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Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Some Albuquerque Public Schools students kicking off the academic year today might find a librarian or assistant principal in front of the whiteboard.
APS is trying a novel approach to handling teacher vacancies by asking district personnel who work in a variety of jobs to step back into classrooms as temporary instructors for up to 17 days, provided they have a teaching license.
Katarina Sandoval, APS associate superintendent for middle school education, said about a dozen APS central office employees are participating. She wasn’t sure how many school-based licensed personnel, such as librarians, will be involved because individual principals are handling those arrangements.
Sandoval said starting the school year with vacancies is normal, but bringing in licensed personnel from other roles is “unprecedented.”
Currently, there are more than 100 teacher vacancies at APS, according to the district website, which shows high demand in special education, bilingual instruction and upper-level math and science. Districts across the country are facing similar issues as college students shy away from education majors and teachers retire early or switch to more lucrative fields.
At the same time, New Mexico Public Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre said there are a number of bright spots that show a good outlook for the state’s school districts: Teachers license renewals are up, new teacher licenses are up and entry-level attrition is down. During the 2014-15 school year, 12,248 teacher licenses were renewed in New Mexico and 3,266 new licenses issued – both all-time highs. By comparison, 8,091 teacher licenses were renewed and 1,969 issued the previous school year.
After a probationary period of three to five years, teachers must renew their licenses every nine years. There are about 22,900 teachers in New Mexico public schools.
Most of APS’ open positions will be filled by long-term substitutes and new teachers who are still going through the hiring process – for instance, completing background checks, Sandoval said. As a result, not many district personnel are needed in the classroom.
Still, Sandoval applauded the staff members who have stepped up to help fill in the gaps.
“We all understand that this is a high priority for our children and our families, so we want to thank everybody for doing their part,” she said.
The plan has the backing of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, which worked with APS to recruit district volunteers to take on the temporary teaching duties.
ATF President Ellen Bernstein called the effort “honorable.”
In the past, Bernstein said, shortages have been dealt with by overcrowding some classrooms until a teacher is hired or hiring someone who is not fully licensed.
“The idea that APS came up with is different,” Bernstein said. “We’ll see how it works.”
Rio Rancho Public Schools was considering a similar plan to deal with 33 unfilled teaching positions when Superintendent V. Sue Cleveland commented before the Board of Education on Monday. However, on Wednesday evening spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass said administrators had decided against using staff from other roles as substitutes, but were still looking into possibly asking some retired teachers to come back and fill in. The district should have a better idea if they need to take that step by today, she said.
At Monday’s board meeting, Cleveland noted that on the first days of school in the 2010-11 school year, there were seven vacant teaching positions. She said that number has steadily increased every year, and last school year that number was 18.
Sandoval from APS agreed the shortage isn’t going away.
“We are aware of that and being more proactive,” she said.
Bernstein said that the context of the shortage is complex, but she feels a major problem is college students being scared away from teaching careers because of high-stakes testing and other government mandates that “don’t have to do with the planning and teaching.”
Low salaries also don’t help, Bernstein said, with New Mexico’s teachers starting at $34,000, up from $32,000 thanks to a pay increase approved this year by legislators and signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez. Still, a Legislative Finance Committee report released in May said more is needed and recommended a statewide stipend of $5,000 to $15,000 in additional annual pay for certain teachers working in high-poverty schools and more funding for a teacher loan repayment program.
Many other states are also offering bigger salaries than New Mexico, with teachers starting at $43,000 in Texas.
However, for Bernstein, a culture that doesn’t value teachers is more to blame than pay levels.
“We have to look at salaries, but we as a state and a district have to also look at the context in which we are asking people, who we hope are the best and the brightest, to actually work – are they respected, are they supported, are they listened to?” Bernstein said.
She drew a contrast with the atmosphere in education when she began her career in 1982.
“We were so excited to go into teaching,” she said. “The context of teaching was so engaging. … The planning was always exorbitant. I always spent every weekend planning and preparing to teach and every evening grading. It is just part of the job. But now it is stuff that doesn’t add to the value of your ability to do your job. It is all this outside stuff, all these have-tos that somebody else mandated.”
As a result, Bernstein feels that young people don’t view teaching as a viable career and she worries that interest won’t revive.
At Western New Mexico University in Silver City, enrollments in education programs have been basically flat for the past few years, according to Abe Villarreal, director of communications. In 2014, the most recent numbers available, 89 students earned undergraduate and graduate education degrees at WNM, compared with 90 in 2013 and 86 in 2012.
The University of New Mexico has experienced a slight downward trend in students graduating with teaching degrees, according to UNM College of Education Dean Hector Ochoa, with 367 students complete teaching degrees in the 2013-2014 academic year compared with slightly more than 400 in 2012-2013.
Journal staff writer Elaine Briseño contributed to this report.