A significant teacher shortage looms at Detroit Public Schools Community District, and it’s likely to leave some children without teachers when school starts in two weeks.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said last week 340 teacher vacancies remain in the district, which employs about 2,700 teachers and educates an estimated 47,950 students. There are 243 general education vacancies, primarily in grades K-5, and 97 special education vacancies. That’s up from about 200 vacancies at this time last year, according to the teachers union.
Whether or not there will be enough teachers for the first day of school on Sept. 5 for every classroom with students, Vitti said he is working hard to make the district fully staffed.
“That’s what students and teachers deserve,” he said.
The shortage is larger than last year, Vitti said, because the district reacquired 10 of its schools from the Education Achievement Authority, and only about 50 percent of EAA teachers have reapplied for jobs in the district. Of the 340 vacancies, 85 are in former EAA schools.
The district has two teacher recruitment fairs this month — one held last week and another on Aug. 31 — to boost teacher ranks, but the district is still falling short of providing a teacher for all of its classrooms.
The district plans to continue seeking potential hires throughout the year, even if it means pursuits other than an enrollment fair, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said.
“It’s going to be a constant effort to recruit talent,” she said.
Wilson said on Monday that 164 people attended last week’s recruitment fair and 61 were offered positions in the district but still need to be placed.
“The number (in the shortage) is moving daily,” she said.
The good news, Vitti said, is he has 85 pending hires who would bring the number of vacancies down to around 255. Some district staffers moved from human resources into teaching positions and are still being placed — those people will reduce the shortage as well.
“We are getting closer. But a lot of work is still to be done,” Vitti said.
To combat the shortage, Vitti also is working on increasing steps for outside candidates in hard-to-staff areas and hiring bonuses for hard-to-staff schools, assigning human resource employees to specific schools to boost hiring and accessing Wayne County’s application pool to view teacher applicants — a first for the district.
Vitti is also meeting with principals to determine exactly where vacancies exist and is trying to recruit more HR staff who have been teachers in the past.
“It’s very hard to recruit teachers if you’ve never been a teacher. That is something we are trying to change,” he said.
‘Praying every day’
Asked whether every Detroit student will have a teacher in class on the first day of school, Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said she does not think so, but she is confident the number of vacancies will go down by then.
“I am praying every day. Our teachers cannot go through another year of large class sizes, of missing their preps, doing triple duty. They cannot physically and mentally sustain it,” Bailey said. “They are going to do whatever it takes to get these kids educated. They will miss their preps and their lunch.”
Vitti said he hopes the teacher recruitment fairs and new collective bargaining agreement in place will attract teaching talent to the district. New teacher salaries increased to $38,500 from $35,683, he said. Teachers with post-doctorate degrees at the top of the salary schedule will make $66,265 this fall.
The deal is partly why some of the nearly 150 attendees at the recruitment fair Thursday in Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine sought positions.
“I was kind of hedging, but I was encouraged by the last contract talks,” said Juanita Davis, who recently became certified, while waiting for an interview.
William Nagy had previously worked for a city charter school that closed and attended the fair hoping to find a job with better benefits.
“There are a lot more opportunities,” said Nagy, who has taught physical education.
At the teacher recruitment fairs, applications are being accepted for all teaching positions, but a critical need for teachers exists in math, science, English language arts, special education, music, Spanish, K-5 elementary, social studies and career technical education.
The district is also hiring retirees for the field of special education, science, math and Spanish. On-the-spot conditional offers may be provided to qualified candidates, district officials said.
The chance to find a job in the district lured potential hires such as Alicia Shearill, a Detroiter with about a decade of experience in the education field. Her goal was a “dream job” teaching social studies at a middle school.
Progress in both the district and Detroit pushed her to look at the district.
“If we’re going to be a comeback city, our students have to be part of the comeback,” Shearill said. “I want to be a part of that.”
‘Approaching a cliff’
The teacher shortage could continue in coming years.
On Aug. 15, during the board of education meeting, Vitti said a majority of the district’s teachers — about 66 percent — are at the higher end of the salary range and step system.
“The positive aspect is we have a strong veteran workforce with long-standing relationships with our students. The negative is we are approaching a cliff. If they retire in the next couple of years, it exacerbates our teacher shortage problem,” Vitti said.
Bailey said the teacher shortage is not new to the district. Last school year, there were 200 vacancies at this time across the entire district.
“We have lost population in the city. We got charter schools. Some left for charters. Some left the city, and then the emergency manager, and we took a 10 percent pay cut,” Bailey said. “A lot of people couldn’t afford it, and those who could leave, left.”
In 2009, the union agreed to have teachers loan money to the cash-strapped district, which was under state control at the time. Then in 2011, teachers took a 10 percent wage cut.
Those who stayed are invested in Detroit and most attended or graduated from Detroit schools, Bailey said.
“And they are diehard Detroiters and others and really care about the kids, and they aren’t going anywhere,” she said.
The number of vacancies is bound to increase in September, Bailey said, when a group of teachers historically returns in September and leaves that same month for retirement. Typically that accounts for 50 to 70 teachers a year, she said.
Bailey said teachers are coming over from the EAA, but they are taking pay cuts because they were paid more working under a year-round calendar. EAA teachers also did not pay into the state’s retirement system as Detroit teachers do.
Bailey, a Cass Tech graduate and former DPS teacher, said the district has a negative reputation, but she and other union members and teachers would be happy to talk about the culture around the city and schools that make it a great place to work.
“A lot of us stay. We see how awesome our kids are. We see their potential and they are willing to try. They just need something to push them in that direction,” she said. “You are on the ground floor making some amazing things happen. We have a new superintendent and new school board. We need new energy, we need new ideas.”
A statewide teacher shortage in recent years has been blamed on fewer college graduates entering teaching schools and the profession.
David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, said there are sporadic teacher shortages around the state in difficult subject areas, such as math, science, special education and foreign language.
Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, said overall districts are still seeing challenges in hiring teachers based on the smaller number of students in teacher graduate programs.
Districts that started their hiring processes earlier in the year, such as in the spring, are in better shape than districts that waited until the summer to recruit new staff, he said.
A second teacher recruitment fair will be held from 5-7 p.m. on Aug. 31 at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine at 571 Mack in Detroit.
Candidates who are interested in employment are encouraged to visit detroitk12.org/employment and complete an online application.