Hillsborough County is a week away from unveiling a plan to ease a teacher shortage that this year has plagued many of the district’s high-needs schools.
The plan by school superintendent Jeff Eakins includes hiring teachers earlier in the year to better ensure full staffing by the time first day of school comes around in August. Eakins also will be suggesting stipends and other incentives for teachers at the district’s 50 Achievement Schools, the new label for schools that have shown low performance and are at risk of state intervention.
In addition, the district will look for ways to strengthen its relationship with new applicants so it does not lose as many in the hiring and vetting process, Eakins said in an interview Monday with the Tampa Bay Times.
“We want to start holding hands earlier and longer to be able to get them to ultimately land here and fill one of our teaching roles next year in Hillsborough County,” he said.
“We wish we had 196 more people right now,” Eakins said. “We don’t. And that’s why we’re going to change our processes.”
Eakins was short on details, saying he still must meet separately with the seven board members and get their feedback before putting a plan on paper. He also needs a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents nearly 20,000 employees.
Eakins said he believes that getting closer to full staffing will help with a number of issues the schools now face, including students’ low reading levels. Principals, he said, have told him that if they had a certified, qualified teacher in each classroom, they would not need as many of the specialists they now use to help with reading, writing, science, math and behavior.
Some schools have weathered the nation’s teaching shortage better than others. In Hillsborough, shortages are most severe at James and Kimbell elementary schools and Woodson and Sulphur Springs K-8 schools -- a situation that prompted Eakins to ask employees in top district administrative jobs to take stints in the classroom.
While some School Board members suggested that he order more administrators into the classrooms, Eakins said some might not be qualified, and that their work downtown cannot be left undone.
Eakins also said it is not realistic to fill all 196 vacancies. At least 50 are short-term situations, such as maternity leaves. In other cases, he said, small classes have been combined and it would make little sense to divide them, as children are attached to the teachers.
Eakins said he does not regret rolling out the Achievement Schools project, even though some of those schools are understaffed. “You can never predict when there’s going to be a drying up of the teacher well across the nation,” he said. “Whether they were called Achievement Schools or Title 1 schools, or whatever you called them, they would still be in the same scenario.”
Even with the vacancies, Eakins said, the district has been able to coordinate its approach to schools in impoverished communities. “We now have nailed down, these are the communities, these are the challenges,” he said.
He said he thinks a more effective recruitment system will solve some of the problems principals have brought to his attention, including classes with too many students. While adhering to the state’s class-size limits, Eakins takes advantage of legal loopholes -- adding two or three more students, for example, if another class is below the limit, and the school-wide average is acceptable.
“Class size is definitely something we want to hold sacred for them,” Eakins said, referring to the Achievement Schools. “At the same time, we also want to see what it looks like when we have a teacher in every class. With a very highly skilled teacher with 18 students in a class, what does that look like? In a best case scenario, it probably looks really good.”
Eakins would not say how much the district will spend on the teacher incentives. It will come from grant funds -- for example, the federal Title I money for lower-income schools, which brought in $66 million this school year -- and not from the main operating fund, he said.
To free up money, he said, the district will “re-prioritize” the way it spends those grants. Information about the cost and funding will be included in the plan he will present on Feb. 19.
As for the recruiting drive, Eakins said he is willing to be visible, much as he was visible in the public information campaign surrounding the sales tax referendum.
“We’re going to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “And our mouth is saying that classroom teacher vacancies are what we have to take care of.”