High housing costs and new federal certification requirements have led to teacher shortages at Island schools. Staffing problems are currently limited to the subject areas of math, computers, special education and foreign languages, but school leaders are nevertheless worried and taking steps to address the problem.
At a meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School District Committee last week, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss announced a concerted effort to address the lack of interest for prospective teachers at the high school.
“There’s a teacher shortage,” confirmed Laurie Halt, assistant to the superintendent for curriculum and instruction this week. “For a couple of years the Island’s been struggling to recruit foreign languages [teachers]. We’re not looking for dozens of teachers but we need certified ones to keep certain programs running.”
The gaps in faculty include an opening for a German teacher at the high school.
“They’re hard to come by and it could be a problem,” said superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss. He added that it’s not just a question of removing the option for new students. “What about the ones who have already done German One? You can’t just say, ‘Sorry, no more German.’”
Following a meeting of Island principals, schools have taken out group advertisement for teachers in the Boston Globe and Edweek, a nationwide trade magazine for the industry.
“We decided to coordinate ad money to get better bang for our buck,” Mr. Weiss said.
Mrs. Halt manned a booth for Vineyard schools at the University Massachusetts career fair earlier this month, preparing a slide show for the event which included photographs of children and their projects and shots of the Island.
“We made it look exciting and vibrant,” she said. But however attractive Mrs. Halt makes Island beaches and classrooms, money is bound to be an issue.
“We’ve had so many phone calls saying, ‘We simply can’t afford it,’ ” she said.
The recent principal search for the high school revealed that an initial interest in the position was diluted by the economic facts of life on the Vineyard. The post, which will be vacated by principal Margaret (Peg) Regan in June, ultimately went to Stephen Nixon, the current assistant principal.
“We had principals-of-the-year applying but it’s really daunting, the high price of living. People are really skeptical. Housing keeps going up so this is going to be ongoing,” she said.
The problem doesn’t end once teachers sign on either: “It’s half recruiting and half retaining,” she added.
In order for states to receive crucial federal funding, the No Child Left Behind act requires that all teachers must be “highly qualified.” According to the law a highly qualified teacher is one who has fulfilled the state’s certification and licensing requirements, obtained at least a bachelor’s degree, and demonstrated subject matter expertise.
Though rigorous teacher qualification has long been required, it is a question of enforcement, argued Mrs. Halt. “The state didn’t use to pay the attention it now does,” she said.
Two years ago, the federal government began requiring states to complete what is called a Consolidated State Performance Report. As part of the program, parents are notified by letter if the department of education discovers that their children have been taught by under-qualified teachers for more than three consecutive weeks.
Getting the right qualifications can mean night school for existing teachers; particularly difficult if you work on the Island.
“Even if you can take your courses at Cape Cod Community College there’s a course that starts from five and ends at nine; guess what? You can’t get back [to the Island on the ferry],” said Mr. Weiss. “That means you have to jump through a bunch of hoops while you’re in the first year of your job.”
But he also said that the trend is in fact nationwide; he speculated that workers with advanced degrees in subjects such as math and languages are coaxed away by the corporate world. He also observed that the mandates of No Child Left Behind can mean that good teachers are left on the sidelines.
“There are times where you have very capable teachers without a teacher’s license and they are not hireable,” he said.
Ironically, the recruitment crisis is taking place against a backdrop of declining student enrollment on the Island. Student numbers at the high school are predicted to fall approximately 150 students, or approximately 20 per cent over the next decade according to a recent New England School Development Council Survey.
The teacher and student drains may be related: former Martha’s Vineyard Commission staff planner Jim Miller pointed to the high cost of living (overall, 60 per cent above the national average) as a cause for the latter drop. “It’s a great place to raise kids but families now struggle financially,” he told the Gazette in a recent interview, adding: “Martha’s Vineyard is a place for older people. Retirees move here now, more than families.”
One institution not feeling the recruitment pinch is the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School in West Tisbury. Principal Bob Moore puts it down to teacher loyalty.
“We have a high retention rate at the charter school,” he said, “There’s never a lot of openings. We’re very fortunate that talented qualified people have chosen to stay to benefit the community.”
The charter school is also the only Island school not facing declining student enrollment.
“Our high school is growing in numbers,” Mr. Moore said, “but over time [recruitment] will be challenging for all schools. We’re not facing it today but who knows down the road.”
Mr. Moore urged the Island Plan to look into recruiting and retaining educators. There are currently no affordable housing projects that cater directly to teachers. High school committee chairman Susan Parker has suggested that the current superintendent’s office — which Mr. Weiss has voiced plans to sell — be transformed into affordable apartments for teachers.