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Clark County School District closes in on having a teacher for every classroom

Sedway Middle School always has teacher vacancies at the start of the school year, which forces Principal Zachary Robbins to hire substitutes.

The substitutes could remain in place for months or even the whole school year, which isn’t uncommon in the Clark County School District, the fifth-largest school system in the nation, which struggles to find enough teachers.

“People know what it’s like here, the challenge,” Robbins said Thursday of the North Las Vegas school where 89 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “Teachers choose to enlist.”

If he can’t find just three to five teachers qualified in math or English, that affects up to 600 students taking those classes. And Sedway is just one school in the academically struggling district, which has started each of the last six school years short on teachers.

Teacher vacancies have ranged from 330 to 531 in past years. And those openings aren’t all — or even mostly — filled throughout the school year, meaning long-term substitutes have to fill the gap.

School district officials began 2012-13 with 348 teacher vacancies and ended with 300 long-term substitutes still in place.

But Robbins plans to have a qualified teacher in every Sedway class when students return Aug. 26 for 2013-14. Same goes for most of the 368 schools across the district.

“We will have fewer vacancies than ever in recent history starting the school year,” said Staci Vesneske, chief human capital officer for the district, on Wednesday.

About 200 schools are fully staffed, and 100 others have just one or two openings remaining, said Vesneske, who is proud of her staff for giving principals a candidate pool large enough to allow for choice.

About 200 teacher positions still need to be filled, but Vesneske hopes to reduce that to below 100.

“I still have a lofty goal of zero vacancies,” she said.

So many teachers have been hired over the summer that the district isn’t holding its orientation at a school, as it has done in recent years. Instead, the event was moved to a ballroom at The Venetian, which offered the space at a discount. Four school sites would be needed if the orientation were held at the district, Vesneske said.

For this school year, the district needed to recruit an unusually large number of teachers — 2,000 — because of 1,300 departing teachers and the restoration of 700 cut positions. It went a new route to find them.

For years, the district annually spent $100,000 to $300,000 to send recruiters to colleges across the country and even around the world to find qualified teacher candidates. About 70 percent of applicants were hired on average, which is just about everyone who passes candidate screening.

The district wasn’t picking its teachers so much as teachers were picking the district. That’s a problem for principals who want the best teachers possible, said Andre Yates, director of human capital management and self-described “matchmaker” for principals in need of teachers.

“The larger the applicant pool, the better,” he said.

For that reason, Vesneske and staff set the goal this spring of finding 6,000 applicants for next school year, allowing the district to pick one out of three teachers to hire.

They didn’t make it, but set a calendar year record of 3,636 teacher applications with five months to go.

“This gives us a lot more selectivity,” she said.

And they have been finding teachers at a lower cost through online job postings and print ads in cities like Chicago, where teachers have been laid off.

District travel costs for this year’s recruitment push averaged $4.57 per applicant versus $120 in 2006-07.

While taxpayers aren’t likely to complain about the district spending less, the greatest benefit is to students who will have qualified teachers in front of them instead of substitutes.

“Now, I can focus on instruction instead of finding people,” Robbins said.

But it seems like the work is never done. Robbins just discovered that one of his teachers can’t return because of a personal issue. He must find a last-minute hire as Vesneske’s staff tries to match teachers to the last 233 district openings.

“Twenty more days,” said Recruiting Director Brenda Nielsen, counting down to the first day of school.

“Twenty more days,” Vesneske added. “But who’s counting?”

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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