A REPUTATION FOR EXCELLENCE: Why the teacher shortage has yet to hit the St. Johns County School District

CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM Nease High School teacher Justin Cooler, right, guides sophomores Andrew Gajewski and Abbi Donaldson through a news video production project in his classroom on Friday, January 12, 2018. Cooler, a video production teacher at Nease, said he jumped at the chance to work in St. Johns County’s schools.

Being the No. 1 public school district in the state certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers.

 

But St. Johns County school administrators say they think what matters even more in selling the district to top-notch educators is culture.

Sure, the A-rated district has a stellar academic track record. But they say it’s other, non-data based factors — like the supportive camaraderie, great working conditions and in-house leadership opportunities — that really make the St. Johns County School District stand out to prospective applicants.

Justin Cooler, a video production teacher at Nease High School, said he jumped at the chance to work in the county’s schools.

“I know just how good the district is, what a strong community it is and how passionate the teachers are,” said Cooler, who graduated from Pedro Menendez High School. “It’s an amazing culture to be part of, where everyone is pretty excited to be doing what they’re doing.”

Across the country, it’s getting more difficult to find qualified teachers to lead classrooms. Part of the reason is fewer college students are going into the field. Nationally, teacher education enrollments dropped by 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

The teacher shortage has not impacted St. Johns County to any great extent. At least, not yet.

“We’ve been fortunate to be able to fill open vacancies fairly easily,” said Cathy Hutchins, associate superintendent for human resources.

But while positions in general areas like elementary education are flooded with candidates, many fresh from college, the district has a harder time hiring instructors for specialized subjects such as math, science, music and special education, according to Jewel Johnson, director for instructional personnel.

There are currently 34 vacancies for instructional positions in the district, which typically employs nearly 2,500 teachers.

The district does receive a lot of resumes from applicants and keeps them on file for any openings that may come up.

“Some teachers in neighboring districts, like Clay and Duval, will keep an eye on our website to see when they might be able to get in,” Johnson said.

Cooler, who used to work in film production, said when he heard of the position at Nease he didn’t hesitate to apply. With his industry experience and a teaching certification test under his belt, Cooler was fast-tracked to move into education, a field he’d been attracted to for awhile. Now with his own classroom two years later, he’s been nominated for the Rookie Teacher of the Year award by his peers.

While the school district previously looked to fill most vacancies in the spring and summer, as some teachers offered notice at the end of the school year, Johnson said she is now in recuitment mode almost 12 months a year.

“People are having to leave for different reasons, and we see that year-round these days,” said Johnson.

The reasons range from a spouse relocating to temporary maternity leaves becoming permenent, as well as general disenchantment with the field of education and regular turnover.

Hutchins said the high-growth trajectory the district has experienced has also created vacancies. It’s why four years ago the district created a recruiting commitee. The committee, made up of administrators, faculty and community members, serves as representatives at job fairs to drum up interest in the St. Johns schools.

Johnson said each spring the district visits colleges and universities across the area, such as University of Florida and Jacksonville University, to reach out to potential teaching candidates.

“It’s important for us to get our name out there, our brand, letting them know, for example, that we’re the largest employer in the county,” Johnson said.

Each spring, the district also holds its own fairs, setting up shop in a large room where principals sit at desks and conduct on-the-spot interviews to vet candidates. The events, which Johnson compares to a kind of “speed dating,” have proven very successful.

With an average starting salary of $38,000 (the state average is $47,000) compensation doesn’t provide as much leverage in attracting talent to the district as much as the caliber of its schools and programs.

Hutchins said the schools’ reputation can actually be a double-edged sword.

“Saying ‘No. 1 school district’ can be very intimidating, especially to newer teachers,” said Hutchins.

If prospective teachers have solid credentials and are a good match for the district’s needs, they are reminded that St. Johns prioritizes mentoring and professional development which should ease any concerns about measuring up to colleagues — and that, again, comes back to culture.

 

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