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How Local Universities Are Working To Retain More Teachers Amidst A Statewide Shortage

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pennsylvania needs more teachers and principals. This past semester, eight state universities created programs to recruit and retain more educators. 

Since 2009, the number of newly-issued in-state instructional teaching certificates has dropped by 71 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The department also reports that since 1996, the number of undergraduate education majors in Pennsylvania has declined 55 percent.

Leaders at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh, say they recognize those trends. Sue Rieg, the Dean’s Associate for Educator Preparation at IUP, said for decades the supply of teachers certified in the state outpaced demand.

Rieg thinks that meant more recently fewer students have pursued teaching.

As the teacher pipeline shrank, it was her job to think of ways to entice more students to pursue teaching certificates. That can be especially challenging when trying to fill positions in hard-to-staff disciplines like science or math, where students with those specialties could make more money in another field.

“It’s hard to see that when you’re looking at somebody who has a starting salary of $35,000-- $40,000 as opposed to someone who has a starting salary of $75,000—$80,000 in some of these fields,” Rieg said.

Rieg wrote a grant proposal for state funding that was awarded this summer to help her and her colleagues come up with new recruitment ideas.

IUP and Robert Morris University were two of eight universities awarded a total of $2 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to develop and carry-out year-long teacher residency programs.

At the time, Gov. Tom Wolf said he hoped the grants would benefit the Commonwealth as it faces a steep decline in the number of qualified teaching candidates and teachers who serve high-needs areas.

The state defines high-needs schools as buildings with high rates of minority students, high rates of students in poverty, teacher shortages in special education, STEM subjects or other state-identified shortage areas.

IUP has used a portion of the $578,000 it received to pay for living expenses for 10 students in residencies in the Pittsburgh school district, where many schools are considered high needs.

Four of the special education teaching candidates are receiving full tuition for the year as they complete year-long residencies at Fulton, a K-5 school in Highland Park.

It’s not a new partnership. But in the past, residencies were unfunded. Rieg said students had to work jobs outside of their teaching load in order to afford it, which left out many students.  

While the state does require classroom experience for a teacher to become certified, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera notes that those programs are often too short.

“Residency programs provide year-long clinical experience and intensive supports, and improve coherence among educators’ pre-service experience, induction, and future professional learning,” he said in a July statement announcing the grants.

The awards were also intended to find ways to retain teachers. During the 2015-16 school year, nearly one in every five schools in Pennsylvania experienced principal turnover. Multiple studies show spikes in teacher turnover in the first three to five years on the job.

IUP also used the grant funding this year to develop an online network for teaching graduates to assist with challenges teachers face in the first year.

“Because sometimes I think it’s important for teachers to realize ‘I’m not the only one having these issues as a first year teachers. There are other people out there and they’ve survived. They’ve overcome the challenges in these ways.’” she said.

Rieg plans to apply for the grant again. In the second year she wants to fund more undergraduates in more disciplines.  

Robert Morris University also received $157,000 to address principal turnover. During the 2015-16 school year, nearly one in every five schools in the Commonwealth experienced principal turnover, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. To address that instability, RMU is paying for tuition and giving a stipend to five principal candidates who are working in Propel charter schools in Pittsburgh.

The principal candidates were already working in the charter system as teachers and were identified as potential principals.

The dean of RMU’s School of Education, Phil Harold, said the principal candidates will commit to being in a school for three years after their residency. The grant funding will also cover the cost of the certification test.

WESA receives funds from Robert Morris University. 

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