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Teacher shortage starting to pinch

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As Arizona struggles with a statewide shortage of qualified teachers, northern Arizona districts vary greatly in their ability to hire and retain teachers.

The Flagstaff Unified School District has not experienced a teacher shortage, human resources director Dietrich Sauer said.

The district, which has a teacher retention rate of about 90 percent, benefits from a lack of competition with other large districts, Sauer said. Most nearby districts are smaller and more rural, making FUSD more attractive for teachers.

“We actually are one of the districts where teachers come to after they have gained some experience in a rural district,” Sauer said. “Teachers come to Flagstaff after they have worked a few years in a smaller district so they can live in a bigger city.”

FUSD has close relationships with Grand Canyon University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, Sauer said. The majority of NAU students studying to be teachers do their student teaching in the district, Sauer said.

Sauer said the district also markets itself as a desirable place to live.

“People want to live and work in a nice city,” Sauer said. “We leverage the strengths of the area. We are living in a vacation spot.”

Sauer said during the end of the school year and beginning of summer the district was receiving about 90 applications per week for teaching jobs. The district employs about 640 certified staff.

When teachers do leave the district, it is for personal reasons like a spouse moving for a new job, rather than seeking opportunity in a larger district, Sauer said.

SMALLER DISTRICTS HIT

Smaller, nearby districts are feeling the teacher shortage to varying degrees.

The Sedona- Oak Creek Joint Unified School District is still looking to fill three or four positions for the upcoming year, but did not have any persistent vacancies from year to year, district superintendent David Lykins said.

“We have about a 20 percent turnover, which is higher than we would like,” Lykins said. “It’s hard to maintain teacher retention.”

The district employs about 80 classroom teachers.

Lykins said the district often hires young teachers who remain with the district for a year or two and then seek employment in Flagstaff or another larger city. He said Sedona’s population demographics are not very attractive to younger teachers, as the average age is around 65 and it does not have the amenities of a larger city.

Lykins said recent cuts to education and low salaries for teachers have made it more difficult to recruit qualified applicants.

“It’s always been challenging in northern Arizona, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult in rural areas,” he said.

NO APPLICATIONS

Richard Honsinger, the new Williams Unified School District superintendent, said Williams has had some trouble filling positions, but not as much as Heber-Overgaard, where he used to be a principal.

“Often, in Heber-Overgaard, we would just not get any applications for jobs there,” Honsinger said. “People don’t use Heber-Overgaard as a stepping stone to gain experience. You really either belong there or you don’t, but when there’s an opening, they either only get a few applications or they don’t get any at all.”

Williams, which employs about 50 teachers, has all teaching positions filled for the upcoming school year, Honsinger said.

“Some areas don’t have a teacher shortage, but some definitely do,” Honsinger said. “There are small areas north and south that have trouble filling positions.”

TURNOVER OF 23%

The Page Unified School District still has more than 10 percent of its teaching positions still open for the next school year, human resources director Gwen Lasslo said in an email.

“Our current turnover rate is 23 percent, which has been consistent for the last two years,” Lasslo said. “This is up from 20 percent in 2012 and 15 percent in 2011.”

The Page district has also used long-term substitutes to fill persistent vacancies, which has been a trend in districts struggling to fill positions, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

A long-term substitute does not need to possess the same certifications as a full-time teacher, so substitutes can potentially be less qualified to fill the position, but also more affordable for a district.

Lasslo said the district often recruits teachers from out of state, because teachers from Arizona tend to remain in the area where they attended college. However, many of the out-of-state teachers tend to seek opportunities in their home state and leave after a few years, Lasslo said.

According to a study by the Arizona Department of Education, teachers from out of state typically teach at their organization for five years or less.

In a study conducted by The College of Education at Northern Arizona University, 28 percent of responders graduating in May 2015 said they planned to move out of state following graduation. Of that group, nearly 40 percent said their primary reason to move was a “better career opportunity,” compared to 12 percent who said they were leaving to move back home.

NAU ENROLLMENT STRONG

College of Education assistant vice provost Cynthia Conn said despite a negative climate for teachers in the state, anticipated enrollment for the upcoming school year has increased. Generally the school has around 650 graduates annually.

College of Education associate dean Kathy Bohan said the university is working on partnerships with rural districts by possibly creating a cohort of teacher certificate candidates who travel to further districts to get in-class and student teaching experience. The program has not started yet, but Bohan said the university hopes to strengthen programs like online classes, which would make it easier for students from rural areas to get a teaching degree, and then teach in a district near their home.

The university has also received federal grants to support teacher recruitment for special education teachers, which are generally harder positions to fill, particularly in rural or under-served areas and populations, Conn said.

MORE RURAL, MORE DIFFICULT

The state reported having 387 teaching positions open at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, Arizona Department of Education spokesman Charles Tack said. Of respondents to a department survey, 62 percent of district and charter schools indicated they still had an open teaching position.

Tack said in general, the more rural a district is, the more difficult it is to recruit and retain teachers.

“When you do find someone willing to work there, moving to the area costs so much that they could spend the same and move to another state and make considerably more,” Tack said.

The reporter can be reached at cvanek@azdailysun.com or 556-2249.

“We have about a 20 percent turnover, which is higher than we would like. It’s hard to maintain teacher retention.”

David Lykins, superintendent, Sedona- Oak Creek Joint Unified School District

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City Government and Development Reporter

Corina Vanek covers city government, city growth and development for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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