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School Year Begins, But Districts Are Short On Teachers

Newly hired teachers and staff listen during an orientation meeting for Wake County Public Schools.
Jess Clark

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolina public school students return to the classroom Monday. But many districts are still scrambling to find teachers for them.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district is among many districts seeing an increase in the number of open teaching positions. District spokeswoman Alex Hoskins says many of its 68 vacancies will be filled by substitute teachers.

"Some of the substitutes who will be in the classroom are fully licensed, and some will not be. And we hope to have fully licensed teachers in most of those positions as soon as possible," Hoskins said.

The district is also reaching out to recently retired teachers and teacher assistants to fill in where they haven't yet found qualified applicants. Hoskins says some teacher assistants have agreed to teach classes permanently. The state calls this kind of job transition "lateral entry."

"A lateral-entry teacher has education in the content area, but hasn't necessarily had very much education in terms of pedagogy or classroom strategies," Hoskins explained. But, Hoskins added, lateral-entry teachers commit to taking the coursework necessary for full licensure within three years.

While Hoskins says the district's efforts to fill vacancies are working, she worries about what the shortage means for the state of education in North Carolina. Of particular concern to Hoskins is the fact that most of the vacancies are for elementary school positions, which are usually the easiest to fill.

"I think that the elementary numbers are an indication of unrest in education in general," Hoskins said. "I think that folks are tentative to go into education, with the reputation of low pay and high expectations."

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school district has nearly 100 vacancies going into the school year, up 20 vacancies from last year. Brian Hacker, a spokesman for the district, says no recommendations have yet been made to fill those 98 vacancies. 

Newly hired teachers and staff attend an orientation for Wake County Public Schools. Wake County teachers make more than most teachers in North Carolina.
Credit Jess Clark
Wake County is going ahead with hiring 2,200 teacher assistants for the school year, despite ongoing budget negotiations at the General Assembly.

Not all districts are worried about the vacancies they're seeing. Wake County Schools has, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, around 100 vacancies heading into the school year. But Michael Yarbrough, senior administrator of communications for the district, says he wouldn't call it a "teacher shortage."

"At any given time we've got 99 percent of our positions filled," Yarbrough noted. "So at any given time during the year, out of the 10,000 teachers, we're going to have maybe around this number---maybe a few dozen fewer---that are going to be open because of people moving in and out of the area."

Raushawna Price, Wake County Public School System's director of recruitment and retention, says WCPSS is in better shape than other more rural districts because of what the district and the area have to offer its teachers. Wake County has one of the highest local supplements to teacher salaries in the state, at 14 percent of the base salary.

Those factors were certainly a draw for Vasti Rodriguez. She's a brand-new teacher out of East Carolina University. On Monday, she'll start teaching special education at Fuquay-Varina Middle School.  Rodriguez said she sought out employment specifically in Wake County, where she says she saw more diversity and opportunities than in her hometown of Greenville. Greenville is in the Pitt County School District, where the teacher supplement is just 2 percent.  

As a new teacher for Wake County Schools, Vasti Rodriguez earns one of the highest local salary supplements in the state.
Credit Jess Clark
Vasti Rodriguez begins her career as a special education teacher for Wake County on Monday.

"Aside from [Wake County] being one of the largest districts, I have heard also about the technology and how advanced the special education department is here in Wake County. Also the funding and the preparations they have for the teachers [were a draw]."

While teacher vacancies aren't a concern for Wake County, Doug Thilman, the district's assisant superintendent for human resources, says the district is concerned about the decrease in the number of students entering the state's schools of education.

"The state has moved in the direction of bumping those beginning teacher salaries, but there's that concern that folks are not entering the profession at the college level," Thilman said. "And so we're not seeing the numbers going to the education programs across the state."

Like the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district, Wake County will fill many of its vacancies with substitutes to start off the year.

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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