It may never have been harder for Baltimore's principals to find good teachers to fill their classrooms than it is this year.
With orders to reduce class size and hire only qualified teachers to fill vacancies, principals must not only attract more teachers, but reach for the cream of the crop.
Baltimore needs to fill approximately 1,200 teaching vacancies by September, the largest number of new hires in at least five years.
As of this week, the school system had offered jobs to 910 prospective teachers, according to Sheila Dudley, human resources officer for the city schools. Of those, 345 have signed contracts.
"We are making every effort ... to have all our classrooms filled with competent staff. We are in competition with every school district in America," Dudley said.
A growing national teacher shortage has made hiring more difficult for several years, particularly as surrounding jurisdictions are taking teachers who might otherwise have gone to the city.
Hiring for this fall is being made more difficult by a new federal law that requires low-performing schools -- of which there are more than 80 in the city -- to hire only teachers who have passed a teaching exam and have a degree in education. If schools fail to comply, the federal government can restrict the use of federal dollars that go to the district.
The school system has offered incentives to attract teachers. It will pay a beginning teacher just out of school with a teaching certificate a premium -- $36,297 a year, compared to $33,308 for those without the qualifications. And the system is offering more to those teachers who choose to go to the lowest-performing schools.
Despite the incentives, about 40 percent of teachers hired over the past several years are not fully certified.
Ten years ago, Leith Walk Elementary School Principal Edna Greer said she wouldn't have considered interviewing a prospective teacher who didn't have a degree in early childhood education. Today, Greer says, she is willing to accept new hires who are interested in changing careers or those with a non-education bachelor's degree who appear capable and are willing to learn, and mold them into teachers.
Principals said they are relying more on teaching coaches and mentors who can give guidance to new teachers.
Reducing class size also has boosted the need for more teachers. For first through third grades, administrators have told principals they must have no more than 18 children per teacher. In the fourth and fifth grades, the permitted ratio rises to a maximum of 27 students per teacher.
For Greer, that meant hiring more teachers -- about 15. She said she has contracts with 10 teachers and expects to find the rest.
In her crowded elementary school with 1,000 pupils, she needs more teachers and more space.
Exacerbating the hiring problems this year is the fact that city school administrators handed principals their budgets for the next school year in June, at least two months later than usual.
As a result, during the spring, many schools were faced with the uncertainty of hiring teachers before the principals knew exactly how much money they would be given to run their schools.
Dudley said it has been a consideration this year in placing teachers in schools.
Lucy J. Miller, Ashburton Elementary/Middle School principal, overcame the problem by estimating how many teachers she would need next year.
"I felt reasonably sure that we would have about the same resources as last year," Miller said. She turned out to be correct and now has hired all but one of her teachers.
However, principals who have had complicating factors that did not allow them to easily estimate their school population, may have had more difficulty.
With hundreds of teachers still needed to fill schools before September, Dudley said she is turning to the Internet to find qualified applicants. Web sites that list thousands of resumes of teachers who want jobs have been one of her most valuable tools.
Her staff can sort through resumes of teachers who want to move to the Northeast and may have a specialty -- math or special education -- that the system needs.