Teachers and staff gathered at the Fort Worth Independent School District convocation to kick off the new school year in August. Local officials say Texas is facing a teacher shortage. Joyce Marshall Star-Telegram
Teachers and staff gathered at the Fort Worth Independent School District convocation to kick off the new school year in August. Local officials say Texas is facing a teacher shortage. Joyce Marshall Star-Telegram

Education

North Texas school districts fear a growing teacher shortage

November 16, 2015 07:50 AM

FORT WORTH

Early this school year, hundreds of students were without a permanent classroom teacher because the city school district couldn’t find enough qualified candidates to fill its vacancies.

The Fort Worth school district had to rely on a substitute teacher to handle students in roughly 16 classrooms in a district of 86,000 pupils, said Sammy Monge, chief of human capital management.

“We’re going to have to be more aggressive [in recruiting teachers] because it’s going to be a challenge for us to fill our vacancies,” Monge said. “Our priority for us is still to have 100 percent of our vacancies filled.”

Fort Worth’s scramble to find enough qualified teachers isn’t about to ease up. A higher demand for teachers paired by a drop in interest in the profession is creating a new era of teacher shortages in Texas.

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I will challenge you to look at other school districts that have top-notch people. Go and steal the people … You have to get out of the box and look for people.

Christene Moss, FWISD Trustee

In recent years, states like Arizona have had trouble drawing enough educators to fill up classrooms, according to national studies. Now, Texas, which adds 80,000 to 85,000 new students a year, is seeing significantly fewer graduates coming down the pipeline at universities, especially local ones.

In recent years, the University of Texas at Arlington has been the No. 1 supplier of teachers for Fort Worth and its neighboring suburban districts. But the university, like several others in North Texas, is graduating fewer students who want to become teachers.

This year, Fort Worth hired 52 of 95 UTA applicant-graduates. Last year, the district hired 320 of 362 applicants, Monge said.

Even more troubling, enrollment in state teacher preparation programs is dropping. Enrollment for bilingual teachers, a high-need certification in Texas, has slid by 45 percent; and it’s down 20 percent in the certification areas of physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, Monge said.

Fort Worth enrollment has also been growing by about 700 to 900 students a year, adding to the pressure to hire more teachers.

And the large urban district has a tougher time drawing applicants than its suburban neighbors, largely because of its more vulnerable student population, which can be harder to reach academically. In Fort Worth, 77.6 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, records show.

In 2015-16, Fort Worth drew 4,000 applicants for approximately 887 open spots, Monge said.

By comparison, the Keller school district drew 3,000 teacher applicants for 250 open slots, officials said. Its 34,210-student population is 23.6 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged, officials said.

We’re all fighting for the same folks.

Penny Benz, assistant superintendent for human resources for the Keller school district

Penny Benz, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Keller district, blames the looming teacher shortage, in part, on post-recession cuts.

Texas lawmakers cut more than $5 billion from education spending several years ago, prompting state districts to lay off more than 15,000 schoolteachers.

“While most districts were laying off teachers … that was about the time that [high school students] teaching candidates would be graduating now,” Benz said.

“We’re now feeling the effects of those cuts.”

Local districts’ efforts

Over the years, Fort Worth has been improving on the number of its new teacher hires, Monge said. In 2013-14, the district was able to fill 664 unfilled positions with external hires. This school year, it filled 887 slots, he said.

But the district continues to have trouble attracting enough candidates in high-need certification areas, Trustee Christene Moss said. For example, it has taken years to find qualified reading specialists who are needed at low-performing schools, she said. The district must try a more drastic approach to recruitment, Moss said.

“I will challenge you to look at other school districts that have top-notch people,” Moss told Monge at an October school board meeting. “Go and steal the people, talk to them, try to get the people to come to FWISD … I mean … sometimes you have to do something really different. You have to get out of the box and look for people.”

A number of area districts say early hiring is the best way to compensate for shortages. Many are using creative strategies to fill spots.

The Arlington school district, for example, has a special program that enrolls current students who have expressed an interest in teaching. After the program, Arlington provides the students a letter of commitment saying that they can come back as a teacher after completing their degree and certification, district spokeswoman Leslie Johnston wrote in an email.

The Birdville school district has been using social media to drum up interest, spokesman Mark Thomas said. Principals at individuals schools, for example, will use Facebook to advertise a job opening, he said.

Keller staff begin to recruit in October, Benz said, because the competition is so fierce, particularly in the search for educators who specialize in bilingual education and other high-demand fields, she said.

“We’re all fighting for the same folks,” Benz said.

“We can all go to the job fair and there may not be even 20 people who are graduating with a secondary math certification … and all 150 of us [school districts], are looking for one of those.”

Yamil Berard: 817-390-7705, @yberard