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Michigan school districts battle widespread teacher shortages

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Kindergarten teacher Diana Mickles leads a song and dance about counting at Ferndale Lower Elementary School in Ferndale.  A kindergarten teacher opening in the district posted on August 28 attracted more than 50 candidates in four days.

Michigan is battling a persistent shortage of teachers early in the school year, prompting school district leaders to scramble to fill their vacancies while fearing the problem might only get worse.

From the Upper Peninsula to Metro Detroit, job postings for K-12 positions across the state advertise hundreds of open positions from foreign language, music, science and math teachers to paraprofessionals to counselors.

While the Michigan Department of Education does not track teacher vacancies among the 900 public school districts in the state — it does publish a critical shortage list that lays out jobs open in multiple districts for retirees — educators in the field report many districts are struggling to fill teaching positions, sometimes for years, as more lucrative jobs in the private sector attract candidates.

"I told my physics teacher to never retire," said Superintendent Louis Steigerwald of Norway-Vulcan Area Schools in the Upper Peninsula.

Steigerwald, who also serves as a regional president for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said his own district does not have any teacher vacancies, but he still worries about filling jobs.

"We are competing with the private sector. It's scary," he said. "If we want to be a leader in science, technology, engineering and math, there aren't that many people in those programs to replace those who are going to retire."

Steigerwald conducted a survey last month that concluded that 29 of 36 U.P. districts he queried had teacher vacancies. Several districts reported zero applicants for jobs that have been open for a year or longer. The response also included anonymous feedback.

One superintendent responded on the survey: "I currently have 2 positions; Elementary Special Education and High School Math, both have been vacant since spring 2018, we have posted both 2x. We have had very few qualified applicants and many are from out of state and have no clue where the U.P. is and once explained to them...they decline the opportunity to interview."

Another superintendent said: "I anticipate we will need two elementary teachers after some internal movement. I anticipate we will have up to six candidates that I know of immediately. 18 years ago would have garnered about 90 candidates."

According to the Michigan Education Association, union leaders at several Metro Detroit school districts reported teacher vacancies last week, which marked the start of the 2018-19 school year for most districts.

Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, said her members have been dealing with a teacher shortage for several years. 

"It initially started with a shortage in urban and rural districts and in certain subject areas such as special education, world languages, math, science, ELL (English language learners) instructors," Zdeb said.

Yet in the last few years, there has been a significant decline in attendance at university and statewide job fairs, and there has also been a decline in applications to the university teacher prep programs, Zdeb said.

In Michigan, the number of issued initial certificates, which are required to enter the teaching profession, dropped from a high of 9,664 in the 2003-04 school year to 3,317 in 2017-18, according to the most recent available data from the state education department.

Stephanie Janigian teaches math to fifth-graders at Madison Heights Elementary. Math teachers are in high demand in Michigan.

Many factors influence the shortage, Zdeb said, including fewer people seeking bachelor's degrees in general, which also means fewer in teacher prep. The overall low unemployment rate, which remains below 5 percent in Michigan, has opened up many higher-paying job opportunities, she said.

“If you have a science or math major and you're a certified teacher, you can certainly make more money and get better benefits in the private sector," Zdeb said. "It is hard to choose a field that will require you to work nights and weekends just to be able to live and cover your student loans."

Salaries for public school teachers in Michigan averaged around $62,280 in 2016-17, the most recent year data is available, according to data from the Michigan Department of Education.

Data from the National Education Association released in April showed the U.S. average public school teacher salary for 2016-17 was $59,660. Average teacher salaries ranged from $81,902 in New York, $79,128 in California and $78,100 in Massachusetts at the high end to $42,925 in Mississippi, $45,292 in Oklahoma and $45,555 in West Virginia at the low end.

Some school districts, however, are having better luck filling vacancies. In Ferndale Public Schools, one kindergarten teacher opening posted on Aug. 28 attracted more than 50 candidates in four days. 

