Teacher shortage hits some central Florida schools hard

Carver Middle School in Orlando welcomed students back to campus last week who still needed to hire 19 teachers, meaning a third of its teaching positions were filled with temporary help.

When classes started, Carver needed to hire six math teachers, five science teachers, four language teachers and a few others, according to the Orange County Public Schools online job page.

The school, which has about 700 students, is a sign of the times.

A week into the new school year, OCPS and other Central Florida school districts all need teachers for many of their campuses and, like their counterparts across Florida, all have difficult to find enough candidates for employment.

The Osceola County School District posted the most vacancies of any local district — 256 openings Monday, including 20 at Liberty High School. Liberty needs algebra, geometry and reading teachers as well as several instructors for students with autism, among others, the district’s employment website says.

Osceola, which has 4,074 teachers countywide, searched for teachers all summer and hired 646 new instructors before the first day of school Aug. 10.

“That’s an astonishing number,” Osceola teacher recruitment and retention specialist Greg White said of the 2022 new hires.

But it wasn’t enough.

A key driver of the teacher shortage is the small number of university students majoring in education who are planning a career in teaching. That means school districts are competing for a smaller pool of job applicants and are now looking to “not just find teachers but train teachers,” White said, with “build your own” programs that begin in high school and recruiting campaigns aimed at attracting other professionals. in education.

Many teachers say low morale caused by frustrations with new state laws restricting what can be taught and what books can be used and with a pay system that doesn’t value veteran instructors is also a big problem. . These frustrations have led to more mid-career quits and contributed to hiring needs that never diminish, especially as the state’s population continues to grow.

“Respect, autonomy, workload and, of course, you know the pay,” said Lare Allen, president of the Osceola teachers’ union, listing the reasons for the decline in interest in teaching careers and current teacher resignations.

“We are supposed to be the experts. Then we are told what to do and how to do it,” Allen said.

The statewide teacher shortage has spared no local district. Seminole County Public Schools, the region’s top-performing school system, had 60 teaching vacancies on Aug. 5, just before the new school year, and a few teachers resigned during the first three days of classes. last week.

“All of us in Central Florida are competing for the same group of people,” said Seminole assistant superintendent Shawn Gard-Harrold. “The last three hiring cycles have been difficult,” he said, noting that it has been more difficult to find teachers since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s tough because you fill one in one school and the next thing you know another teacher quit another school,” he said.

The problems are all over Florida, with teacher openings from Daytona Beach to Sarasota, Jacksonville to Miami. The Florida Education Association estimated that the school year began in Florida with about 8,000 teaching positions vacant statewide.

At Orange, the administrators still want to hire a hundred teachers, notably at Carver Middle.

Carver, a C-rated school in the Carver Shores neighborhood southwest of downtown Orlando, has struggled to find and keep teachers before, especially after earning an F grade from the state in 2016. his second in four years. At the time, Carver students had some of the lowest test scores in the state.

In 2017, OCPS announced a three-year incentive plan that would pay experienced teachers an additional $70,000 if they accepted jobs at Carver, which serves a primarily low-income student population. More than 500 applied for about 50 jobs.

The school has been graded C ever since. The incentive program ended in 2020, however, and 25 teachers out of a teaching staff of 55 left the school in the 2020-21 school year, according to Carver’s school improvement plan.

Vicki-Elaine Felder, an Orange County school board member whose district includes Carver, said the program’s sunset might be to blame.

“When the incentives were gone, I think a lot of people just decided to leave,” said Felder, a veteran OCPS teacher when she won her seat on the board.

District chief of staff Bridget Williams said some of Carver’s resignations this year have been routine, including maternity leave and promotions to dean and assistant principal at other schools. A few teachers working on temporary state certificates had to leave because they failed to pass the necessary state exams within the required three years, she added.

Despite the need for many new teachers, no Carver classroom is without an instructor, Williams said, because school and district resource teachers — certified teachers responsible for helping others improve their lessons — fill the most vacancies. Two are filled by long-term substitutes.

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Five new recruits are on the way, Williams added, and the district is working “side by side with Carver” to find more.

Like others, Williams said “we need to think outside the box” for teacher recruitment because traditional college education programs aren’t producing as many applicants anymore.

The University of Central Florida, historically the state’s largest supplier of new teachers, graduated 553 elementary school teachers in 2010, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. By 2020, that number had dropped to 325.

The University of South Florida experienced a similar decline, with the number of new elementary education graduates dropping from 300 to 148 over those 10 years.

Florida has pushed in recent years to raise the starting salary for new teachers, and it’s now over $48,000 in some central Florida counties. But the state’s plan left little money to raise veterans’ salaries, meaning some no longer earn significantly more than recent college graduates.

“Why would you want to become a teacher? Allen said.

lpostal@orlandosentinel.com

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