It was a difficult math problem, and Sacramento City Unified School District was stumped. Again.
In California’s 13th largest district, about 15 percent of the 43,000 students (about 6,500) have special needs, but in April, administrators still needed qualified teachers for eight special education vacancies. All local recruitment efforts had been exhausted, officials say.
“Statewide and nationwide, there’s a short supply of special needs teachers … We had to figure out how to get teachers now.” Alex Barrios, chief communications officer, Sacramento City Unified School District
Last year, the district recruited 11 teachers from the Philippines. So with nowhere else to turn, SCUSD once again went abroad, recruiting six more teachers from overseas to solve the district’s immediate need, says Alex Barrios, SCUSD’s chief communications officer.
“Statewide and nationwide, there’s a short supply of special needs teachers,” he says. “You end up having to compete with other districts for those teachers. We had to figure out how to get teachers now.”
Not everybody is aboard with this global recruitment strategy. For instance, the Sacramento City Teachers Association claims the district could have avoided such a move by paying its teachers more. But district officials maintain it’s about basic supply and demand — a principle of economics, not an issue of wages. Now, due to what officials call “rigorous recruitment efforts,” the district has only two special education teacher vacancies left. Officials expect the current pool of 298 special education teachers to increase after new hires are processed, Barrios says.
The teacher shortage is an ongoing crisis, impacting districts well beyond Sacramento. In a survey by the Learning Policy Institute and the California School Boards Association, about 75 percent of 211 districts statewide noted having a shortage of teachers last year. Across the country, the hardest hit are large cities and high-poverty schools, with teacher shortages in math and science, and especially special education. In the aftermath of the devastating Great Recession — when teachers were handed pink slips and forced out — this crisis illustrates what happens when student enrollments increase (projected to grow by 3 million by 2025), teacher enrollment programs drop off (by 35 percent) and teacher attrition remains high.
Since 2007, the number of enrolled special needs students in SCUSD has increased by 1,000. The district’s long-term plan to prevent future vacancies began in September: a new pipeline established between the district and Sacramento State that offers dual credentials — including special education — to teachers and sets them up with paid jobs in the district immediately (although this doesn’t guarantee them a job once they complete their dual credential).
“Think about how difficult it has been for young college students to find jobs when they’re done with their education,” Barrios says. “For us to say, ‘There’s a job waiting for you,’ I think will create an incentive for students to go into the district and teach.”
The pipeline idea grew out of a question from Dr. Stephanie Biagetti, Sac State’s chair of teaching credentials in the College of Education: What can we do to bring people into our program and meet the needs of SCUSD?
Both parties agreed to move forward with the cohort. To find the right candidates, they heavily advertised and marketed the program. More than 100 people came out to the information session.
The pipeline is a two-year program, where students work in classrooms five days a week while taking night classes two days a week. Eleven out of 18 applicants were accepted in this first year and have already started working in classrooms as official teachers — fully responsible for planning and implementing lessons, grading all student work, etc. — with support from a university supervisor and the district. Some teachers are in special education and some in general education at the elementary and secondary education levels.
What’s unique about this program is that during the two-year span, students are fully employed by the district with a short-term staffing permit, so they start making money much sooner than if enrolled in a traditional two-year program.
This was a key selling point for Dominic Campos. He’d been in the education field, running various school enrichment programs for half a dozen years, but hadn’t gotten his credential. Now, as a 30-year-old tax-paying married man, he says going 10 months with no income in a traditional program would have been a nightmare.
“If I had to go all the way until next year to get a teaching position and get paid next October, I don’t know how my wife and I would’ve managed,” says Campos, who started co-teaching biology, physical science and world history this fall at Sacramento’s John F. Kennedy High School, as one of the program’s inaugural 11 candidates.
SCUSD officials know pipelines take years to develop a steady stream of teachers, which is why recruiting teachers from the Philippines became a solid short-term solution. But the 2016 Learning Policy Institute report A Coming Crisis in Teaching? notes that temporary tactics don’t always work out.
“Short-term solutions may temporarily curb the fear of empty classrooms, but, as we found, they can often exacerbate the problem over the long haul,” the authors wrote. “For example, if teachers are hired without having been fully prepared, the much higher turnover rates that result are costly in terms of both dollars spent on the replacement process and decreases in student achievement in high-turnover schools.”
To prevent this from happening, SCUSD turned to Ligaya Avenida.
