The Hawaii Department of Education is thinking up new ways to attract teachers to the state to address an ongoing teacher shortage, starting with looking at teacher-exchange programs with other countries.

“Those are great opportunities to bring in math or science teachers or language-based teachers in particular,” Hawaii school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said during a recent interview with Civil Beat in her office at DOE headquarters.

The department plans to ask the Legislature in the next session, which starts Jan. 17, to add statutory language allowing for such partnerships at the secondary school level. They don’t require any additional funding and the University of Hawaii currently is authorized to host such teachers from abroad, according to Kishimoto.

Hawaii Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto in her office at DOE.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said she is prioritizing teacher recruitment and retention. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“HIDOE is in the process of drafting legislative language that would allow individuals from outside the U.S. to work as a teacher in HIDOE,” the department’s spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz wrote in an email. “This is the first step. HIDOE will need to develop guidelines on how to implement the program.”

Teacher recruitment and retention are among the superintendent’s three top priorities during her first year on the job. Kishimoto, who took over as Hawaii’s schools chief in August, has also formed a task force to evaluate the quality of special education services in the state and plans to assess English language services in the schools.

But it’s the teacher retention issue that continues to afflict the department. Only about half of all teachers hired stay on for five years. About 1,011 of the roughly 13,000 total teacher positions this year are filled by long-term substitutes or emergency substitutes.

Nationwide, most states are grappling with a teacher shortage. In Hawaii, the shortage is most pronounced in the instruction areas of English, math, science, special education, Hawaiian studies and vocational education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The DOE recruits heavily from the mainland, and has already posted its first recruitment visit of 2018 on its website: a February session in Tampa, Florida. During a Nov. 21 Board of Education meeting, member Hubert Minn questioned why the state wasn’t looking at foreign countries to recruit permanent teachers.

“We keep going back west to recruit teachers, why aren’t we going to the East?” he said, pointing out that Las Vegas and Arizona are recruiting teachers from places like the Philippines “in droves.”

“I want to use a multifaceted approach because we know that relying only on one approach is not going to address our teacher shortage issue.” — Superintendent Christina Kishimoto

But that proposal doesn’t seem to interest Kishimoto much. “That’s not going to give us a big bump in our teacher numbers,” she said, citing the possibility of teachers leaving shortly after they arrive.

Hawaii’s high cost of living is commonly cited as one reason why people leave the state, particularly on a teacher’s salary, which starts at $47,443 for licensed instructors. Nationally, lack of administrative support, overemphasis on testing and accountability metrics and limited opportunity for advancement are among other reasons for teacher attrition, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

To help retain teachers in Hawaii, Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House Education Committee, said he’s planning to introduce a measure in the upcoming session that would provide $500 monthly subsidies to teachers to offset their rent or mortgage.

Although a housing voucher option has been introduced previously, the 2017 session was “the first year it had traction,” Woodson said, expressing hope that the proposal has momentum.

When it comes to teacher recruitment strategies, a foreign teacher exchange program is just one strategy the department may explore. The length of exchange can last up to three years under a U.S. Department of State J-1 Visa.

“The idea is to be mutually beneficial to the countries involved,” Kishimoto said. “They’re not permanent teachers, we wouldn’t be seeking to recruit them away from their countries. These are very friendly and mutually beneficial terms.”

The DOE also plans to apply for a federal grant known as Troops to Teachers, a program that helps former service members become teachers and navigate teacher licensing requirements.

The grant amount ranges from $100,000 to $400,000, according to Dela Cruz, and “could add another pipeline to recruiting teachers in the state.”

“They’re highly experienced, with certainly global experiences, that we’d love to have on,” Kishimoto said of former service members.

Details on what such a teacher exchange program would look like are still being thought out, she said, including prioritizing which subject areas to focus on, whether language, math or science.

The school chief also cited so-called teacher academies in high schools: while national data shows the academies are not a very strong recruitment tool, they represent a way to “plant the seed” among students to think about teaching, she said.

The traditional method of filling teacher spots with students who major in education in college is no longer reliable with enrollment numbers dropping, Kishimoto noted.

“I want to use a multifaceted approach because we know that relying only on one approach is not going to address our teacher shortage issue,” she said.

“All of those programs go through ebbs and flows in terms of the number of people they’re able to attract. We don’t want to get caught shorthanded because we’re overrelying on one approach versus another.”

Kishimoto, who most recently headed the school system in Gilbert, Arizona, oversees a Hawaii public school system that includes 256 traditional public schools, 36 public charter schools and a Department of Education staff of about 22,000 employees.

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