Casting their lines

‘Come help these babies.’ Inside the Detroit district’s long-shot effort to end a crippling teacher shortage

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Recruiters Edwina Dortch and Asenath Jones chat with passersby at Morgan State University's spring career fair

Sporting perfectly tailored black-and-white ensembles and wide, beaming smiles, three seasoned Detroit schools recruiters scanned a packed ballroom at Baltimore’s Morgan State University’s spring job fair recently, searching out likely catches.

“Hey, soror, come on over here,” one of them, Cass Technical High School social studies teacher Asenath Jones, called out as she beckoned to a young woman toting an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority bag. “Let me tell you about Detroit.”

Senior Ashley Fox shot back a quick smile. But while the sociology major stopped to chat with her sister in the nation’s first black sorority, she was not interested in either teaching or joining the district. On an early-April tour of job fairs at historically black colleges and universities, Fox and scores of others who ignored Detroit’s pitches illustrate the challenge confronting Jones and her fellow recruiters.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Ashley Fox, a graduating Morgan State sociology major from Chicago, doesn’t want to teach in Detroit—or anywhere else.

Facing an acute shortage of teachers, districts across the nation are offering $1,500 signing bonuses, loan repayment and master’s degree tuition reimbursement to lure coveted candidates. The financially strapped Detroit Public Schools Community District can offer none of that. And its need is dire: Mid-spring, the district still has nearly 200 vacancies — nearly 7 percent of its teaching force. That’s robbed some children of a chance to be taught by a fully-qualified teacher and forced others into overcrowded classrooms.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his dogged team of recruiters say they’re determined to fill every classroom next school year with a permanent teacher. Besides recruiting locally, he has revived out-of-state tours to campuses that previously provided Detroit’s main district with young teachers.

The district is spending nearly $49,000 this spring to visit recruiting fairs at 38 universities in 13 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. That number includes 15 in-state hiring trips. To hire more teachers of color, recruiters are focusing on historically black colleges and universities such as Morgan State and Howard University, but they also are searching for new educators at teaching powerhouses such as Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

Without the incentives other districts are offering, Vitti has pulled out his secret weapons: highly charismatic recruiters like Jones, recruiting specialist Edwina Dortch, and Cass Tech Principal Lisa Phillips. At Morgan State in Baltimore, the team radiated charm and personality as they cast their lines into the sea of anxious job seekers and reeled in the eager, the curious, and the anxious.

The students had no idea the recruiters, who are on the career-fair circuit, were just as desperate as they were.

The three women chatted up Detroit’s comeback, vibrant nightlife, and low cost of living — a nice one-bedroom apartment can cost only $900. They lightly portrayed challenges as opportunities to work in a troubled district that is transforming, to hone their skills, and to make a difference in the lives of children.

“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere,” Dortch told some students.

And the women tugged at the hearts and consciences of students well-versed in lessons of black history and driven by a sense of responsibility to salve urban woes.

“I have a heart for Detroit,” said Symone Odoms, a junior elementary education major who met with Detroit recruiters when they came to Howard University. “I think it’s the kind of place where I can make a difference as a teacher. I know I can teach a fifth-grader who can’t read how to read.”

At Morgan State, Dortch, turned on her motherly, nurturing, and warm persona, and told some wide-eyed seniors, “You can come help these babies in Detroit.”

That pitch resonated with graduating senior Demetrie Johnson.

“I like the history of Detroit,” he said. “I’m from Philly and I’m attracted to the city life, but I also like the civil rights movement history on up. I can have the whole black experience in Detroit.”

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Morgan State University senior Demetrie Johnson shakes hands with Detroit recruiters after an interview.

Yet while he was willing to serve in an advisory or organizational role, the speech communication major didn’t want to be a teacher.

Phillips had a quick reply: “You don’t have to be a teacher, we’ve got other positions open.”

But not all students were buying the Detroit pitch.

“Detroit! You all had the worst test scores in the nation,” a graduating political science major abruptly stopped and leaned in to tell the recruiters as he passed by.

Dortch was not deterred. “There’s more to the story,” she called after him. “There’s far more to Detroit than poor test scores.”

Recruiters made a point not to mention such negatives: class sizes up to 40 students, leaking roofs and roach-infested classrooms, a shortage of books and desks — and, of course, low pay.

Vitti has vowed to remedy some of that. A new teacher contract approved last year increased entry-level salaries 5.6 percent to $38,500. Last week, the school board approved a new deal that also will enable the district, for the first time in years, to offer higher salaries to experienced teachers coming into the district. Previously, even seasoned teachers had to start at the bottom of the pay scale when accepting a district job.

Still, the urban district lags behind nearby districts. Starting pay will be $45,398 in Warren Consolidated Schools and $41,341 in Northville next year. Further away, Chicago will offer $56,665, and Cleveland, $45,686.

