Hey, You … Wanna Be a Teacher?

Despite signing bonuses and zipline stunts, the school district remains in dire need of instructors

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While her former colleagues were getting their classrooms ready for the start of the school year, veteran teacher Samantha Jones was getting ready for graduation—from nursing school.

After teaching for a decade (including eight years with the Clark County School District), Jones quit at the end of the 2013-14 school year, enrolling at Nevada State College in pursuit of a new career. The shift had been brewing through years of pink slips and pay freezes, “teacher blaming” and a growing sense of disrespect for the profession. The final straw came when Jones, who’d always taught early elementary, was pushed to teach fifth grade. “I had fifth-graders who had to count to seven on their fingers,” Jones says. She tried to reach them without falling behind on the Common Core standards, but there just wasn’t time. “I just got so frustrated. I said, ‘I gotta get out of here.’”

Not only are such conditions compelling teachers to try new professions, but they’re also sending Las Vegas-area baby boomers into early retirement (speeding the “silver tsunami” of retirements hitting various industries nationwide). Making matters worse, the next generation of potential educators appear to be well aware of the problems, with colleges reporting record-low enrollment in teacher-training programs. “There’s a crisis in the teacher population,” says John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association. “This is a serious issue that requires a much more global approach.”

For the upcoming school year, the CCSD needed 2,600 new teachers to account for retirements, resignations and population growth. Despite a massive recruitment campaign, signing bonuses and an attempt to lure back retirees, it had filled only about 1,550 of those openings by early August, says Staci Vesneske, chief human resources officer for the district. That leaves more than 1,050 classrooms with no teachers.

The situation was only a bit better a year ago, when 1,800 teachers were needed and only 1,200 were hired, Vellardita says. That forced the district to start and end the 2014-15 school year with hundreds of classrooms staffed by full-time substitutes.

Subs will have to fill the gap again this school year, Vesneske says. So Clark County held a recruitment fair in early August and launched a substitute-teacher boot camp to offer advice on classroom management and lesson planning before students return to campuses August 24.

Clark County is hardly the only district in need of teachers, as evidenced by these headlines: “Indiana lawmakers call for study on teacher shortage,” “Teacher shortage being felt across Arizona” and “Teacher shortage in California getting worse.” But the problem appears particularly acute in Southern Nevada, where student populations are rising, salaries are below national averages and funding hasn’t rebounded from the recession as much as it did in former teacher-feeder states such as California. “It is difficult for us in Nevada to compete,” Vesneske says. “We needed to do something that is going to set us apart.”

So the district created the Calling All Heroes campaign. First, CCSD staff brainstormed ideas, then they met with casino marketers to hone a teachers-as-superheroes theme aimed at tapping that intrinsic educator motivation.

In January, CCSD Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky soared down the zipline on Fremont Street to generate buzz for the campaign. The district posted ads in airline magazines and sent recruiters to college campuses. It called some 2,000 retirees, offering to let them keep drawing their pensions while also earning a salary if they returned to the classroom. It offered $110 referral fees and emailed people on publicized layoffs lists, letting them know about programs that can get them quickly certified to teach.

One such program was the first Rebel Academy at UNLV, which attracted nearly 20 people who earned provisional licenses this summer, says Emily Lin, chairwoman of the Department of Teaching and Learning. Those participants—whose career backgrounds ranged from engineering to military—spent four weeks taking classes and working with at-risk seventh- and eighth-graders. Having completed the program, they can teach this fall, enrolling concurrently to finish coursework for a full license within three years.

Recruitment efforts got another bump in June, when the Legislature approved funding that allowed for a $5,000 signing bonus aimed at enticing new teachers to agree to work in high-need schools. Vesneske says about 80 percent of the 1,550 teachers the CCSD has hired qualified for the bonus.

However, it’s becoming apparent that this incentive came along too late to make a dent in this year’s numbers. Also, that signing bonus coupled with a decision to balance the district’s budget by freezing pay has sparked an online petition from returning teachers who feel they’re being taken for granted. Jones says principals here seem to expect a steady turnover of teachers, in keeping with Vegas’ transient population.

For all its efforts, the CCSD has only hired about 170 more teachers than it had at this time last year—a figure that’s been eclipsed by the number of teachers who have retired or resigned, making it a net loss. Then again, Vesneske says, “Had we not done the campaign, I can’t even imagine where we’d be.”

The recruiting campaign caught the eye of Ruben Rodriguez’s son. Rodriguez was living in El Paso, Texas, where he’d taught middle school for 20 years. His son, who’d moved to Las Vegas to work as a nurse, heard about the need for teachers and started pushing his dad to bring his mom and younger sister to the desert.

On August 24, Rodriguez will welcome students to his fifth-grade elementary school class. Except for higher gas prices, Rodriguez says Las Vegas is similar to El Paso when it comes to cost of living, teacher pay and climate. “It feels like home,” he says.

Despite the challenges teachers face nationwide, Rodriguez says he still loves his job and has faith in the profession. And that faith appears to be contagious: His daughter, Natalie, enrolled at UNLV for the fall. Her career goal? To become an elementary school teacher.

If the CCSD and other teacher-starved districts across the country had their way, there would be thousands of college-bound kids following in Natalie’s footsteps.