District facing teacher shortage

Posted: Friday, October 27, 2000

If you have been considering a career in teaching, now is the time to make your move.

A teacher shortage is building across the nation, and the Kenai Peninsula is not immune, warned Todd Syverson, the assistant superintendent in charge of personnel for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"I am concerned with the number of teachers we have nearing that 20-year mark, that we will see a lot of retirements over the next five years. With the teacher shortage, that concerns me," he said.

The district has seen the pool of teaching job applicants dry up during the past several years, reflecting the national trend and the decline of Alaska teacher salaries relative to increases elsewhere.

In February, Alaska Teacher Placement, an organization that helps match teachers and teaching jobs, issued a report documenting the changes.

"... The teacher shortage that all states are now facing is even more keenly felt in Alaska," wrote the placement service's director, MaryEllen LaBerge. "Attracting quality educators to a state facing low educators' salaries, high cost of living, expensive travel and arduous certification procedures is challenging."

Despite the Kenai Peninsula's reputation as a nice place to live with good schools, the problem is growing for the district here.

"We are used to having 20 to 30 applicants for a job," Syverson said. "We've had (as few as) three."

Some areas, such as elementary school teaching, still have plenty of job seekers. But certain specialties are reaching crisis shortage levels.

"The big teacher shortage we've been battling is in special education, administration and school psychologists," he said.

Two years ago, the district began recruiting out of state for such specialties.

"Normally, if there is a certified special ed person in the area, that person has a job," he said.

This fall it took the district six weeks into the school year to fill its last vacancy, for a specialist to work with emotionally handicapped students, he said.

Mathematics, science and technology teachers for high school are available but getting scarcer. The district has been able to hire good people for vacancies but may have trouble in the future, he said.

Such positions also tend to have higher turnover. The district may be losing those people to industry, he speculated.

"We have not done a study on that," Syverson said. "But it's a national trend, and it would probably hold true up here as well."

Meanwhile, changes and limited resources at the University of Alaska make it difficult for peninsula residents to step into the open jobs.

Sherril Miller, coordinator of the education programs at Kenai Peninsula College, explained that the courses for the high-demand teaching jobs are not offered here. KPC offers only the elementary education program, and that is in a state of flux (see related story, this page).

The program has 83 students. Ten are now student teaching, and about 50 should receive degrees and certification within the next two years, she said.

To earn special education endorsements, people must take distance delivery courses or go to Anchorage. To earn high school teaching credentials, they must attend classes in Anchorage.

Limitations at KPC are a problem, and pending changes could make the situation worse. Commuting to Anchorage is impossible for some students.

"I am disappointed that is the way they are leaning," said Patti Truesdell, who is working on a teaching degree after 27 years of office work in the health field.

"That would completely preclude people my age. There are lots of people like me. I don't think my husband would move to Anchorage so I can go to school."

But despite the hassles, talk about the teacher shortage makes her optimistic about getting an elementary school job with the district after graduating in 2002.

Last year, district Superinten-dent Donna Peterson went to the college to talk to students about prospects.

"She did mention the teacher shortage," Truesdell said. "I think it energized a lot of us that we are not wasting our time."

Another KPC student, Susan Rorrison, noted the irony of the fact that the college only produces the teachers the district least needs. Some of her classmates are considering the Bush, other states and overseas jobs in elementary education.

But she has her heart set on landing a district job and staying near her Kenai home after she finishes her degree at the end of this semester.

"I am just crossing my fingers," she said.

"This campus can't offer you anything else. That's a disappointment. But what they do offer is excellent."

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