As of May 3, the district had made conditional job offers to more than 300 aspiring teachers, including 148 from the national tour. Those candidates have been invited to a recruiting event this week that could result in signed contracts. But it’s not yet clear how many of those candidates will accept jobs — and resist other offers that might roll in over the summer.

Already, the district is mapping out next year’s recruiting tour, refining timing and planning to hit more schools that could yield teaching candidates.

The district is spending an estimated $49,000 this year on recruiting including about $30,000 for out-of-state travel expenses.

It’s a lot of money, but Vitti said it’s worth it.

“Absolutely,” he said.“When people ask me what is your greatest challenge right now as a school district leader, it’s vacancies. When we think about the learning that is lost for 30 students assigned to a classroom with a vacant teacher, that $30,000 is pennies considering the economic loss we just had with children who don’t have a full-time teacher. There’s a great return on that $30,000.”

Stepped-up recruiting has been chipping away at the problem. Since August, the district has filled 40 percent of its 340 teaching vacancies. But district officials are bracing for a large wave of retirements and other departures that could make the shortage difficult to completely resolve.

Salaries are only one issue. Strong mentoring is key in recruiting and retaining teachers of color, said Linda Darling-Hammond of the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute. It released a study last month highlighting the importance of getting and keeping black teachers in classrooms across the country.

“I would hope the energy they are putting into recruiting, they will also put into ensuring [teachers] have adequate tools to teach, mentoring, good working conditions, and stable places to work,” Darling-Hammond said.

While talking to job candidates, Dortch touted the mentoring and training new teachers receive while working for the district.

Right now, with the next school year just a few months away, Dortch and her team are ramping up all their persuasive skills. And here and there, they’re meeting success.

At a local job fair, back home in Detroit, they nabbed Jennifer Lentz, who will graduate this month from Wayne State with a degree in elementary education and wants to teach music. She’s turning down districts elsewhere that offer large band programs, she said, because Detroit is the place for her, especially as the district is trying to reinvigorate music programs in schools.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Jennifer Lentz, a graduating Wayne State University senior, hopes to teach music in a Detroit district school.

“It’s a real blessing,” Lentz said. “People don’t say nice things about Detroit all the time, but that doesn’t scare me because I really love this city.”

She’s got the spirit recruiters, who will continue searching for candidates throughout the spring and summer, are looking for.

Now they only need to find a few score more like her who are just as willing and eager to teach in Detroit.

“We are looking for teachers who are enthusiastic, really concerned about learning and teaching children,” Dortch said. “We want them to be excited to come work with us.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here:

NEW DATA

Michigan’s ‘band-aid’ for filling teaching jobs is expanding. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Teachers welcome students to the Southwest Detroit Community School on the first day of school. Seven of the charter's 31 educators last year entered the profession through a fast-track training program.

There aren’t enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms across Michigan — and especially in Detroit. That’s why state officials have opened the door to a controversial way of filling classrooms, loosening restrictions on so-called alternative certifications for educators.

In addition to Teachers of Tomorrow, a fast-track, for-profit teacher certification program that began placing teachers with virtually no classroom experience in schools this year, another for-profit company, #T.E.A.C.H., was recently approved to help expand the state’s teacher pipeline. They’ve joined long-running nonprofit programs like Teach for America, whose corps members typically get some in-classroom training and more hours of teaching classes.

If the expansion continues, it could change the face of schools across the state, in cities like Detroit most of all. In states like Texas — home to Teachers of Tomorrow — nearly half of new teachers take non-traditional routes to certification.

As policymakers gear up for a tug of war over teacher certification, Chalkbeat obtained last year’s teacher certification data for the entire state. The data, alongside interviews with experts in teacher training, painted a picture of where we are now — and where we might be headed.

It shows that teachers with alternative certification are concentrated in Detroit, largely at charter schools, and that they’re disproportionately at a handful of schools.

Scroll down for a list of schools in Michigan that employed at least one teacher with an interim certification last year.

But first — what is alternative certification, again?

In short, it’s an express lane into the teaching profession. Michigan teachers have traditionally attended teacher certification programs that require them to student teach in an actual classroom. By contrast, Michigan’s alternative certification route, which was created under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, allows anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 GPA to start teaching after taking a few courses online and passing a test in the subject they hope to teach. Unlike traditional teacher colleges, these programs don’t require any in-classroom training.

After three years on the job, teachers with alternative certifications can become fully certified if their principal signs off.

This fast-track arrangement is not unusual — almost every U.S. state offers an accelerated route into teaching. But some are much more widely used than others.

The vast majority of Michigan educators still come from traditional, four- or five-year teacher training programs.

It’s not even close. When the state Legislature allowed for an alternate route to teacher certification nearly a decade ago, the policy was billed as an important tool in the struggle to alleviate a statewide teacher shortage. But the 248 educators with “interim certifications” who were employed in Michigan last year amount to little more than a blip in a statewide teacher corps of about 100,000.

