as Clark Kent and zip-lining at the launch of the “Calling All Heroes” campaign in January. And in keeping with the superhero theme, human resources staffers all have capes.)
The district has also launched a Teach Vegas website to promote the many reasons to teach in Clark County and become a child’s first superhero. The recruitment effort also highlights the district’s alternative route program for candidates who may want to teach but are not licensed.
Vesneske, a transplant from Spokane, Wash., who had enough of the four seasons before resettling in Nevada, has become something of a promoter not just for the district but for the county itself.
In recruiting teachers, she said, the department is not just selling the school district but an entire region, one that is heavily associated with the nightlife of Las Vegas in some minds and the housing market crash in others, she said.
Some of the perks of relocating, according to Vesneske? More than 300 days of sun annually, an exciting food and restaurant scene, the best entertainment, and low housing costs.
“Everybody loves the food and the gaming and the things like that on the Strip, but they don’t realize that there’s a lot of other things to do in Las Vegas,” she said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.