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They came from across the country, across the international border and across town in an attempt to join the ranks of Detroit educators.

Among them was John Burke, who drove 966 miles across five states to interview for a teaching position during a job fair conducted July 31 by the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Resume in hand, Burke said he already has a good job teaching high school in West Wichita, Kansas, but the Flint native wants to come home and participate in Detroit's revival.

"I know Detroit is growing and going through a rebirth. I want to be a part of that. My passion is always to teach students in Michigan," Burke said.

More than 100 candidates turned out for the job fair, vying for 200 open teaching positions in the district, which has been struggling with a high number of vacancies for the past several years.

DPSCD started the 2017-18 school year with 250 teacher vacancies. The number fluctuated but hovered around 200 for the rest of the year.

By late June, at the end of the 2017-18 school year, the district's number of open positions had swelled to 450 in K-12 core subjects and special education, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

The increase was linked to a combination of resignations and retirements as well as promotions of teachers to assistant principals, master teachers, deans of schools, and administrative positions, Vitti said. 

The district had 3,455 teachers during the 2017-18 school year, up from 3,032 a year earlier.

 Vitti said Wednesday that in the last five weeks, his staff had hired and placed 150 new teachers across the district. At least 100 more are being processed and will be placed in positions.

"With principals working 12 months and owning the recruitment process, we have made significant strides in meeting our goal of being fully staffed by the first day of school," he said.

"Another factor that has assisted in hiring more teachers is the recent increase in salaries but more importantly recognizing all experience outside of the district," Vitti said.

In May, Vitti made a monumental change in district policy by agreeing to pay teachers for their full years of experience outside the district. Past policy only credited teachers for two years.

With 200 vacant posts remaining less than a month before the start of school, DPSCD officials are putting intense resources into teacher recruitment efforts this summer, drawing a large number and variety of candidates to job fairs.

The district has taken a year-round approach to teacher recruitment, traveling to Historically Black Universities and Colleges 11 times to recruit graduates. It also held multiple teaching fairs each month in Detroit.

At one held July 31, teacher candidate Robert Davis was given an offer on the spot by principal Georgia Hubbard of Palmer Park Preparatory Academy.

Hubbard had previously worked with Davis.

"He just landed himself a position. I can hire him right on the spot. Isn't that wonderful?" Hubbard said. "I know his background and I know his work and I was delighted to see him."

Davis, a former Detroit charter school teacher, has experience teaching English Language Arts and social studies.

"I like the way DPS is moving. I like the direction," Davis said."I think the programs are going to positively impact student achievement and actually serve the needs of the students in the city."

While teacher job fairs are bringing in the candidates, Vitti says the district must continue to dig deeper to fill the vacancies.

In July, the board of education approved Vitti's staffing plan for the 2018-19 school year that includes a new recruitment strategy: hiring teachers from alternative certification programs in Michigan.

The state legislature created the alternative route to licensing in 2009. These programs allow candidates who have a bachelor’s degree but have not completed a teacher preparation program to be hired as a teacher while completing the certification requirements.

Candidates also must have passing scores on the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification basic skills exam as well as a subject-area test for the grade level and content area they wish to teach.

In April, lawmakers approved a bill that says candidates who apply to become a teacher through the Michigan Alternate Route to Interim Teaching will no longer have to take the new subject area test at a local high school to qualify for a program.

Since 2012, about 645 teachers have been certified via the Michigan program.

The state has seven alternative certification programs for teachers, including Michigan Professional Innovators in Teaching, Teachers of Tomorrow, and four that are operated by state universities. 

Vitti said the district will only hire certified teachers for its 50,000 students, which could include those in the alternative program.

"Alternative certification teachers are certified. We do not have a formal agreement with an alternative certification provider but they send candidates to the job fairs or to principals. If they are certified, then a principal can hire them," Vitti said.

Last year, teachers unions in Michigan denounced teacher alternative certification programs, calling them an attempt to "deprofessionalize" the field.

But this summer, an official with the American Federation of Teachers Michigan toned down the opposition.

David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan, said use of such programs has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, including in Detroit.

"After every other avenue has been exhausted … then for the short term, looking at an alternative certified teacher -- as long as the program is a good program -- is probably something that makes sense," he said.

Hecker said teachers who come in through the alternative certified route do not experience student teaching in actual classrooms before they take their first professional job, as traditional certified teachers do in Michigan.

"Student teaching is where you get firsthand experience with what it’s like to be in the classroom. That student teaching piece is incredibly important," Hecker said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which represents DPSCD instructors, said she has concerns about the district hiring teachers from alternative certification programs.

"We are a district in need and we have to watch who we hire to be in front of our kids," Bailey said. "I want to know the alternative program and look at it carefully. They need to go through classes and learn some pedagogue."

Bailey said the district tried alternative programs like Teach for America to increase its teacher ranks and it did not work.

"We have been there before. Teach for America didn’t work for us. We had over 200 Teach for America (staff) in our classrooms. Of those who became certified teachers and actually stayed, we have less than 20," Bailey said.

One similar company, the Houston-based Teachers of Tomorrow, has certified 47,000 teachers nationwide since 2005, said Dave Saba, chief development officer.

The company began work in Michigan in 2017. Out 2,000 applicants in Michigan, 183 are working on certification and could be ready for jobs this fall, including in Detroit, Saba said.

Between 25 and 30 have job offers, some in Detroit at both DPSCD and charter schools, Saba said. He could not identify the names of the schools.

"When you have a shortage like this, you have to find innovative way to get people in. Once people see the quality of these candidates going into Detroit schools, they will see it's better than a vacant classroom or a sub by far. We are out of options right now," Saba said.

The district is seeing a large number of former DPS teachers returning to the district. The DFT said it has heard of at least 20 who are coming back.

That group includes Teresa White, who is returning to teach at the district this fall. 

White, 52, was laid off by DPS in 2003 during emergency management and began work at a Detroit charter school, where she built up 14 years of experience and the pay to go along with it.

"I've always wanted to come back to DPS. But there was never an opportunity before, with my salary at the charter schools. That has changed. When I heard they can honor my 14 years of experience, this is the chance for me to come back," said White, who will teach at John R King Elementary School.

White said she will be making 10 percent more at her new teaching position at DPSCD than she was at the charter school.

She plans to start setting up her classroom the week of Aug. 20 and says she is happy to return to the district and teach in the neighborhood where she grew up.

"I am very excited. It's always something I have dreamed about doing. I never envisioned leaving DPS. I am more excited coming back. This is where I am going to retire," she said.

Students in grades K-8 are getting a new curriculum this fall in math and reading after Vitti dumped the district's former curriculum in June. An audit determined it was not aligned to Michigan’s Common Core standards, which outline what students are expected to learn and be able to do at the end of each grade level.

White says she is intrigued with the new curriculum, but she has concerns about being transferred once the school year begins.

"He is doing all of the right things. But I want stability. It's important for kids to have stability. I don’t want to be shifted around to different schools," White said.

White said all teachers need experience as student teachers in the classroom before they begin their professional careers and she understands the concerns others have about alternative certification.

"Teaching sounds great and looks great but you have to get in the classroom to make sure it’s a good fit," she said.

School starts Sept. 4.

jchambers@detroitnews.com

 

 

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