A few controversial for-profit certification programs, which were approved to operate in Michigan for the first time last year, hope to change that. Teachers of Tomorrow, whose graduates have begun finding work in Michigan schools, certifies tens of thousands of teachers in 12 states.  And in a promotional video on its website, #T.E.A.C.H, promises to help would-be educators “start teaching almost immediately.” It allows teachers to complete their online training after they have started working in the classroom.

Teachers who go through an alternative certification program are heavily concentrated in Detroit.

Research shows that poor students of color in the U.S. are more likely to be taught by a teacher with an alternative certification. That holds true in Michigan. Two-thirds of the teachers certified through a non-traditional program in the state teach in the city of Detroit, where most students are poor and black or Latino.

This may be because Detroit schools are more willing to hire them. Less than one-twentieth of Michigan’s more than 3,000 schools don’t employ a single teacher with an interim certification. About one-third of Detroit’s schools do.

To be sure, the statewide teacher shortage is particularly punishing in Detroit, where poverty and large class sizes make working in the classroom more difficult. Alternative certification programs have focused their recruiting efforts in the city in an attempt to help fill the gap.

Across the country, cities “are where it’s hardest to get conventional teachers,” said Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has published studies of alternative certification. “Cities are also often where people from Teach for America and other idealistic programs are likely to want to teach.”

Critics say that lowering the barriers to entry into the teaching profession won’t address the deeper problems that plague Detroit schools. And they worry that this quick fix comes with unintended consequences.

“It’s really more like a band-aid, as opposed to addressing the larger issue,” said Christopher Crowley, a professor of teacher education at Wayne State University. “These are experiments, and they’re being tested on certain populations and not others.”

Teachers with alternative certifications can be effective.

It is very difficult to determine whether teachers who take this route perform any worse than their peers, partly because the accelerated programs vary widely in the amount of training and support they give new teachers. Armen Hratchian, director of Teach for America in Detroit, says its program allows teachers to be successful with fewer hours of in-classroom training — known as student teaching — that is common at traditional teacher colleges.

“To help meet the highest standard of teaching here in Michigan, TFA teachers spend over 400 pre-service hours training over the summer, continue to receive intensive coaching and development throughout their first two years, and are monitored and credentialed by the University of Michigan,” he said in an email.

But they are far more likely to leave the profession.

There’s little doubt that teachers who use alternative certification are more likely to leave the profession within a few years. Schools that fill vacancies with such teachers can find themselves in a “vicious cycle” of never-ending hiring, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, an education researcher at the non-partisan Learning Policy Institute, which last month published a list of best practices for combating teacher shortages that does not include alternative certification.

“Most states have been struggling to address teacher shortages for several years, often filling the vacuum with underprepared teachers,” the report reads.

Charter schools hire more teachers with alternative certifications than traditional schools.

Last year, 130 teachers with alternative certification were in charter schools compared with 105 at traditional schools in Michigan. A handful of charter schools have an especially high concentration of these teachers. At the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a tiny charter high school on the city’s northern border, nearly half of the 25 teachers at the school last year had not attended a traditional teaching program.

“As the teacher shortage continues to be an ongoing issue, I am always looking to find creative ways to find qualified candidates,” said Wendie Lewis, principal of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, in an email. In her experience, teachers who arrive at the school via programs like Teach for America are actually more apt to stay than traditionally certified teachers, perhaps because they promise at the outset to teach for two years.

There are lots of other ways to fight the teacher shortage.

Experts recommend raising salaries, trying to coax retired teachers back onto the job, forgiving student loans for teachers, offering new teachers more mentorship — and the list goes on.

Local governments, philanthropies, and companies have also pitched in, sweetening the deal for teachers by offering discounts on houses and cars for educators in Detroit.

And school leaders in Detroit are already going to extraordinary lengths to fill their classrooms.

Most recently, the city’s main district announced a partnership with the University of Michigan and the Kresge Foundation to, among other things, build a new “cradle to career” school that will feature a beefed-up teacher training program. The idea, in part, is that better-trained, better-supported teachers are more likely to stay in the profession. The district has said it won’t rule out hiring teachers from alternative certification programs, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has made clear that he prefers teachers with more training.

“We have to get out of the days of taking any adult that has some education and some certification and placing them in a school, and go to a model where we actually teach teachers how to teach,” Vitti said as he announced the new school on Thursday.

