Schools scramble to recruit teachers

Efforts stepped up as shortage worsens

April 09, 2001|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- If Mindy Perilstein had any doubts about her career choice, her first few interviews ought to be more than reassuring. These recruiters want her. They really, really want her.

In less than three hours, as the young, soon-to-be schoolteacher passes out her resumes at a University of Maryland job fair, she is eagerly courted by Maryland's three largest suburban school systems.

Baltimore County's recruiter presses a glossy pamphlet into her hands and urges her to make a follow-up phone call. The Prince George's County's representative wants to hire her on the spot. By the time she sits down at the Montgomery County table to talk pay and educational philosophies, the 22-year-old college senior looks almost as confident as the veteran school principal conducting the interview.

So goes the job hunt for the next generation of teachers, desperately sought by school districts across the country and Maryland. Teachers are in bigger demand than engineers or computer majors.

"Everyone says, `Oh, you'll get a job,'" says Perilstein, who wants to teach second grade. "To me, though, it's important to find the right job. I want to find the right school, where I'll feel comfortable and learn and grow."

In Maryland, few, if any, of the 2,500 college students who will get their teaching degrees should have trouble finding a good job. For every one of them the public schools will have at least four vacancies. The shortage will become more grave in the next few years as schools cut class sizes, cope with climbing enrollments and see thousands of instructors reach retirement age.

"I'm losing sleep," says Ted Thornton, Baltimore schools' employment director, who is scrambling to fill 900 vacancies before fall. "We knew it was going to be bad, and it's worse. We've been everywhere: job fairs, colleges and universities, Alabama, New York, Iowa. The teachers walk around and shop; they know they can get seven offers in a day, so they come to us and say, `What do you have?' I'm doing all I can: I write letters to people, send them a gift, ask them, `Please make a decision.'"

Scouting far from home is no longer limited to hard-pressed urban school districts. From rural counties on the Eastern Shore to well-off private schools, almost everyone is feeling the pinch of the tightest market in two decades.

Anne Arundel's personnel director joined an expedition to India in search of hard-to-find math and science teachers. The county also put up billboards and painted its school delivery trucks with the slogan: "Be an Everyday Hero, Teach with us!"

The Archdiocese of Baltimore is running radio ads urging teachers to choose Catholic schools.

And Carroll County is organizing a job fair for career changers. Personnel Director Bill Rooney says: "You have to get people under contract as quickly as you can. It's incredibly competitive."

By the 2003-2004 school year, the Maryland State Department of Education estimates that the worsening shortage will result in schools having to hire as many as 12,715 teachers -- a quarter of today's force of 51,921.

Many will be new to the state or new to the profession, hired to replace retiring baby-boom teachers. A fast-rising number of teachers in their 40s and 50s will soon be eligible to retire: 22,518 by 2003 and 36,360 by 2009. Principals, too, will be in short supply: Informal state surveys show 75 percent of high school principals could retire within five years -- and their successors will probably further deplete the teaching ranks.

Such a sizable staffing turnover worries many parents and education advocates. Almost every district has hired teachers who lack the basic credentials to be certified by the state. Nearly 8 percent of the state's teachers are uncertified, up a percentage point from last year, with high concentrations in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

"It's critical that as the state rushes to fill these shortages, it does so with people who are truly qualified to do the job," says Cathy Brennan, education director of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth.

Not all teachers will be in equal demand. Some fast-growing outer suburbs could see a surplus of elementary teachers by mid-decade when their early grade enrollments start to decline. High school teachers will continue to be a hot commodity because the state's teen-age population is on the rise.

The sharpest shortages in Maryland and across the country are concentrated in a half-dozen subject areas: special education, upper-level math and science, foreign languages and technology education. But schools also are reporting a scarcity in such fields as high school English.

It's not likely to get any easier. Maryland colleges graduated 65 math teachers last spring -- one-tenth of what was needed. Not a single teacher was certified in computer science. In Queen Anne's County, a high school science teacher retired in June but had to be hired back because no replacement could be found.

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