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Kaitlyn Cleveland was halfway through her first year teaching fourth grade at Solomon Elementary School in Wahiawa earlier this year when she entertained the idea of leaving Hawaii to go back to the mainland once the school year ended.
For the Washington state native, living in the country’s most expensive state on a teacher’s salary isn’t easy: rent is more than half of her monthly take-home pay, fresh produce is no longer on her grocery budget and trips back home are too costly.
“It is a challenge, there’s no way around that,” said Cleveland, 27.
Cleveland, who has a master’s in education from the University of Hawaii Manoa, nearly became part of an all-too familiar group here: the hundreds of non-local teachers who leave after a year or two due to the high cost of living and the vast distance from family and other support networks back on the mainland.
Cleveland, for now, is staying.
That’s one less teacher Hawaii stands to lose this upcoming school year. And one less new teacher the Hawaii Department of Education will need to recruit as it scrambles to fill positions for the upcoming school year that begins next month.
Hawaii’s public school system, which employs more than 13,000 teachers, has struggled for years with a chronic teacher shortage.
The number of teacher vacancies for the upcoming 2017-18 school year isn’t yet available. But there were approximately 531 teacher vacancies as the start of the 2016-2017 school year. From 2011-12 onward, the number of teacher vacancies per new school year has steadily crept upward, DOE data shows.
Relocation to other states, according to DOE employment reports from the last two years, is among the top three reasons teachers leave the system.
“We recruit all year round,” said DOE recruiter Sean Bacon. “We’re constantly looking for teachers. Hawaii is very transient. Many people are coming and going.”
DOE has bolstered teacher recruitment efforts through virtual career fairs, social media outreach and ads, according to department spokesperson Lindsay Chambers.
It has also increased the number of its mainland recruiting steps to seven this year, interviewing applicants in Portland, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and most recently, Las Vegas.
There’s at least general interest in Hawaii’s teaching positions — a recruitment notification request form posted to the DOE website garnered 5,000 to 6,000 responses, according to Chambers. The recent mainland recruitment trips have yielded meetings with 350 applicants so far, though it’s not clear how many offers have actually been extended for the new school year.
Education officials are also trying to boost enthusiasm for the teaching profession here at home, with teaching academies in several local high schools and a new $400,000 University of Hawaii program to help substitute teachers and educational assistants become certified teachers.
But challenges still abound when it comes to teacher recruiting — and most significantly, retention.
Only half of new teachers in Hawaii stay five years. The result is a constantly revolving door of teachers — a situation not unique to Hawaii but exacerbated due to its isolated location — that has lasting consequences for students and community-building.
“This is not just a Hawaii thing — teacher shortages and low enrollment in teacher education is an issue nationally,” said Niki Libarios, director of student academic services at the UH Manoa College of Education. “But in Hawaii, a lot of it has to do with working conditions, a low salary and federal guidelines on how to work with kids.”
Some education leaders believe the long-standing strategy of trying to lure new teachers from the mainland isn’t enough. They say the state needs to address a stark reality: first-timers who are often placed in Hawaii’s most struggling schools, like those on the Leeward Coast and neighbor islands, wind up leaving after a short amount of time.
“What goes on in the Leeward coast (in terms of) teacher turnover is horrific,” said Roberta Martel, coordinator of the teacher education program at Leeward Community College. “For years, the DOE has recruited from the mainland and folks have come. But many times, many of these folks don’t even last a year.”
Pay is another big issue. A licensed first-year teacher in Hawaii makes $47,443. The new contract signed in April provides for a cumulative salary increase of 13.6 percent over four years and a $3,000 retention bonus to licensed teachers willing to teach in certain rural areas, including all of Ka’u Complex on Hawaii Island.
Despite the bump, the salary is still too low compared with the cost of living here, educators say.
“While it is never just about money, compensation is a big piece of the puzzle,” said David Negaard, a high school teacher at Maui’s H.P. Baldwin High School. “Hawaii public schoolteachers are paid least in the nation when adjusted for cost of living.”
Negaard, 57, just finished his fifth year teaching in Hawaii. The California native depends on side jobs, such as working for summer theater camps and teaching software workshops.
“I am stubborn and seasoned, so I plan to be here for the long haul. I love what I do — I usually say I love the work and hate the job — and don’t want to stop,” he said.
The teacher shortage has forced the DOE to rely on unlicensed teachers. Of the 1,240 new teachers last school year, roughly one-third were certified at Hawaii’s universities. About 40 percent had teaching certificates from other states.
But another 328 of the new teachers were unlicensed, meaning they had a college degree but did not go through a teacher certification program. That last group is known as “emergency hires.”
Corey Rosenlee, head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, criticizes the school system for placing unqualified teachers in high-need areas like special education, secondary math and secondary English. If such positions aren’t filled by the start of the school year, emergency hires will fill those spots.
That only perpetuates the teacher retention problem, he said.
“There’s often a desperate need to fill vacancies by putting any adult in the classroom,” Rosenlee said. “If you put someone who is not trained inside the classroom, they will leave, and that is what we’ve seen in Hawaii.”
The Hawaii Teacher Standards Board — which issues teacher licenses — has already issued 270 emergency hire permits ahead of the new school year.
One way out of the teacher retention rut, many believe, is an increased emphasis on developing homegrown teachers.
At least 10 high schools have teaching academies where juniors and seniors learn about drafting lesson plans, visit schools and work in classrooms shadowing experienced teachers.
“The idea is to have students be career-oriented from a young age so they can say, ‘is this really a career I’d like to get involved in?’” said Martel, of Leeward Community College.
Educators hope to find people like Aliya McAlister-Parker, a kindergarten teacher at Linapuni Elementary who was hired in February after graduating from UH Manoa.
“My middle school made us do service projects, and I started volunteering (in the schools) at that age,” said McAlister-Parker, 23, who attended McKinley High School. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and kept pushing to be one no matter what. ”
State Sen. Michelle Kidani hopes the $400,000 appropriation to UH’s education department will enable college-educated substitute teachers and qualified educational assistants — who return to the classroom in support roles year after year but just don’t have the necessary credentials to become a full-fledged teacher — to enter the teacher pipeline.
The UH “Grow Our Own” teachers program will pay for about 50 educational assistants and substitute teachers to take three semesters of coursework, allowing them to receive a master’s degree in education or a post-baccalaureate certificate in secondary education and special education. In return, graduates will have an obligation to teach in Hawaii’s public schools for three years.
“It’s a small dent, but I want to see us making headway on the teacher retention issue,” Kidani said.
Rosenlee supports the initiative.
“We need to dramatically increase funding for public schools,” he said. “That may seem like a simplistic answer but we need more teachers, we need to make the profession enticing enough that people will stay in the profession.”
UH has also teamed up with Kai Media Marketing to developed a mixed-media marketing campaign to encourage young people to consider teaching as a career.
About 400 to 500 posters bearing the slogan, “Be A Hero, Be A Teacher,” are being distributed to local preschools, YMCAs, child care providers, high schools and community organizations. The campaign will also feature a television marketing campaign.
“We’re trying to change the narrative,” explains Libarios, of UH Manoa. “We’re really trying to invest recruitment seed for the future.”
Though Cleveland, the Solomon Elementary School teacher, has no personal ties to the islands, she was persuaded to return for a second year based on her love for the school, her students and supportive colleagues. The fact that she has no student loans gives her an advantage over many peers.
“There are certain aspects of the teaching profession that are stressful but they’re the same things that are going to be stressful everywhere,” she said. “Hawaii is so unique in terms of what it has to offer in terms of the people and the culture. It’s hard to give that up.”