Clark County School District elementary kids went back to school this week, and all grades will be back by early April.
That makes a lot of parents happy, along with students who have been learning online for the last year.
But something more problematic and longer-lasting than the pandemic is impacting education in Southern Nevada: a teacher shortage.
It’s been an issue for years. This year, CCSD said it was about 400 teachers short at the beginning of the school year.
“That 400-odd classrooms, results in 12,000 students without a permanent teacher in their classroom," said Brenda Pearson, director of strategic policy initiatives at the Clark County Education Association, "It impacts the students because there is not that sense of belonging to the classroom because there may be some transitions from one teacher to the next, one long-term sub to the next.”
In addition, fewer teachers equal more students in each classroom.
Pearson said in kindergarten through third grade the average class size is about 20 students. In fourth grade through eighth grade, the average size is 30, but in high school teachers can have as many as 50 students.
“Having a high-quality teacher in every classroom is incredibly important,” she said.
Last year, the school district created a commission that came up with two areas of focus in hopes of addressing the teacher shortage: recruitment and retention.
In Southern Nevada, about 12 percent of teachers leave after just their first year of teaching. Nationwide, 44 percent of teachers leave in the first five years of teaching.
“If we don’t have a sense of belonging and commitment and autonomy within our schools and establishing that then we’re not really going to be able to find a way to keep these teachers,” Pearson said.
She said teachers go through a lot of turbulence when they first start in front of a classroom. This year has been especially tough because of the pandemic restrictions.
The commission on retention and recruitment wants to address that retention problem by getting a better understanding of why teachers leave. It recommended the school district conduct a more extensive exit survey before a teacher actually exits his or her position.
Another key part of retaining teachers is making sure their skills and teaching style connects with an individual school's culture, Pearson said.
“I think that one thing, as a district, that has not happened is really honing in and valuing the uniqueness of each school and recruiting and retaining teachers who should be going to those schools because that is in-line with their teaching beliefs,” she said.
For example, some teachers prefer to focus on textbook learning while others prefer an inquiry-style of learning. Pearson said if the district is not honoring those differences, it is missing the ball.
Another issue is making sure teachers understand and have the skills to match the unique challenges of student populations. There are schools in the district with more students who are low-income and in need of more support.
“It is really difficult to be in a school where you’re not meeting the needs of those students,” Pearson said.
She suggested that the district be more transparent about the needs of particular schools and then provide the support teachers require to be successful there.
Steven Flak is the person in charge of the other half of the teacher shortage equation - recruitment.
He comes from a professional recruitment background, not an education background. His department has implemented best practices that other industries have used for years to bring in new employees.
“We’re more aggressive in our recruitment," he said, "It’s more of a sales process now and we reach out to passive candidates and sell them on the opportunity here in Clark County School District and in Las Vegas.”
For instance, this year his team started contacting college students enrolled in education programs around the country.
“We start a conversation with them in their freshman year, kind of like – there’s light at the end of the tunnel, CCSD is here for you,” he said.
Flak and his team start by sending out emails telling students about CCSD, but by their senior year, they start a stronger push for a committment to coming to Southern Nevada.
Flak said his team has sent out about 30,000 this year. For local college students who are student teaching, his team has sent no less than three emails asking if they're interested in joining CCSD.
The recruitment office has also partnered with high schools and career technical schools around Southern Nevada to create a teacher training program for high school students.
"We have over 2,000 students right now in that program in the Clark County School District in the teaching and training program," he said. "Once individuals get into college, they typically pick their major before they go in. They have an idea of what they're going in. So, you really have to move it forward from enrollment in college."
Besides college and high school students, CCSD has a program that helps people who have bachelor's degrees in another field to get a teaching license without having to go back and get a degree in education.
Flak said people who sign up for the alternate licensing program in the fall could be in front of a classroom by the spring.
Alexandra Salgado is on her way to helping fill the teacher shortage. She is a student at Nevada State College. She started as a substitute teacher and is now on her way to becoming a licensed teacher.
"I wanted to work in a career that would have a positive impact on my community," she said, "I feel like teaching gives me that opportunity."
Salgado said she had many teachers who had a positive impact on her life, and she wanted to do the same thing for future generations.
She admits that teaching will be tough, but she feels it will be worth it.
"If you have that passion for it, the pros definitely outweigh the cons," she said.
One of the biggest cons of teaching, for many people, is the pay. Disputes over teacher pay have led to strikes across the country in recent years. Teachers threatened to strike in Southern Nevada in 2019, but an agreement with the district avoided it.
Flak admits that pay is an issue when it comes to recruiting teachers.
“When it comes to any industry, it's all about total compensation and pay and really the cost of living. Whether they can make a livable wage where they’re going to be living at,” he said.
Pearson said teachers and her union agree they should be paid more, but Southern Nevada is far from alone on the issue of pay.
"It is something that the nation is struggling with across the board," she said, "I think it has to do a lot with the attraction of students to the teaching profession, as well as retaining teachers within that profession."
Brenda Pearson, Director of Strategic Policy Initiatives, Clark County Education Association; Alexandra Salgado, student, Nevada State College; Steven Flak, Director of Recruitment, Clark County School District
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.