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Fewer grads seeking to teach

July 10, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

In the last three years the number of teachers seeking employment in the Washington County school system dropped 39 percent, mirroring a statewide trend educators say is related to a drop in the number of people choosing teaching careers.

The School Board received 1,866 applications from teachers from October 1995 to October 1996, according to Supervisor of Human Resources and Teacher Personnel Donna Newcomer-Coble.

By October 1997, the number had dropped to 1,461. Last October it was 1,134.

"We don't see the numbers going into the teacher profession," said Newcomer-Coble.

Fewer graduates are going into teaching because it is a complex, stressful job that doesn't have a high enough salary, she said.

"You're impacting (children's) lives every day, It's an awesome responsibility," she said. "We're still not compensating enough for that."

According to State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland is feeling the first wave of a critical teacher shortage that will get worse in the future. Older teachers are retiring, more students are enrolling and fewer college graduates are teaching, she said.

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Grasmick issued a report in April stating the state traditionally hires 5,500 new teachers each year. By 2003, it will have to hire 9,000, partly because secondary enrollments are expected to increase by 33,000 by 2006.

The report says 52 percent of the state's 48,963 teachers , or about 25,000, will be eligible to retire by 2003.

"We anticipate retirements are going to triple statewide," said Ron Peiffer, spokesman for the State Board of Education.

About 2,500 students graduate from Maryland's teacher preparation programs and universities each year, Grasmick's report said. Of those graduates, 1,700 go on to teach in the state.

"We have not been able to attract young people to the profession," said Peiffer.

In a strong economy, higher pay in the private sector lures would-be teachers. It also attracts administrators, causing a "talent drain" and upper-level staff shortages, he said.

While the numbers are dwindling, Maryland is raising teaching standards. The State School Board changed its requirements for certification July 1. Candidates must now achieve high scores on new Praxis exams, which replace the National Teacher Exam.

"We've upped the ante, so to speak," said Peiffer. "That's going to weed out some people who may potentially be coming to the classroom."

There are now 1,282 teachers in Washington County, according to Newcomer-Coble. The School Board expects to hire 120 more this year. But the problem isn't just getting enough applicants - it's getting qualified applicants in the right fields.

"The supply and demand issue is the real issue we look at," Newcomer-Coble said.

For example, the School Board has two openings for agriculture teachers. By the end of June it had two applications for those jobs. "We've got minimal numbers in those areas," Newcomer-Coble said.

The number of Washington County teachers retiring has increased in the last three years. In fiscal 1996, 28 teachers retired. The number dropped to 19 in fiscal 1997 and jumped to 26 in fiscal 1998.

An average of 26 teachers has retired each year in the last six years.

This year 31 retired and more are bound to leave the system in the near future. About 262 (20 percent) of the county's teachers have more than 25 years experience, which means all of them are eligible for full retirement within 5 years.

According to the School Board, 66 can retire right now and 62 will be eligible next year. "We have a senior staff in the teaching field here now," said Newcomer-Coble.

But student populations are not swelling as fast in Washington County as other parts of the state, which may ease the teacher shortage locally.

Between September 1993 and September 1998, enrollment between kindergarten and 12th grade increased less than 5 percent, from 18,751 to 19,623. An additional 259 are projected for the fall.

The shortage in teachers is making the market more competitive. Some districts, like Montgomery County, offer sign-on bonuses. Some applicants are asking whether school boards will pay for their moving expenses.

"That's something we always kind of laughed about in the past," Newcomer-Coble said. But now it's important to have an edge. She said the quality of life in Washington County makes it attractive, but salary is the best incentive.

Last year, the starting salary for teachers in Washington County was $27,000, making it the 20th lowest in 24 jurisdictions. A raise given this year may move the county up in the ranks, depending on pay hikes in other districts.

Locally, the severity of the shortage remains to be seen. Said Newcomer-Coble, "How bad is it going to get? I don't know."

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