A statewide teacher shortage is leading to classroom overcrowding and a reliance on substitutes in many school districts, including Oklahoma City Public Schools.
The city district, however, has narrowed the gap by paying new teachers more money and recruiting outside of Oklahoma.
The district is focusing its efforts on Iowa, Colorado, South Dakota and Ohio — states with a teacher surplus.
“We were able to hire great teachers from those states to work here in Oklahoma City,” district spokeswoman Tierney Tinnin said. “We're looking at going back to those states to continue our recruiting efforts.”
In addition to attending job fairs in other states, recruiters are interviewing over the phone and using SKYPE to connect with candidates.
“We looked at states that had a surplus of teachers and not enough jobs,” Tinnin said. “We need more people. We need more teachers.”
A job fair set for March 4 is expected to cut into the district's 41 vacancies. Of the openings, the district is looking to hire 15 special education teachers and 10 fifth- and sixth-grade teachers.
The remaining vacancies include mostly math and science positions.
Additionally, the district will need to hire 30 teachers for the 2014-15 school year, when the district plans to offer additional prekindergarten classes.
Oklahoma City Public Schools, the largest school district in the state with more than 45,000 students and 2,700 teachers, has struggled to recruit and retain teachers because of low salaries and challenges that include high poverty and low parent involvement.
“Our district's the toughest place in the state of Oklahoma to work because of the needs of our children,” said Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City union that negotiates with the district on behalf of 2,750 teachers. “They come to us with many needs that people in the suburbs and rural districts can't even contemplate.”
“We're at a different starting point with these children and if we can't keep our retention level high with quality teachers then we as a district are starting over to meet the needs of kids,” he added.
Modest pay raises of 2.09 percent approved in November have helped attract teachers to the district, which has averaged 65 vacancies a year over the past four years.
Beginning in August, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree will be paid $33,150, according to the agreement between the school district and the American Federation of Teachers.
That same teacher could earn as much as $34,800 after three years on the job and $35,550 after four years, according to the agreement.
“It is very clear that the district understands that we need to fix this problem by retaining teachers, otherwise we will never improve student achievement,” Allen said.
Oklahoma City Public Schools, Tinnin said, provides “exceptional professional development” for teachers and strong support from district office administrators, in addition to a community that is willing to assist with resources.
“Teaching in our district is truly a calling that requires a special type of person who understands the challenges urban schools face and is willing to go the extra mile for our students,” Tinnin said.
Meeting children's needs
Britton Elementary School Principal Kimberly Zachery is among the school administrators who have been affected by the district shortages.
Zachery relies heavily on substitute teachers to fill the void left by the death of a sixth-grade teacher.
Instead of three teachers, the principal has two and must divide the extra sixth-graders when substitutes are not available.
“All of our children need to have the individual instruction. We need to make sure that we meet our children's needs,” Zachery said. “Sometimes when the classes are crowded it is difficult.”
Britton teacher Nadine Smith has upward of 40 students in her sixth-grade class, about 15 more than normal.
She was aided by a bilingual assistant who helps Hispanic students with their assignments.
The bigger the class the more misbehavior there is among her students, Smith said.
“When you have a large group they tend to feed off each other,” she said.
“With a small group they can do more and focus better.”