Principal Cecelia Jones-Bowlding was already under pressure by state officials to improve her Landover school's lagging academic performance when nearly half of her 25 teachers at Doswell E. Brooks Elementary resigned.

So she began shopping for replacements.

At Wal-Mart.

While browsing in the store one day this summer, she approached a group "who looked like teachers." They were, and she asked them to apply, which they did. She hired a couple of them to help fill the 11 openings.

That's the climate in Prince George's and across the region, where teachers are being snatched up as quickly as backpacks and notebooks at back-to-school sales. Jones-Bowlding is so desperate for teachers that she has hired three who are provisionally certified, which the county frowns upon but which she said was a necessity.

"The teachers who are certified know they are the hot commodity right now. They can pick and choose" where they want to work, Jones-Bowlding said.

As Prince George's and other area school districts struggle to fill positions, a national teacher shortage is exacerbating another problem. In the competition for the best and brightest teachers, the most troubled schools are losing.

In Prince George's, those with the highest number of poor, low-performing students -- schools such as Doswell E. Brooks -- routinely hire the newest, least-experienced teachers, according to a Washington Post analysis of school system data. While this phenomenon is less acute in more affluent counties such as Montgomery and Fairfax, which hire only a handful of uncertified teachers, District school officials say they see a similar trend.

It's happening despite school officials' efforts to target troubled schools with the most experienced teachers. But with the highest turnover occurring in schools struggling with poverty, low achievement and less parent and community support, filling classroom jobs often requires a harder sell.

"It's a major concern to me," said Prince George's Board of Education Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland), whose district has one of the highest percentages of provisional teachers. Thornton said provisional teachers "should be allocated equitably through the system. They are not. The [schools] that are the most challenged have a disproportionate share."

In recent years, the 84 Prince George's schools located in generally poorer, more urban areas inside the Capital Beltway -- including 30 of the county's 48 most struggling schools -- have a higher percentage of provisionally certified teachers than the county's other 80 schools. (Excluded from the statistics are the county's 21 schools for vocational and special education students and other alternative programs.)

Of 57 provisionally certified teachers that Prince George's hired this summer, 37 are going to schools inside the Beltway, school data show. Overall, 23 percent of the teachers at schools inside the Beltway are provisional, compared with 15 percent at other schools.

The same trend is occurring in the District, where a disproportionately high number of the system's 900 provisional teachers last year were concentrated in the lowest-performing schools, said Katrina Robertson Reed, the District school system's associate superintendent for human resources. She hopes to reduce the number of provisional teachers in poor schools by at least 50 percent; so far the system has had to rehire about 330 for the coming school year.

While educators disagree on whether higher salaries necessarily produce better teachers, it remains a fact of life for school systems like Prince George's that lower pay makes it harder to attract teacher candidates.

Educators say several factors work against efforts to bring the most experienced teachers to the students who need them most, including union opposition to pay incentives for teachers who take jobs in struggling or poor schools, high staff turnover in those schools and transfer policies that allow teachers to bid for new assignments as they gain experience.

Betty Covington, principal at Dumfries Elementary School in Prince William County, said the pressure on Virginia teachers to prepare students for high-stakes Standards of Learning exams will drive the elite teachers to more affluent, better-performing schools.

"I have heard teachers say, `Why would anyone want to teach at a Dumfries school, knowing the pressure and stress that is there?' " said Covington, whose school is in one of the county's poorest areas.

Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the pattern is repeated in urban school districts across the country with "devastating consequences for kids."

"New research says unequivocally that these kids can learn at high levels, and the most important factor is having good, experienced teachers," Haycock said. "We are definitely causing havoc with [the students'] future."

In Prince George's, which has been ordered to reduce its state-high percentage of provisionally certified teachers, the new superintendent, Iris T. Metts, has instructed her personnel department to hire only fully certified teachers.

The county has hired almost 1,000 teachers this summer and must find an additional 300 by the end of next month. Some provisional teachers they hired were fully certified in other school districts and simply must pass a test to receive Maryland certification. But others still need many hours of college course work in addition to passing the test.

School officials have taken, for the first time, extreme steps such as traveling to other states during the summer for special recruiting trips and holding two summer job fairs in the county. On a trip to King of Prussia, Pa., last month, two recruiters spent eight hours talking to about 40 perspective recruits and signing several to contracts. After the candidates sign contracts, they are brought to the county and given tours of different schools.

Eleanor White, the school system's acting personnel director, says Prince George's 48 "priority" schools -- those with low-performing students and a transient teacher population -- get first dibs on new teachers. But job candidates do not have to accept offers to teach at those schools and can visit other county schools.

Geoffrey Collins, principal at John Carroll Elementary in Landover, said he has had to hire two provisional teachers to help fill eight openings. He said he tries to sell teachers on his vision, which includes encouraging the Landover community to get involved with the school.

"Over the long term, if we intend to keep teachers in the system and within particular schools, then we have to provide an environment upon which teachers will thrive," he said.

Indeed, many teachers say schools in any community can be a place where teachers enjoy working, as long as the administration is stable and supportive.

Once principals fill the teaching jobs, their battle is only half over. Overall, staff turnover is highest in poorer, struggling schools. This year, 15 percent of teaching jobs in Prince George's schools inside the Beltway opened up, compared with 12.6 percent outside.

David Jakob started his Prince George's teaching career at a middle school inside the Beltway, but he has spent the past three years at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, one of the county's highest-performing high schools, located outside the Beltway. Jakob said he jumped at the chance to go to Roosevelt after he was offered a job there by an administrator he had worked with years before in another school.

"If you have a school that is looked on as a place where teachers enjoy the experience and the environment, it's not strange that [teachers] will apply there," he said.

Haycock says teachers who generally are paid low salaries "reward themselves" by requesting transfers to schools "where they think it's easier" to teach -- where the administration is stable, the student body is more affluent and the community is often supportive.

School districts across the country have considered such enticements as salary bonuses to get teachers to remain at troubled schools. Some have tried to require teachers to stay for several years before they become eligible to transfer.

Teachers union representatives generally have resisted such proposals, saying all teachers should be compensated equally and should "have the right to say yes and no" to where they work, said Celeste Williams, president of Prince George's teachers union. "It's a democratic process."

Michael Koss, principal at William Paca Elementary in Landover, who already has hired two provisional teachers to help fill 16 openings, said it would help if the system would require teachers to stay at a school for at least five years. In Prince George's, teachers are eligible to transfer to another school after two years.

"My belief is it takes two or three years to train them, and then the school should benefit another two years from their expertise," he said.

"You're always monitoring how you're doing compared with other principals," Koss said of his recruitment effort. "It should not be about that. It's about finding the right teacher."

Staff writers Victoria Benning, Christina A. Samuels and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

Teachers in Prince George's

The percentage of provisionally certified teachers at Prince George's schools inside the Beltway during the 1998-99 school year was significantly higher than at schools outside the Beltway:

Provisionally certified

Inside Beltway: 879

Outside Beltway: 658

Total teachers

Inside Beltway: 3,882

Outside Beltway: 4,370

Percent provisionally certified

Inside Beltway: 22.6%

Outside Beltway: 15.1%

The percentage of provisionally certified teachers assigned to schools inside the Beltway as of July 9 was also higher*:

New and provisionally certified

Inside Beltway: 37%

Outside Beltway: 19.5%

As of June 1, the percentage of vacant teacher positions at schools inside the Beltway is higher than the percentage of vacant positions outside:

Vacant positions

Inside Beltway: 15%

Outside Beltway: 12.6%

*Figures discount vocational and special education centers.

SOURCE: Prince George's County Public Schools