But despite the bustling scene and long lines, the number of prospective and returning teachers — 660 registrants in total — is still way down from past years. Like much of California, Santa Clara County schools are facing an ongoing struggle to fill vacancies, grappling with an annual churn of teachers that frequently leads to last-minute hiring sprees before school starts in August. Competition is particularly fierce for math, science and special education teachers.
The annual Teacher Resource Fair is the largest job fair for teachers in the county, and a big chance to get a jump on hiring before the summer break, said Anisha Munshi, the director of human resources for the county office of education. Teachers typically come in with a short list of school districts and charter schools that interest them, she said, and can elect to do one-on-one interviews — carried out in small rooms all over the office of education's headquarters — with potential employers and sign contracts on the spot.
Munshi said five years ago the county had close to 800 or 900 teachers looking for work at the job fair, but the numbers declined in recent years and have remained stubbornly low. The press release priming for the event took a gloomy tone, noting that the county is facing a teacher shortage, particularly for math, science, English language learning and special education teachers, despite the county's overall dip in student enrollment and teacher layoffs in some districts.
"Many teachers are nearing retirement age, yet we do not see as many new teachers entering the workforce," said Chief Public Affairs Officer Peter Daniels in a statement. "It is a constant struggle to deal with the rate of attrition, so there is always a need."
The latest data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that enrollment in teacher preparation programs in California rose slightly in the 2014-15 school year to 20,872, up from 18,788 last year, but that hardly represents a rebound. During the 2001-02 school year, enrollment in the preparation programs exceeded 75,000.
Perhaps the highest demand is for teachers with special education credentials, whose distinctive green name tags may as well have been VIP passes. Munshi said the hiring needs differ from one region of the county to another, but every single district is searching hard to fill special education jobs. She said the perks districts are laying out to entice special education teachers are huge, and that she saw one district offering a $9,000 signing bonus at the fair to sweeten the deal.
"For special education teachers, this is your event," she said.
The Mountain View Whisman School District, which has been recruiting between 40 and 50 teachers each year due to both attrition and increased enrollment, is in a relatively good position this year, said Carmen Ghysels, the district's chief human relations officer. So far, the district has filled five of the 25 open positions for the upcoming school year, and the hope is that all of the district's 50 probationary teachers will elect to stick around for at least another year. It's the late resignations that tend to throw HR planning into disarray, Ghysels said, leading to last-minute hires, vacancies and substitute teachers when schools open in August.
"It's the dreaded June 1 resignations, and we're hoping that doesn't happen too often," she said.
Los Altos School District officials are in the same boat, and say it's too early to know how many vacancies will open up in the next three months. Marlene Revelo, a human resource specialist for the district, said the early start and the job fair on Saturday are critical for getting an early jump on hiring for the upcoming school year and finding solid candidates in the area.
"There was really good turnout at the job fair, and we're really impressed with the quality of the candidates we spoke with," she said. "We're super optimistic that we're going to have some really stellar teachers on board."
Data on whether there is a statewide teacher shortage across all subjects is sparse, but a survey released last month by the Learning Policy Institute found that 80 percent of school districts struggled to find qualified teachers for the 2017-18 school year. Among those districts, 35 percent said the shortage had gotten worse, while 55 percent reported no change. The analysis was fairly limited — only 25 school districts participated — but included a wide range of districts from rural, urban and suburban regions of the state.
Studies have, however, consistently found an ongoing shortage of teachers for special education, math and, more recently, science. The state adopted a new framework of science standards rooted in hands-on projects, engineering, new technology and "practical applications" of science in 2013, but the rollout of the Next Generation Science Standards has been fraught with challenges including too few science teachers to teach it.
A study released earlier this month by the Public Policy Institute of California found that about a quarter of the 204 surveyed school districts didn't have enough credentialed teachers to teach the new standards regardless of location, and the total number of math and science teachers — while it has steadily increased — simply hasn't kept up with math and English language arts. As a result, average class sizes for science tend to be "much larger" than other subjects, according to the report.
Revelo said that this year she didn't see a lot of special education teachers who are credentialed to teach students with mild to moderate disabilities, as compared to prior years at the job fair, and that school psychologists seemed to have a much smaller presence.
Although school districts surveyed by the Learning Policy Institute recommended that loan forgiveness and scholarship programs, teacher residency programs and better support for novice teachers would be good strategies to reduce the shortage of teachers, those are hardly a top priority for teachers here in Santa Clara County. Munshi said teachers who attend the job fair are focused squarely on salaries, rather than short commutes or other perks. Booths at the Saturday event frequently posted salary schedules next to piles of marketing materials showing how much new recruits would make each year.
After a series of hefty pay increases starting in 2014, the Mountain View Whisman School District is now on the upper end of the pay scale in the county, with salaries ranging from $60,933 to $109,243 for the 2017-18 school year. No surprise, then, that the district's booth was among the most popular, with a line winding around the room and a 45-minute wait for interested teachers to get an interview.
"For a first-year teacher, they will go where they need to go, and that's where the school districts are willing to pay the most," Munshi said.
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