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
Back in the early 2000s, SCUSD was dealing with a teacher shortage and called on Avenida. She had been working in San Francisco, helping school districts fill vacancies with foreign recruits through a U.S. Department of State teacher-exchange program. She aids recruits with the visa process and licensing, and finding housing. For three months, she helps them get acclimated to U.S. classrooms with accent reduction and classroom management workshops.
She made a name for herself, bringing in teachers to roughly 20 districts in need around the country. She helped SCUSD fill its math and science teacher vacancies back then, so the district reached out to her in San Mateo, where she now runs a recruitment firm called Avenida International Consultants.
In the Philippines, English is widely taught in schools, an official language, along with Tagalog. The country, which was governed by the U.S. before World War II, retains a similar school system, so teachers can easily transfer their credentials to the U.S., Avenida says. She also says Filipino teachers have a high work ethic and level of care that makes them ideal for students with special needs.
Not all districts go overseas. Over this past year, San Juan Unified has done major recruitment locally for special education teachers, attending job fairs at Chico State and Sac State, and hosting its own. The HR team hopes to increase recruitment efforts in the Bay Area, too. As of September, the district has about five vacancies for certified special education teachers, a moving target as positions are being filled on a daily basis, says Raj Rai, the district’s communication coordinator. In the Elk Grove Unified School District, vacancies in this area range between four and 10. The district also set up a dual credential program with Sac State this fall after receiving a grant for $400,000 ($80,000 for five years) to cover half of the tuition for 20 candidates, slated to graduate in 2020.
Shelly Clark, director of personnel development for EGUSD, says the district didn’t consider recruiting overseas because California’s high standards make the transfer a challenge. Elk Grove is currently recruiting its own substitute teachers and general ed teachers to work on its own pipeline program with Sac State’s special education program, she says. “We found that, just by looking inward, there was this real fertile bank that we hadn’t anticipated,” Clark says, referring to those teachers.
Avenida has heard all kinds of criticism from those convinced her methods block local teachers from getting jobs. But she doesn’t believe districts need to go through the year with unfilled positions or substitute teachers if there are other options.
“The fact that they have to go halfway across the world when other districts don’t have to says a lot right there.” David Fisher, president, Sacramento City Teachers Association
“If the local teachers are there and they qualify, by all means we should hire them,” she says. “But if you’re about to start school without a teacher, you haven’t used all the resources for getting qualified teachers who can teach these classes.”
David Fisher takes no issue with Filipino teachers.
As president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, he insists he supports them and wants them to succeed. His main problem is with the district, specifically its lower wages and working conditions, he says.
“They have the money. They prefer to spend it on administrators,” he says. “The fact that they have to go halfway across the world when other districts don’t have to says a lot right there.”
Fisher claims teachers in the district make significantly less than surrounding districts. The association is currently in contract negotiations, and working with Superintendent Jorge Aguilar to recruit and retain teachers and “make Sac City a ‘destination district’ for educators and students,” Fisher says.
Comparing salaries is complicated, because earnings vary depending on a teacher’s level of education and years of experience. In the San Juan, Elk Grove and Sac City unified school districts, special education teachers and regular education teachers share the same salary schedule.
San Juan teachers earn annual salaries from about $46,000 to $86,000. Elk Grove teachers earn salaries from about $45,000 to around $90,000. SCUSD teachers earn salaries from about $45,000 to about $81,000. Barrios says most of the teachers are on the higher end of the salary schedule. But Ed-Data, which tracks information on K-12 schools in California, shows the average teacher salary for SCUSD about $7,000 less than the average of all unified school districts throughout the state in 2015-16.
In response to Fisher’s claims, David Gordon, superintendent of schools in the Sacramento County Office of Education, says salaries play a role, but are only one of many factors for determining if a teacher wants to work in a district. Other considerations may include a positive culture in the district, ongoing support and professional development, and strong, consistent leadership at campuses. Plus, he says, SCUSD already offers very generous health benefits.
“When you think about total compensation, it paints a different picture,” Gordon says.
The SCUSD picture is familiar to Gordon. As a former Elk Grove Unified School District superintendent, he started a program to address the teacher shortage. With Sacramento County, he helped create an intern program, where candidates go through basic preparation in an intensive and time-consuming five-month period, before they then start earning a salary teaching in classrooms. This program has placed 47 interns in SCUSD. Last year, the program launched a new special education track, which to date has produced 12 interns, Gordon says.
Overall, Gordon is optimistic that these various strategies will eventually pay off, and that SCUSD has found a tried-and-true solution for funding special education teachers in the meantime.
“It isn’t unusual for a district to go to the Philippines,” he says. “They’re doing the best they can to provide the service for students under the circumstances they’re faced with.”