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York County officials look ahead as teacher shortage poses concerns

Southern Elementary School teachers Hayley Leach, right, and Miriam Presley reacts during a community-building morning meeting activity during the district's Opening Day at Susquehannock High School  Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. Southern York County School District staff participated in two in-service days before the start of the school year Wednesday, Aug. 21, when students kindergarten through ninth grade attend class. Grades 10-12 begin Thursday. Bill Kalina photo

At a recent meeting, a Southern York County administrator drew special attention to a routine practice that has lately carried more weight: teacher recruitment.

“I think it’s important because over the past decade, the teacher candidates coming out of our universities have dropped 60%," said Robert Bryson, assistant superintendent for the district.

“That is significant, very significant,” he said.

Though the effects of teacher shortages across the U.S. have been seen in York County districts through fewer available substitutes, those districts are now also beginning to see shrinking applicant pools for full-time teachers.

More:Bonuses, food and drinks: York districts mull ways to woo substitute teachers during shortage

In the last couple of years, if a teacher retired or moved to another district, there was more difficulty in filling those positions, said Rachael Curry, a high school math teacher in Red Lion Area School District since 2004.

Her district also could not find a qualified teacher to cover an employee on maternity leave and had to hire someone through emergency certification, said Curry, who is also treasurer for the southern region of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Joseph Mehaffie sits with teacher Jasmine Garcia as Lee Maddox of Dallastown reads The Giant Jam Sandwich to their second-grade class at Jackson K-8 during the York City’s Real Men Read Event Monday, May 20, 2019. Men volunteered to promote reading by presenting books to classrooms at various city schools. It is the eighth year for the event. Bill Kalina photo

Emergency certifications allow anyone holding a bachelor’s degree in a subject area to obtain a credential to teach that subject without earning an education degree.

“Just because someone is a pro golfer doesn’t mean they’re going to be a good teacher for me learning golf,” Curry said.

Learning what’s more developmentally appropriate and how to break those things down are skills obtained with teaching degrees, which aren’t necessarily innate, she said.

Concerns over a decline in teaching candidates led the state Department of Education to invest in yearlong residency programs for teachers in 2018 and launch a pilot program focused on retention efforts this November.

The Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit independent education policy researcher, reported in 2017 that it costs money every time there's turnover, since districts can't cover the upfront costs if teachers leave in one or two years.

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For example, that cost on average is about $20,000 for urban districts, based on expenses such as recruitment, hiring and training.

However, shortage and turnover are not happening at the same level everywhere. South Western had a 97% retention rate from January 2017 to August 2019, officials said.

Assistant Superintendent Daniel Hartman said the district has been active in communicating its needs to colleges and universities ahead of time, going to career fairs and getting the word out on social media.

Right now, the district is fully staffed with certified teachers, but Hartman does see fewer teachers potentially becoming a problem in the future, especially for more specialized positions such as technical and special education.

“From a recruiting and hiring standpoint, it’s getting harder and harder to find good people,” he said.

Teacher Justin Weaver shows the root growth of lettuce plants grown in the the West Shore Aquaponics lab, Tuesday, December 3, 2019
John A. Pavoncello photo

What has helped South Western so far is having a majority of faculty who are not yet close to retirement, having close access to a pool of Maryland applicants and being able to hire a lot of veteran teachers — which some districts don’t do, Hartman said.

York Suburban school board President John Posenau agreed, noting that although his district had not had too much trouble filling positions, a shrinking applicant pool will make it difficult to maintain class size goals going forward.

More:York Suburban board balks at pricey growth plan

The reasons why there are fewer students going into education vary. Credentials cover a smaller range of grades or subject areas than they used to, increased college debt makes the low pay of the profession a hard sell, and state standards and evaluation measures can be stifling, administrators said.

Curry said she recently testified before the state's House Education Committee in favor of a bill that would shift some of the weight of teacher evaluation from test scores to classroom observation.

Senate Bill 751 passed the committee with a 21-4 vote and was referred back to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it currently sits, in November.

Central York Assistant Superintendent Robert Grove has suggested classroom observation is a good alternative to constantly watching test scores. Board member Joseph Gothie, however, argued observation didn't give a sense of achievement over time.

More:School board frets as Central's state test scores drop

“I think there’s a place in the middle,” Curry said. “When the tests are the most important part of the evaluation, I don’t think it’s good.”

An analysis from The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based, centrist nonprofit public policy organization, showed evaluation actually gave teachers motivation to stay.

Another factor that does play a big role in teacher retention, according to Brookings, is overall teacher satisfaction, with elements such as administrative support and student behavior.

"It’s not for everybody, it’s super stressful," said West York Area board member Donald Carl of teaching. 

He's heard of a number of teachers who have left his district based on discipline problems and lots of changes happening too quickly, he said.

More:West York district raises salaries for teachers in new contract

Curry said there's also a perception that teachers are under fire from the public, and prospective teachers see that pressure. Coupled with the financial burden, that makes choosing education over a private sector job with the same degree a lot more appealing.

With the exact same degree in math, Curry said she was making $10,000 less than some of her peers, and some certification programs today will earn jobs that pay more than she makes after 20 years of teaching.

It’s always been harder to attract math and science majors to be teachers because they can be paid much more elsewhere — but now that fewer students are involved in teaching, it’s harder than it’s ever been, Carl said.

Stephen Herzenberg, economist and executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a local offshoot of left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said loan debt for education majors in York County peaks around $30,000 — and would require about 6.5% to 7% of a graduate's income per year to pay off.

“If you go back to the early '80s, it was realistic for college kids to work in the summer full time and work part time at school and graduate without debt,” he said.

Carl said tuition was about $5,000 per year when he attended Millersville University, graduating in 1988.

Herzenberg said teacher salaries have also been decreasing in value over the last 25 years, so the gap between public school teachers and private sector jobs is growing.

“It puts people behind the eight-ball for their entire working life,” he said.