As the Doors Swing Open, Schools Scramble for Teachers

Last-minute hiring limits choices and hampers teacher preparation

Suzanne Adams has a week to prepare for her first year as an eighth-grade science teacher at Portland's Mt. Tabor Middle School. In that time, she must transform a cluttered old shop room into an enticing classroom, hunt up materials for science projects, and write lesson plans for at least 120 students.

"It's definitely not enough time," she says.

Ms. Adams was hired just a few weeks before classes began, the result of 11th-hour school budgeting. She is just one of thousands of teachers across the nation hurled into the classroom as the first school bell is about to ring.

Increased enrollment, last-minute wrangling over school budgets, and a growing shortage of teachers have left many of the nation's school districts scrambling to fill teaching positions. Most students will have a full-time teacher standing in front of them on opening day. But some educators are concerned that the last-minute dash to fill positions carries high costs, both in terms of quality and the ability to attract strong candidates to the profession.

"I used to tell principals when I was a superintendent that the most important decision they made was the hiring decision," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, who recalls that his former wife once learned at 2 a.m. at a school board meeting that she would be hired to teach school six hours later. "The more you hustle around at the last minute, the more likely you are to make a mistake."

The problem of last-minute hiring has no end in sight, Mr. Houston says. For one thing, there are barely enough teachers to fill the open positions. "Your ability to be selective is not what it once was," Houston says.

And enrollment is going through the schoolhouse roof. Federal officials predict that public and private school enrollment will hit a high of 52.2 million students this fall, about 800,000 greater than last year.

Education Secretary Richard Riley has estimated that in the next decade, the nation will have to build 6,000 additional schools and hire 2 million more teachers. Enrollment is expected to peak at 54.3 million in 2007, according to a recent Department of Education report.

Budget decisions contribute to the squeeze. In Portland, Ore., school district officials didn't learn their annual budget figure until mid-July, more than three months behind schedule. "It has been a real crunch," says Marsha Richard, a personnel administrator for the district.

"If you had lots of time, and you had 100 applicants, you'd probably choose someone different than when you have a week and five applicants."

The 58,000-student district hires about 200 teachers annually. But despite pressure to fill positions, the school district has maintained a rigorous interview process.

Potential teachers are first screened through the personnel department. When a vacancy becomes available, the best five to 10 candidates are referred to the school's principal, who reviews the candidates' files and schedules interviews.

Applicants are screened by a committee. They must undergo extensive background checks, including fingerprinting, to verify that they have no criminal record.

"We would rather start the year with a substitute and continue looking, than offer a job to someone just because they have a license," says Ms. Richard. "We realize we could have these people for the next 30 years. And we want them to be the best for the students."

Adams, the new eighth-grade teacher at Mt.Tabor Middle School, was beginning to think she wouldn't be hired this year.

"I didn't get any calls all summer long, and I was starting to think that maybe it was going to be impossible," she says. "And then, at the last minute, I started getting calls from all over the place."

Adams is one of a growing number of new teachers who worked in other fields before deciding to become an educator. She worked as a nurse at a logging camp, then took time off to raise her two children before going back to school, where she added a secondary education certificate to the bachelor of science degree she already held in biology.

Math and science teachers are currently in particularly high demand. It is estimated that about 1 in 4 of the nation's math teachers is not certified to be teaching the subject.

"What we're concerned about is that this last-minute hiring doesn't lead to hiring people who are unqualified or not prepared to teach what they are hired to teach," says Donna Fowler, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington.

California school administrators have had to deal with a tremendous hiring crunch after the state legislature mandated a reduction in class size last year. Parental concern rose as the state hired an unprecedented number of "emergency waivered" teachers who met the minimum acceptable requirements for reading, writing, and math skills.

This year, Baltimore district officials made a similar decision to try to reduce class size for Grades 1 through 3. To meet the challenge, the city school system - buoyed by a boost in state funding - began to fill some 300 positions at a two-day job fair just 12 days before school begins on Sept. 3. In one day, applicants were interviewed - in some cases fingerprinted and given drug tests - and were hired on the spot, pending the outcome of background checks.

Two out of 3 positions were filled, says Ken Kuyawa, director of employment and placement for Baltimore City Public Schools. He agrees it was not an ideal situation. "You're not going to get as qualified people as if you would have started in May or June," he says.

But, he insists, "We're still looking for quality, we're not just looking for numbers."

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