behind the headlines

Best of 2015: Why is there no teacher shortage in New York City?

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
The student art show runs through April 14.

When Principal Michael Shadrick posts a job opening at Williamsburg Preparatory School, he doesn’t worry about finding teachers to apply.

Shadrick and the small high school’s hiring committee received more than 100 applications for just three positions this spring. When Shadrick posted a different opening for a teacher certified in English as a second language, he sorted through another 30 applications before choosing two finalists.

That scenario might have played out differently in Nashville, Oklahoma City, or a number of other urban school districts struggling to fill positions before this school year begins, as the New York Times reported this month. California alone had more than 21,000 new teaching slots to fill this year but issued credentials to just 15,000.

The demand to work at Williamsburg Prep is emblematic of a different reality in the Empire State, which has many more aspiring teachers than classrooms for them to fill. While recruiters elsewhere are increasingly relying on people without teaching credentials to fill positions, New York’s excess supply gives principals the chance to be selective when reviewing résumés.

“I always try to get people with a little more experience and who know what it’s like to be a teacher,” Shadrick said.

In fact, New York remains one of the country’s most competitive job markets for teachers, according to Carrie Murthy, who analyzes higher education data for Westat, a research organization that works with the federal education department. Just one in three graduates from a teacher preparation program is able to land a job in New York, according to the State Education Department.

The state’s teacher surplus is large enough to have persisted even as enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen by 40 percent in recent years, Murthy said. That decrease outpaces the national average of 30 percent over that period.

“People have been saying for a while now that once all the baby boomers retire we’re really going to be in trouble,” Murthy said. “But at least in New York, we have yet to see that happen.”

Recruiting and hiring new teachers are not uniformly without difficulty across both the state and the city. Attracting well-qualified teachers tends to be more challenging for the city’s lowest-performing schools and in economically depressed parts of the state, said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College and the current president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

But a number of factors have converged to make hiring easier than it is in other parts of the country.

The state’s teacher preparation programs are still churning out excess graduates certified to teach elementary school and popular subjects where demand for new teachers is low, Levine said. New York state’s public school enrollment has stayed almost flat over the last decade, while populations are booming in states like Arizona and North Carolina.

"No one can remember ever having hired this many teachers in one year."Cosimo Tangorra, Niskayuna superintendent

And New York City, where the population has increased in recent decades, is a desirable place to live and work with relatively competitive teacher salaries.

“It’s a go-to location,” Levine said.

Other areas are also still recovering from deep cuts made to their teacher workforces during the recession. State and local budgets now look healthier, and districts are trying to quickly fill gaps in their workforce they’ve had for years. In other words, demand has suddenly outstripped supply.

New York City, though, doesn’t have to make up as much ground. The city managed to avoid layoffs between 2009 and 2013, though it slowed new teacher hiring by about half. (The rest of the state did see cuts, with schools losing about 8 percent of their active teaching workforce in those years, according to New York State School Boards Association spokesman David Albert.)

This year, districts are receiving an average state funding increase of 6 percent. Cosimo Tangorra, superintendent of Niskayuna, a 4,000-student district of north of Albany, said the extra aid allowed him to hire 44 new teachers for the coming fall.

“No one can remember ever having hired this many teachers in one year,” said Tangorra, a former deputy state education commissioner. He noted that the hiring spree was likely easier because the schools in Niskayuna, where just 10 percent of students are considered poor, are highly sought-after by parents.

The city has had trouble finding teachers before, most notably in 2000, when hundreds of vacancies were unfilled as the school year started and about one in seven teachers lacked certification. Since then, teacher pay has risen significantly, and programs like NYC Teaching Fellows were created to offer alternatives to the traditional teacher education process.

"A lot of people are questioning the profession in a big way."Craig Michaels, Queens College

Some educators are concerned that teacher shortages may still be on New York’s horizon, thanks partially to the public’s focus on teacher evaluations and standardized testing. The state is also introducing a new set of certification exams designed to make it more difficult to enter the profession.

Craig Michaels, the dean of Queens College’s education division, has seen undergraduate enrollment fall nearly 20 percent and graduate enrollment drop about 10 percent in the last three years. The higher costs associated with the new certification exams were keeping some students away, Michaels said, while others have flocked to alternative certification programs. Others may avoid the profession if they feel educators are always “under attack” by the media and politicians.

“A lot of people are questioning the profession in a big way,” he said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed, saying there are signs that New York “isn’t far behind” other states that are losing teachers. New York’s testing and accountability policies have demoralized educators, she said in a statement.

Levine disputed that argument, saying much of the discussion about how education policy was shaping the national and local teacher job market is not rooted in evidence.

The unions “make a good case, but there’s no evidence that’s the case,” he said. “The research needs to be done and anything anyone tells you at this point is conjecture.”

For Dylan Scott, an aspiring teacher with an in-demand science background, the difficulty of his job search has been surprising.

Scott, who has a master’s degree in biology, hoped that credential would propel him into a teaching position at a school close to where he lived and whose administration was well-liked by its staff. Seven interviews later, he’s realized the market for those positions is more competitive than he had thought.

“Now I’m wondering if I’m shooting too high,” he said.

Sabrina Rodriguez contributed reporting.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”