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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Local school districts ramp up efforts to hire

    As students prepare to head back to school, local school districts have been busy searching to fill vacancies, from teachers to paraprofessionals and bus aides.

    With a shortage of teachers nationwide, southeastern Connecticut school districts are reporting mixed experiences. Some school districts are still searching for teachers in the competitive hiring market, while some say they have few, if any teaching vacancies, but still need paraprofessionals and other positions to help support students for the upcoming year.

    School officials say shortages place extra burdens on existing teachers and staff, who are already facing other stressors, and come at a time when fewer and fewer people are joining the education profession. To find teachers and school staff in the competitive market, school districts have been ramping up recruitment efforts, from getting a jump start on hiring to holding job fairs to increasing pay for paraprofessionals.

    States across the country are facing shortages and looking for new ways to fill vacant positions. In Florida, the state has an initiative to hire veterans as temporary educators, according to The Hill. The Washington Post reports that Arizona passed a law to allow college students to teach.

    Tough hiring market

    The New London school district has about 14 vacant teaching positions, representing about 4% of its certified staff, said Robert Stacy, executive director of talent and human resources for the New London School district. The shortage is due to the same challenges districts across the country are facing: fewer graduates from teacher preparation programs, pandemic and other stress, and compensation.

    A recent study by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education shows a decline from peak levels in the 1970’s, when over 200,000 education degrees were awarded annually, to just 90,000 in 2019, he noted.

    Stacy said the school district is actively recruiting on a variety of platforms, and continuing outreach to local educator preparation programs, as well as leaning into its “grow your own” model to build capacity from within the district. He said the district is confident it will be able to hire qualified candidates by the start of the school year and has plans in place to ensure that students do not experience disruptions to their educations.

    Norwich Free Academy is continuing to interview candidates, with the goal of hiring three more special education teachers and be fully staffed before opening day.

    “The hiring market is difficult,” said Norwich Free Academy Head of School Brian Kelly. “For us, the biggest need is in special education, which is highly competitive statewide.”

    As of Wednesday, the Norwich school system reported vacancies for several paraprofessionals, two pre-school special education teachers, four special education teachers, two ESL teachers, two psychologist positions, two social workers, two school counselors, one grade six math teacher, two reading teachers, two math specialists, one grade seven science teacher, one grade seven math teacher, and one physical education teacher.

    Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the hardest to fill positions are psychologist, social worker, special education, bilingual teachers, math and science teachers for English learners and school counselor positions.

    Stringfellow said she has heard several factors from Norwich staff who have resigned, and from those interviewed who declined Norwich positions. Some cited lower Norwich district pay and that other districts were offering signing bonuses. Benefits might be better in other districts, as Norwich has a high-deductible health insurance plan.

    Some job candidates also cited the desire to work closer to their homes, with gas prices and long commutes being “a significant factor,” Stringfellow said. Working in a suburban district verses the Norwich urban district also is deemed “easier,” she said.

    The state Department of Education identified statewide teacher shortages in bilingual education, special education, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, world languages, and 4-12 grade mathematics and science, as well as speech and language pathologists and school psychologists, according to its website. The state also reported shortages for technology education teachers and school library and media specialists for Alliance Districts.

    Leslie Blatteau, a public school teacher in New Haven and president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, is both a member of the AFT Teachers and School Staff Shortage Taskforce and a member of the AFT Connecticut PreK-12 Council.

    Blatteau said teachers are leaving the profession because of the working conditions, which have been exacerbated by the stress and trauma of the pandemic, and the lack of respect that teachers are getting on the job. It then becomes a “negative cycle,” because the remaining teachers have to pick up the work from the vacant positions, which leads to faster burnout and increased demoralization — and more people leaving the profession.

    The Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force issued a report in July with recommendations on recruiting and retaining teachers and staff. The recommendations included raising pay, diversifying the workforce, reducing class size and reducing the paperwork “collected for administrative purposes and districtwide reports,” curbing the nation’s “test-and-punish” obsession with standardized tests, and expanding collective bargaining, according to a news release from the AFT.

    The biggest issue facing Connecticut is the divide between urban districts and wealthier districts, an issue of racial and economic justice, she said. While there is a teacher shortage across the country, it’s a “double whammy,” in places like New Haven, an urban district in Connecticut, where school funding comes from local property taxes and an underfunded education cost sharing formula from the state, and salaries are not competitive with surrounding districts so teachers are leaving to go to districts where they are paid better, she said.

    Ripple effects of shortages

    As far as teachers, Montville Superintendent Laurie Pallin said Montville is only searching for a tech ed teacher and a part-time speech language teacher. The district also is searching for a vocational coach for its 18-21-year-old transition academy program. The district is still hiring for paraprofessionals, but hasn’t heard any concerns from principals about paraprofessionals.

    “We’ve done a ton of hiring this summer, more than normal,” she said. “But it’s shaping up pretty well.”

    Pallin said the concern is finding coverage for teachers, if the fall COVID-19 surge hits.

    The district has two permanent substitutes per building, but if more than two teachers are out, then other staff is pulled for coverage, she said. The district also has almost no daily substitutes.

    With a low number of teacher resignations and retirements, the Waterford school district is fully staffed with teachers, said Superintendent Thomas Giard III. But the district is facing a shortage of paraprofessionals, as it was last year, and has 15 vacant positions.

