With less than three weeks until classes start, and just days before teacher orientation begins, Anne Arundel school officials still are scrambling to find enough classroom instructors to fill about 100 vacancies.
In the midst of the region's worst teacher shortage in years, Anne Arundel officials have redoubled their recruiting efforts. In the last three weeks alone, they managed to sign 80 new teachers, in addition to the 320 already hired this season.
Yet already, school officials have been forced to hire several teachers who lack full state certification, and they acknowledge that they may need to rely on substitutes to help start the school year when students return Aug. 30.
"We're doing it as quickly as we can while still maintaining quality," said Sharyn Doyle, supervisor of teacher personnel.
The crunch may get worse. The county government recently authorized funding to allow the school system hire 40 additional "resource teachers"--experienced instructors who, rather than teach a class themselves, help other teachers hone classroom techniques. Most of the resource staff will likely be hired from the current classroom staff, creating more vacancies there.
The shortage is rooted in demographic trends affecting school systems nationwide. A large segment of the nation's teachers are baby boomers now approaching their early or mid-fifties, many of whom have grown weary of classroom demands.
"They're taking advantage of retirement and going into second careers," Doyle explained. "Fifty or 53 is still young, but if they started teaching when they first came out of college, they could have 30 years [toward their pension] already."
Meanwhile, schools are expanding to accommodate ever-growing student populations. Combined with efforts to reduce class size, there is a need for more and more teachers.
Yet there aren't nearly enough new teachers to fill the void. Due to the low birth rates of the mid-1970s, there are relatively few students graduating from teacher colleges now. And a booming economy has lured many eligible candidates away from the classroom to the quest for high-tech riches.
Anne Arundel County, which last year had about 400 vacancies in its work force of 4,100 teachers, ended up with about 500 openings this year.
Next year, officials predict they will have to hire 600 new teachers--a trend they expect to continue until 2002.
County school officials say they anticipated the hiring crunch and were able to prepare. They attended twice as many job fairs as last year, traveling farther afield than ever before, to colleges in Georgia, New York and New England. They commissioned a short videotape advertising the charms of Anne Arundel County life--sailing on the Chesapeake, nightlife in Annapolis, nearby Orioles games--and handed out freebie pencils touting the "tradition and vision" of county public schools.
School administrators brought in three retired principals to help work the phones, making follow-up calls to job candidates. They coaxed hotels into offering reduced rates for candidates who come to interview. Real estate companies have pitched in to help the school system assist new teachers find housing.
Yet the competition with other districts remains fierce. Across the country, many school systems are offering signing bonuses or housing vouchers to worthy candidates. Anne Arundel has no such enticements.
About 25 veteran teachers from Anne Arundel have been lured away this year by better-paying school systems that are equally desperate to fill vacancies. Those districts are making it harder for Anne Arundel to pin down new recruits.
"We had many candidates, more than ever before, who verbally accepted a job, but if another system came along that was more competitive, they write back and say, 'No thank you,' " Doyle said. "And that hurts."
With about 20 percent more vacancies left than they typically have this late in the season, Anne Arundel officials have had to hire a few teachers who are only "provisionally" licensed, meaning they have not yet passed the state certifying exam or completed all of their course requirements.
Doyle said she did not know how many provisionally certified teachers had been hired but that they were all in the areas of science, math or special education, where the greatest shortages exist.
Though the situation is difficult, it is not dire, she said. One way or another, the vacancies will be filled, even though the schools likely will have to call in a number of substitutes to run the show for the first few days of school.
"Every class will be staffed," Doyle said. "There will be no class that is not covered."