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Tackling a regional problem, Pinellas moves to address shortage of good new teachers

Pinellas superin-tendent Michael  Grego plans 
to work with SPC.

Pinellas superin-tendent Michael Grego plans to work with SPC.

LARGO — Pinellas school superintendent Michael Grego is pressing local colleges and universities to revamp their education degrees, citing a shortage of quality teachers.

Grego told School Board members Tuesday he plans to work with St. Petersburg College and possibly the University of South Florida to make sure teachers are thoroughly versed in the content they plan on teaching.

"Many teachers are not feeling comfortable with the content knowledge that's up here, and continues to be raised," Grego said, holding up his hand. "Many of them say, 'I've taken one class in mathematics. It was a methods class.' "

Pinellas is not the only district facing this double-edged problem — the impending retirement of thousands of veteran teachers combined with a lack of skill by many, but not all, new teachers coming out of college. Together those forces have intensified the competition for good, young teachers.

About the same time Grego was outlining the problem for his board, Hillsborough school administrators were telling their School Board Tuesday about plans to better compete. They planned to move up their hiring schedule with an eye on being "first in line or close to it" for the best teachers, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.

"We realized we can't be two, three weeks later."

Hegarty said all school districts will see a wave of teachers retire soon because of changes made in recent years to the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP. Many teachers and other state workers enrolled in DROP earlier than usual, before the program's benefits weakened effective July 1, 2011.

The issue also has the attention of Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning, who said Tuesday that colleges of education need to prepare their students "to have a more realistic approach and understanding of what classroom life is all about, including teaching the new standards."

Saying he was "going to take ownership of this," Grego said he was speaking with deans at area schools and looking into potential changes at the state level to tweak degree requirements.

Kim Hartman, dean of the education college at SPC, said she had spoken with Grego and was scheduled to meet with him today to "iron out some details."

"We are in the very beginning stages of looking at the redesign of teacher education, especially elementary teachers," Hartman said. She said she is hoping to have this in place by the fall, as well as a revised curriculum for current education students.

Bill Heller, the education college dean at USF St. Petersburg, said through a spokesman he also is open to talking about the education program with Grego.

Typically, education students declare their major after two years in college. They must have a 2.5 grade-point average, take three prerequisite courses and pass a General Knowledge Test.

Grego said he would like to see more four-year education programs with a focus on content areas teachers plan to teach.

"If we develop this program right, I will say as superintendent I guarantee employment of these individuals," Grego said.

In what could be a recruiting edge for Pinellas, the district recently raised its minimum salary for starting teachers to $40,000, the only school system in the Tampa Bay region to do so.

To determine how many teachers are near retirement, Mary Beth Corace, director of strategic planning and policy for the Pinellas school system, looks at those who have worked 20 years or more. Some schools have as much as 48 percent of their teaching staffs at that level of seniority, she said. Districtwide, 28 percent of teachers have taught for two decades or more.

Meanwhile, the district is having trouble finding quality teachers to hire. In a memo describing the issue, Corace said some researchers blame low entrance requirements for education majors and "cluttering the curriculum with less rigorous coursework." Others blame legislators who have set up so many requirements that teachers don't have time to master their subject areas.

The memo cites a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, which called teacher preparation programs "an industry of mediocrity."

Corace said some colleges hire professors who subscribe to a specific education ideology, and offer "boutique" classes rather than the fundamentals teachers need to know.

Todd Cluff, a top administrator for Pasco County schools, said he has seen mixed results from schools of education.

"I've seen some fantastic first-year teachers from USF and St. Leo and St. Pete College," Cluff said.

At the same time, many teachers have a different view of the job than what it has become. There is much more collaboration and less lecturing, he said. "If the universities aren't helping equip the teachers with that, it's a challenge."

Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said Tuesday's School Board workshop was the first she heard of Grego's plans.

"It does sound vaguely familiar to things superintendents have tried in the past," Black said. She said the idea "warrants further discussion," including who would provide input and what the cost would be for the district.

As for the shortage of quality teachers, Black said, "Looking at what the state has done to the education system in Florida, I think a lot of young people are rethinking going into education."

Hillsborough officials have made an effort to keep their new teachers, who, as in every district, are at high risk for leaving the profession in the first five years.

The district has used a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to pay for full-time mentors to partner with new teachers, and the result has been a dramatic increase in retention rates. Since 2009, retention among first-year teachers has risen from 72 to 94 percent.

Times staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Lisa Gartner can be reached at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

Tackling a regional problem, Pinellas moves to address shortage of good new teachers 01/21/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 10:50pm]
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