- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

NORWICH, Conn. (AP) - Ask local school administrators if there’s a shortage of teachers in eastern Connecticut, and the answer is likely to be “it depends.”

Overall staff levels are sufficient, educators say, but there are several specialty areas where schools have trouble finding enough qualified candidates.

Norwich and other Connecticut school districts receive a yearly list of shortage areas from the Connecticut Department of Education.

The largest shortage areas on this year’s list are in special education, technology education, bilingual instruction and English for speakers of other languages. Those subjects have shortages from kindergarten or pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Shortages also exist in world languages, sciences and math for grades 7 through 12, according to the state.

Norwich, for example, needs a seventh-grade science teacher. The city has 287 certified teaching staff members.

Superintendent of Schools Abby Dolliver said the position has been posted and would be re-posted to draw more applicants.

“In certain areas we have to put substitutes in at the start of the year, because it’s hard to find the right qualified people quickly,” she said.

Dolliver said the city schools have other shortages because of recent resignations. They include a library position and a music teaching position, which Dolliver said the department had filled by the start of the school year.

At Montville High School, the school was short teachers in math, social studies and English, assistant principal Tanya Patten said.

The school received 62 applications for the social studies spot, 16 for the English position and just four for the math teaching job.

“For English teaching applicants, 16 is a typical number,” Patten said. “But four applicants for math is very low.”

Sarah Falcone teaches special education at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. She said demands of the job might make it more difficult for districts like Norwich to hire special education instructors.

“There’s a case managing aspect, there’s the paperwork in managing individual education plans for all the students,” she said. “Meetings with parents and families, and making sure students have the right program that fits their needs. And then there’s the actual planning and teaching of lessons.”

The shortage of qualified teachers in specific subjects is a trend nationally.

Oklahoma’s Board of Education recently approved 503 additional emergency teaching certificates in response to a teacher shortage across the state. The San Francisco Bay Area is scrambling to fill classrooms, with critical shortages in science, math, special education and bilingual education. As of Aug. 14, Oakland needed 77 teachers. And even Alaska is feeling the effects, with shortages reported in Fairbanks.

Schools in some of those cases are hiring substitutes or enlisting administrators to teach classes.

Explanations for the trend include retirements, high attrition rates and a lack of new recruits in the past several years. In California, a hot post-recession economy boosted school budgets, allowing districts to add positions and reduce class sizes again, creating even more jobs to fill.

But the hiring slowdowns in California and elsewhere aren’t as severe in Connecticut.

Montville has 250 certified teaching staff, with eight new hires for this year, Superintendent Brian Levesque said.

“We didn’t have any problems filling positions this year,” he said. “We were lucky to get most of them filled early on.”

The state provides an incentive program for educators who teach in one of the designated shortage areas. Teachers can apply to a mortgage assistance program through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.

Teachers also can benefit from federal incentives, including deferment of student loans or, for full-time teaching in fields of expertise, cancellation of all Perkins student loan debt.

Jeffry Mathieu took advantage of such an incentive. The Colchester superintendent of schools began teaching in the 1980s as a special education instructor and remembers enrolling in a loan forgiveness program.

“That wasn’t the reason I went into teaching, but it was definitely a benefit,” he said.

The Nutmeg State also is among the leaders in teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association.

Connecticut’s average starting teacher salary is $42,450, according to the association. The average teacher salary is $63,152.

The state is also trying to boost hiring of minority teachers.

“We’re not in a crisis shortage situation like parts of California,” said Bob Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “There are few areas where Connecticut is short. But we really suffer from a lack of minority candidates.”

Rader said it’s important for districts to attract and keep minority teachers, especially in cities, where minority student populations are expected to grow over the next 20 years, he said. Norwich is one of just 16 state school districts expected to gain school-aged students over the next 10 years, according to CABE data. It’s the only district in Eastern Connecticut projected to do so.

“They will be some of the best role models for those students,” Rader said.

Dolliver said Norwich always looks for the best teachers possible, and that the district’s percentage of minority staff has increased in recent years.

“It’s important to have a diverse staff that reflects the student population,” she said.

Dolliver said the district received just one or two applications for its science teaching position, which prompted the school department to re-post the job.

The number of applications a position draws varies based on the subject and grade offered, she said.

“Elementary school jobs get lots of applications,” Dolliver said. “With subjects like high school math, that are more content-specific, it becomes more difficult to attract candidates.”

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Information from: Norwich Bulletin, http://www.norwichbulletin.com

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