In Vegas, recruiting teachers is a ruthless art

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A secretary races into George Ann Rice's office, apologizes for the interruption, and then blurts out: "My husband's nephew heard that at least 80 teachers are losing their jobs in Iowa because of the budget cuts."

Dr. Rice, the chief recruiter for Las Vegas schools, has just finished saying that she doesn't like to capitalize on the misfortune of others when trying to staff the nation's fastest-growing school system. Her eyes light up, she asks if this information has been passed on to the recruiter in charge of advertising, and then realizes the irony of the moment. "That's not vicious," she insists. "They're losing their jobs anyway."

OK, maybe it's not vicious. Opportunistic might be a better word. But when you're responsible for hiring as many as 1,900 teachers a year at a time when the nation is facing a shortage of instructors, opportunism can be a virtue.

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Rice's challenge is staggering. The district projects 400,000 pupils by 2009 – up from some 172,000 in 1995 – and plans to open dozens of new schools. By necessity, then, recruiters in Clark County, Nev., have become known as perhaps the most aggressive in the nation. They're going after retirees, stay-at-home moms, cops, social workers – anyone and everyone from Majorca to the military.

As an Arizona legislator once told Rice: "We say in Arizona, 'You hear that sucking sound? That's our water and our teachers going to Nevada.' "

Some parents and national teaching advocates worry that the desperate need for instructors results in unleashing less-qualified people on students. But Rice insists she passes over hundreds of applicants who don't meet her standards. "It's much easier to not hire them than to realize you've made a mistake and try to fire them later," she says.

The Las Vegas area has been the nation's fastest-growing region for more than a decade. It now boasts 1.5 million people, luring new residents with plentiful jobs, cheap housing, and no state income tax.

The region has been fortunate to have a voting public willing to approve more than $4 billion in bonds for school construction since the early 1990s. As a result, 16 new schools opened last fall, nine will open this year, and 17 more are planned for 2003. More than 60 are planned through 2010.

But the local universities crank out only 600 teachers a year, forcing Rice and her team to raid other regions where economies are tight, school buildings are old and decrepit, job promotions are slow, or the city's just not as much fun.

Anybody and everybody can be a job candidate. A stay-at-home mom whose children are school-age is liable to get a call informing her of a teacher-certification program that includes classes during the hours her kids are in school. A military service member near retirement might notice ads in armed-services publications. An accountant looking for a career change can be in the classroom within months, and have most of his expedited training paid for by the district.

Even vacationers at McCarran International Airport are beckoned with billboards like this one: "More career opportunities. More new schools. More all-you-can-eat buffets. Is this a great place to teach or what?"

These varied and far-reaching efforts have earned Clark County a national reputation, says Mildred Hudson of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a nonprofit think tank in Belmont, Mass. "If you look across the nation, you can see that St. Louis also recruits teachers from overseas and Savannah also has grow-your-own programs," she says. "But Clark County is cutting edge because it's trying to solve this problem ... with an unusually wide range of strategies."

Indeed, Clark County's prowess is legendary, says Stephanie Zuckerman-Aviles, career-development center director at Buffalo State College in New York. One example: After visits to regions like hers, recruiters play up the weather issue by e-mailing candidates to say it was hot and sunny when they returned to Nevada.

"Other recruiters used to sit there very passively at job fairs while people passed by their tables, but the Clark County group would arrive en masse, advertise before they came, make some noise," says Ms. Zuckerman-Aviles."

Job fairs remain an integral part of the push, but they're fast becoming old-fashioned in an era when 95 percent of the district's applications are accepted via the Internet. Rice believes Clark County is the first district in the nation to have a full-time "director of e-recruiting," Greg Halloposs, who has devised a computerized system for tracking prospective teaching candidates by color-coding.

"Green is the color of people who have asked for but never even opened the application," Rice says. "I can send an e-mail and say: 'You haven't opened your application yet! We're eager to help you!' "

If it sounds a bit like stalking, it is nonetheless necessary. To not keep after candidates is to risk losing out to other newly aggressive school districts in the West, including those in Arizona, southern California, and Colorado.

That might explain how Shannon Lahiff of Cleveland raced through the process. The recent graduate spent three months being rejected or ignored by dozens of Ohio school districts with few openings before phoning Clark County on May 10. By that afternoon, Ms. Lahiff had faxed her transcript and had a date on May 15 for a phone interview. Hours after that interview, she had a job offer. "I was very impressed," she says.

Clark County does have one significant competitive disadvantage: salaries. At $26,847 for a teacher fresh out of school, it is below the national average of $27,989 for the 1999-2000 year, the most recent data available. San Diego Unified School District, a major competitor, offers $33,903. To sweeten the deal, however, the Nevada Legislature provided for a one-time $2,000 signing bonus for out-of-state teachers. Rice's crew also reminds candidates that Nevada has a low cost of living.

Still, even with the myriad of programs, the district is likely to start the school year at least 100 teachers short in high-need areas such as special education and math.

That means Rice and her staff can never slow down. On a recent flight from New York to Las Vegas, Rice and another associate superintendent found themselves sitting on either side of a young couple. Recalls Rice: "Halfway through the flight, the other associate superintendent leans over to me and whispers, 'She's a social worker! I've got her!' And I whispered back, 'That's good, because he's a police officer, and I got him.' "

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