"There is a high level of interest for candidates to come to Ferndale,” Superintendent Dania Bazzi said. “We have a hometown, small-school atmosphere. We are very diverse. That is attractive."

But Michigan Education Association spokesman David Crim said multiple districts including Flint, Romulus, Waterford Township, Farmington, Pontiac and Benton Harbor have teacher vacancies that range from 15 to 45 open positions.

"It's overwhelming," he said. "When I speak with other districts about this, they point to Detroit. I say, no, you have to look beyond Detroit. It’s a serious problem statewide."

Over the summer, Detroit Public Schools Community District was able to whittle its 200-plus teacher vacancy rate down to 90 open positions. 

District leadership did it through an intensive teacher recruitment campaign this past spring and summer that attracted several hundred candidates to job fairs. The district also created a master teacher program and is working directly with state universities to create teacher pipelines into the district.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said paying new teacher candidates for their years of service in the field was a game changer when it came to knocking down the shortage. The change was announced in the spring.

"The biggest thing was the years of service. That was major," Bailey said. "It made it more inviting to come."

Many of the newly hired teachers work in art, music and physical education after the district restored those classes to schools after long absences.

Bailey said while 90 is significant progress, there is still work to do. Vacancies are mostly in special education and in K-5 buildings, not at the high schools.

"For me, still 90 is problematic," she said. "It depends on how many vacancies are in individual schools. You have schools with no vacancies and some with four to five, especially if it's in ELA or math."

One issue: The district no longer offers a supplemental payment or bonus for teachers who work in special education, Bailey said.

"We need something else to entice special ed teachers to the district," she said.

Teachers also need to be paid more, she said. Public school teachers in Detroit start at $39,757, Bailey said. After years of emergency management, she said, the top end of the pay scale — about $67,277 — lags behind many districts.

Looking ahead, a new campaign to attract teachers to Detroit that offers mortgage discounts, free OnStar and discounts on DNA tests, clothes, books, computers will help address the shortage, Bailey said. Teach 313 is public-private partnership, with focuses on recruitment, teacher retention, quality of life and professional development.

"As far as recruiting teachers in general, we need to shine a more positive light in teachers in Detroit," Bailey said.

In the Farmington School District, superintendent George Heitsch is working to fill 6.5 vacant teaching positions that are primarily in grades K-8 and in special education.

Angel Garcia, left, principal at Western International High School, interviews John Burke of Wichita, Kan., during a July hiring fair for Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Some vacancies are due to increased enrollment in some buildings while others are from teachers leaving for other districts or retiring, he said.

Looking ahead, Heitsch is not optimistic about the teacher shortage resolving itself.

"It's going to get worse," he said. "The solution for me is a concentrated effort like we did for nursing. When we saw it coming, there were intentional efforts to attract people to the profession."

Bruce Jordan, a Uniserv director for MEA assigned to Flint Community Schools, said vacancies there range from 30 to 50 positions and are fluid as the local union is undergoing contract negotiations.

"The Legislature, for the most part, has suppressed the urge for people to go into the teacher profession," Jordan said. "In Flint, being a teacher, that brings its own challenges. I worked for Flint as a math teacher for 10 years. It's a tough job."

Some districts said they would turn to hire teachers under Michigan's alternative certification program. The Legislature created the alternative route to licensing in 2009. 

These programs allow candidates who have bachelor’s degrees but have not completed a teacher preparation program to be hired while completing the certification requirements.

Along with a teacher shortage, Michigan is also suffering from a substitute teacher shortage.

At the end of this month, new rules will go into effect that lower the number of college credits needed to be a substitute teacher. Michigan lawmakers changed the requirement from 90 semester hours to 60 semester hours.

Bill DeFrance, superintendent of Eaton Rapids Public Schools, said finding subs has been a chronic problem in Michigan school districts, but the change in the law should help ease that. His district does not have any teacher vacancies this year.

"The place we have the problem is the subs, and that will change at the end of the month," DeFrance said. "We have to get the word out. I have already talked to some individuals. It will take us three to six months to change the supply of subs."