    “We have broadened our advertising with the hopes of attracting more candidates,” Giard added.  “We also held a job fair this summer.”

    Giard said the paraprofessional shortage creates a “ripple effect” of the school district having to pull staff from other areas of the school to cover.

    “Our team has been great about pitching in, whether it be our subs, teachers, and others,” he added.

    Ledyard Superintendent Jason Hartling said Ledyard has filled all its teaching positions, but is still looking to fill some paraprofessional vacancies, substitute teacher positions and any others that may come open due to last minute resignations.

    “Over the past several years, even before the pandemic, filling paraprofessional and substitute positions was an ongoing challenge,” he said.

    He said the positions often were filled by parents who were looking for a more flexible or limited schedule aligned with their children’s schooling and with summers off. With the expansion of remote jobs, people have more options for jobs – outside of a school setting -- that fit the same criteria.

    “Our paraprofessionals are a key part of our team so the vacancies are certainly impactful,” Hartling said. “It forces us to narrow staff duty assignments and move some coverage around to certified staff. It puts an even heavier burden on the rest of the team to ensure we are appropriately serving our students.”

    Ramping up recruitment

    Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said, by contract, teachers must let the school district know the prior winter if they plan to retire, which gives the district a jump start on hiring in early spring and reaching a larger talent pool.  The school district is working to fill only one teaching position, due to a late resignation of a teacher moving out of state.

    Groton has 55 vacant paraprofessional positions, 12 vacant substitute positions, 10 vacant tutor positions, and 3 vacant bus aide positions.

    “I think it’s a very competitive market out there,” Austin said. “We’re in a time where we have many people employed so the unemployment rate is low, and I think you see a lot of competition in businesses in this area paying much more than minimum wage. I think people are seeing that as an opportunity.”

    The district has put practices in place to help recruit and retain staff, such as implementing pay increases, ahead of minimum wage requirements, for support staff starting last January and embarking on an outreach campaign.

    “With the past couple of years, we noticed there have been people who have chosen not to work just because of health so that’s understandable but we’ve had to do a lot more outreach,” she said. “We’ve had to be much more proactive on our hiring campaign.”

    Laurie LePine, the Groton school district’s Human Resources director, said the district is seeing good results. The district had more vacancies the past two years, but now vacancies are limited to “a couple of pockets.”

    She explained that the shortage puts a great deal of added pressure on teachers and other paraprofessionals, but she said students will not see an impact. The district is implementing creative solutions, including pairing a tutor with two students, rather than one, and hiring substitute paraprofessionals and then working with them so they get the qualifications they need.

    The bus company also is fully staffed with bus drivers, but additional drivers and substitute drivers always are needed, Austin said

    East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said the district, which has close to 290 certified positions, is in the process of filling the last 2.8 full time equivalency teaching positions. The district also has open paraprofessional positions that it is actively filling.

    Stonington Superintendent Mary Anne Butler said the district has no vacant positions, but is facing shortages of paraeducators, substitute teachers, and food service workers due to late summer resignations.

    Norwich Tech has four teacher vacancies and Grasso Tech has seven, said Kerry Markey, director of communications for the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System. Hiring is the technical school system’s top priority right now to minimize any potential impact on the classroom, and is taking steps such as recruitment fairs, social media advertisements, connections with state universities, and creation of a new office of Talent Management to address recruitment and hiring challenges.

    Markey said that “the technical high schools are unique in that we also must find pipelines of teachers going into the trade areas. Our staff continually develops relationships with business and industry across the state to make connections with potential future trade teachers.”

    LEARN Executive Director Kate Ericson said LEARN has 19 vacancies for paraeductors, 4 vacancies for special education teachers, and one vacancy each for a speech-language pathologist, physical education teacher, kindergarten teacher, bilingual teacher and art teacher.

    To help, the LEARN board last year supported schools and programs by increasing paraprofessional wages by $2 per hour. LEARN also expanded retirement benefits and designed new job classes to encourage staff to learn and grow at LEARN.

    “For our agency the staff is our most precious commodity,” she said, “without them, we cannot fulfill the mission of this agency.”

    Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said the district has been posting job positions all summer and while all teaching positions are filled, the district has vacancies for five long-term substitute teachers, at least two paraeducators and two bus drivers.

    Preston runs its own bus fleet. Seitsinger said if the town still is short bus drivers when school opens Aug. 29, he has a contingency plan to adjust bus routes at the last minute, as was done often during the pandemic.

    “We are living through a social transformation,” Seitsinger said, “how people prioritize their lives, what jobs they are interested in.”

    Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said the school district is not facing a teacher shortage: "We are a small district, and we are fortunate that our board has negotiated contracts with the teachers where they are well paid for the area," he said. He added that the district also did not lose people because of COVID and has had the average number of retirements every year.

    But Neviaser, like everyone, is concerned about the future with fewer and fewer people going into the education profession.

    He said the district is always looking for paraprofessionals, though the district has enough to open the school year. Vacant positions mean other people have to pick up the workload.

    Many districts said their success in filling positions came down to timing.

    “We got on it fast,” said Pallin, Montville’s superintendent. For example, principals reached out and confirmed paraprofessionals would return in the fall, and if not, it was addressed.

    Carrie Czerwinski and Day Staff Writers Kevin Arnold,Claire Bessette, and Elizabeth Regan contributed to this report.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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