Here’s a list of schools where teachers with alternative certifications were working in Michigan during the 2017-18 school year:

School # Teachers w/ Alt. Cert. Type of school City
Jalen Rose Leadership Academy 11 Charter Detroit
Central High School 9 Traditional Detroit
Voyageur College Prep 8 Charter Detroit
Denby High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy 7 Charter Detroit
MacDowell Preparatory Academy 7 Charter Detroit
Mumford High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Southwest Detroit Community School 7 Charter Detroit
Detroit Enterprise Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (PSAD) 6 Charter Detroit
Voyageur Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies – Elementary 5 Charter Detroit
Burns Elementary-Middle School 4 Traditional Detroit
Law Elementary School 4 Traditional Detroit
Southeastern High School 4 Traditional Detroit
Cass Technical High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Cesar Chavez High School 3 Charter Detroit
Clippert Academy 3 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Innovation Academy 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Elementary 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Middle/High 3 Charter Detroit
Ford High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Pansophia Academy 3 Charter Coldwater
Washington-Parks Academy 3 Charter Redford
Beecher High School 2 Traditional Mount Morris
Benjamin Carson School for Science and Medicine 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit City West Side Academy for Leadership Development 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Prep 2 Charter Detroit
Frontier International Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Linden Charter Academy 2 Charter Flint
New Paradigm Loving Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Nolan Elementary-Middle School 2 Traditional Detroit
Old Redford Academy – High 2 Charter Detroit
St. Catherine of Siena Academy 2 Private Wixom
Trix Academy 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – High School 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) Middle School 2 Charter Detroit
Webberville High School 2 Traditional Webberville
Western International High School 2 Traditional Detroit
Academy for Business and Technology Elementary 1 Charter Dearborn
ACTech High School 1 Traditional Ypsilanti
Advanced Technology Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
All Saints Catholic School 1 Private Canton
Alternative Educational Academy of Iosco County 1 Charter East Tawas
Ann L. Dolsen Elementary School 1 Traditional New Hudson
Arno Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Avondale High School 1 Traditional Auburn Hills
Avondale Middle School 1 Traditional Rochester Hills
Bendle Middle School 1 Traditional Burton
Botsford Elementary School 1 Traditional Livonia
Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Capstone Academy Charter School (SDA) – South Campus 1 Charter Detroit
Cesar Chavez Middle School 1 Charter Detroit
Chandler Park Academy – Middle School 1 Charter Harper Woods
Chelsea High School 1 Traditional Chelsea
Communication and Media Arts HS 1 Traditional Detroit
Conner Creek Academy East – Michigan Collegiate 1 Charter Warren
Crescent Academy Elementary 1 Charter Southfield
Crestwood High School 1 Traditional Dearborn Heights
Croswell-Lexington High School 1 Traditional Croswell
Dansville High School 1 Traditional Dansville
Dearborn High School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Detroit Achievement Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Collegiate High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy – High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Merit Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit School of Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Dickinson East Elementary School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
East Arbor Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Eastpointe High School 1 Traditional Eastpointe
Ecorse Community High School 1 Traditional Ecorse
Escuela Avancemos 1 Charter Detroit
Fitzgerald Senior High School 1 Traditional Warren
George Washington Carver Elementary School 1 Charter Highland Park
Grand Ledge High School 1 Traditional Grand Ledge
Hamtramck High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Harrison High School 1 Traditional Farmington Hills
Henry Ford Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
Holy Family Regional School 1 Private Rochester
Hope of Detroit Academy – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
Horizon High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Inkster Preparatory Academy 1 Charter Inkster
International Academy of Flint (K-12) 1 Charter Flint
Jackson Christian School 1 Private Jackson
Jackson ISD Local Based Special Education Programs 1 ISD School Jackson
Kensington Woods Schools 1 Charter Lakeland
Kosciuszko School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Legacy Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Lindemann Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Litchfield High School 1 Traditional Litchfield
Lowrey Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Madison High School 1 Traditional Madison Heights
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Maybury Elementary School 1 Traditional Detroit
Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody 1 Traditional Detroit
Michigan Connections Academy 1 Charter Okemos
Multicultural Academy 1 Charter Ann Arbor
Munger Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Murphy Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Noble Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Northeast Elementary School 1 Traditional Jackson
Northridge Academy 1 Charter Flint
Novi High School 1 Traditional Novi
Novi Woods Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
Osborn Academy of Mathematics 1 Traditional Detroit
Owosso High School 1 Traditional Owosso
Oxford Crossroads Day School 1 Traditional Oxford
Pershing High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Reach Charter Academy 1 Charter Roseville
Redford Service Learning Academy Campus 1 Charter Redford
Redford Union High School 1 Traditional Redford
Regent Park Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Renaissance High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Royal Oak High School 1 Traditional Royal Oak
Salina Intermediate 4 – 8 1 Traditional Dearborn
Saline High School 1 Traditional Saline
South Lake High School 1 Traditional Saint Clair Shores
South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Thornton Creek Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) High School 1 Charter Detroit
University Yes Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Washtenaw International High School 1 ISD School Ypsilanti
Woodworth Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College 1 Traditional Ypsilanti

Source: Michigan Department of Education