Teacher-short county tries corporate recruiting tactics

TWO-AND-A-HALF years ago, this Washington, D.C., suburban area realized that good teachers were becoming increasingly difficult to recruit. Today, thanks to a unique partnership between the school system and the business community, that scarcity has been turned into abundance. How? They rolled out the red carpet.

The situation facing superintendent of schools John A. Murphy in 1985 was this:

There was a nationwide teacher shortage due in part to a 30 percent decline over the last decade in the number of college students majoring in education.

Prince Georges County had the lowest starting pay in the Washington area and an image problem stemming from a desegregation order 14 years ago. Teachers weren't flocking to the Prince Georges schools.

The numbers of applicants had dwindled from 4,000 in 1980 to 1,500 in 1985. With 400 jobs to fill, there wasn't much leeway for choosing the ``best and the brightest.''

Dr. Murphy approached members of the advisory council for business and industry, a nonprofit foundation informally linked to the school system, for their ideas on attracting more teachers. One idea was to recruit potential teachers the way corporations recruit executives: aggressively.

James O. Harmon, member of the board of directors for the advisory council, was tapped to apply some of the techniques he uses in recruiting engineers for Litton Industries-AMECOM. With recruiters from the school district, he attended job fairs held by several colleges. Prospective teachers were wooed with a well-stocked hospitality suite, videos of the school system and towns in the county, and discussions with members of the business community.

To distinguish it from the others, the Prince Georges booth was festooned with a bouquet of balloons. Giveaways included canvas totebags (to carry all the literature) and polished apples (``Have your first apple on Prince Georges public schools'').

``To sum it all up, we just paid attention to them,'' says Mr. Harmon. ``We decided to put some money into this and treat it as a first-class operation. I would talk to some of [them] and I'd say, `You're coming to Prince Georges County, aren't you?' and they would say to me, `No one ever asked us in the past, I'd have to pray that they would ask me to come.'''

The cost for all this was $7,500. ``That's nothing,'' says Harmon, ``for what we got.''

In addition, the advisory board got business leaders to provide tangible incentives for teachers. They responded with offers of free rent, a waiver of security deposits, free checking and credit cards, free legal service, discounts for restaurants, moving companies, and relocation and consulting help from a major realtor.

It worked. ``I took advantage of the banking, rent, and food discounts,'' says Tim Kearns, who left construction work in Boston to come to Suitland High School here to teach 9th and 10th grades. ``I've had to have saved in the area of close to 1,200 to 1,500 dollars my first year coming down here. That enabled me to make that move. Without it, it would have been much more difficult to go out of state.''

Marjorie Loyacano, 10th-grade English teacher at Suitland High, says, ``I haven't taken advantage of the discounts that much, but it mattered to me that they were even offering them. If the community cares, that's got to make some kind of difference. And it has. We have really good parents, and I think that's connected in some way.''

The Board of Education did their part by raising salaries for beginning teachers, from $15,800 to $19,000 in 1986, and to $21,000 this fall, making the district competitive with some of its more affluent neighbors, says Raymond G. LaPlaca, president of the advisory council. And the district also started a summer jobs program for both veteran and first-year teachers.

National media coverage of this campaign netted Prince Georges County 7,500 inquiries - some from as far away as the Philippines, Pakistan, Germany, and the Caribbean. That yielded 4,500 applications for 400 jobs, and enabled them to choose, as they wanted, the ``best and the brightest.'' Recently, recruiters went to black colleges in the South to attract more minority teachers. The school system, 16th largest in the nation, is 60 percent black; but only 28 percent of the 6,000 teachers are black.

Part of the upswing for Prince Georges can be traced to a decision made three years ago by the advisory council to try to change public perception of the educational system. They raised $200,000 to produce an award-winning TV commercial about three outstanding students.

Mr. LaPlaca says the reason the campaign has been so successful is that businesses realized they couldn't attract employees or a quality workforce without a strong school system.

``If economic development is essential for business, and quality education is essential for economic development,'' he says, ``then we have to have a vested interest in buying into the education system.''

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