UPDATED: The story has been updated with clarified numbers of emergency hires in the state.

For the past 10 years, Eri Yamamoto has worked on and off in the Hawaii public school system as a substitute, teaching kids Japanese.

She’s come to love teaching public school kids her native language. The transience of her role is something she’s less fond of. Without a permanent school up to this point, the long-term sub has filled in for teachers who are sick, on leave or on sabbatical.

“To make more impact, you cannot just jump around,” she said. “It’s my dream to be able to teach full-time. Not as a substitute.”

“Grow Our Own,” a new initiative of the Hawaii Department of Education and University of Hawaii Manoa College of Education, is aimed at making that leap from substitute to full-time teacher a lot easier — and more affordable. The program has begun providing full scholarships to long-term subs like Yamamoto to address Hawaii’s chronic teacher shortage by increasing the local pipeline of permanent teachers.

Eri Yamamoto looks forward to a permanent teaching position in the DOE. “I really enjoy connecting with the students,” she says. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

Right now, the path to a secure teaching job isn’t easy.

While it’s possible to work in the state as an “emergency hire,” highly qualified teachers — or those who possess a teaching license by completing a state-approved teacher preparation program — are the only ones eligible for tenure after three years.

That means higher pay, greater flexibility to transfer schools and better job security.

But it’s not cheap to obtain teacher certification. And for long-term substitutes like Yamamoto who did not major in education, the hefty price tag for a post-baccalaureate certificate in education has long been a stiff barrier.

Grow Our Own aims to change that.

The initiative, which began in January, provides full tuition for three semesters of coursework, or 33 total credits, to longtime DOE subs or educational assistants with a college degree, in what would otherwise cost upwards of $17,000.

Much of the coursework is done online, allowing participants to continue teaching throughout the school year.

The first group of Grow Our Own participants will earn their post-baccalaureate certificates in secondary education in May 2019. Upon completion, they must commit to teaching three years in Hawaii’s public middle and high schools in high-need subject areas like math, science, English, Hawaiian language or world languages.

That is more than a fair trade-off for Yamamoto, 52, who came to Hawaii from Japan 25 years ago to work as a church missionary.

“I want to stay in one place to build a relationship with the administration, with students, with school and with the community,” she said. “This credential will give me the chance to do that.”

Stemming Teacher Flight

The collaboration between the DOE and UH Manoa is one of Hawaii’s answers to a growing teacher shortage. Although a short supply of teachers isn’t unique to the state, Hawaii’s 3.5 percent teacher vacancy rate at the start of the 2017-18 school year was among the highest of the 15 largest school districts in the U.S., according to Chalkbeat, an education-focused news site.

The number of teacher resignations jumped 61 percent between the 2010-11 and 2017-18 school years, from 529 to 852, according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Teacher vacancies also rose 51 percent from 2011-12 to 2017-18 from 377 to 571, according to the teacher’s union.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated incorrect figures for the number of emergency hires in the state.  

Unfilled positions have forced the state to increasingly rely on emergency hires, or instructors who hold a bachelor’s degree but don’t have a teaching license. In 2011-12, the number of such hires numbered 256. By last school year, that figure was 524, according to the DOE.

“Resignations have now increased so that we have more resignations than we do teachers that are graduating from Hawaii’s colleges,” said HSTA president Corey Rosenlee.

The number one reason for resignations, he added, was teachers leaving the state to return to the mainland. About one in five of Hawaii’s new teacher hires in the 2016-17 school year were not residents of Hawaii, according to the DOE’s most recent employment report.

The struggle to live in Hawaii on a teacher’s income is a familiar refrain: pay for licensed teachers starts at $46,790. While that’s not the lowest in the country, the state’s teacher pay ranks at the bottom when adjusted for cost of living, according to at least one national analysis.

While low teacher pay coupled with the high cost of living are among the reasons driving people out of the profession in Hawaii, those aren’t the only factors.

In the case of departing special education teachers, for instance, “money is not the biggest issue but more so working conditions,” according to comments from a Teacher Education Coordination Committee in a recent presentation to the Hawaii Board of Education.

Hawaii has “more resignations than we do teachers that are graduating from Hawaii’s colleges.” — Corey Rosenlee, HSTA president

TECC, an advisory committee made up of leaders from the DOE and higher ed institutions, has come up with a five-year plan to improve teacher recruitment and retention. For a state that historically has recruited heavily on the mainland, that includes a focus on producing more teachers locally, including through the Grow Our Own initiative.

Grow Our Own was launched with an initial $600,000 state appropriation in 2017 pushed for by state Sen. Michelle Kidani, the education committee chairwoman. The Legislature allocated an additional $400,000 to the program this past session.

The program currently has 30 participants drawn from substitutes based all over the state. They include Yamamoto and Monica Eliana, a long-time substitute at Waiau Elementary School, which has a Hawaiian language immersion program.

Teacher Monica Eliana is the 'Grow Your Own' teacher/candidate at Waiau Elementary.
Monica Eliana is committed to teaching Hawaiian language in the DOE. “If you can teach effectively, you can do anything,” she says. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The 43-year-old single mother of two, who will be student-teaching Hawaiian language at Waipahu High this coming school year, said she hadn’t really thought of teaching as a career until she had kids of her own.

She’s now in it for the long haul. She sees herself far outlasting Grow Our Own’s requirement that participants commit to three years in the DOE after earning their certificate.

“I’m not even thinking of three years,” said Eliana, who attended Pearl City High and graduated from UH Manoa with a Hawaiian language degree. “I’m thinking this is how I’m going to retire. I’m dedicated to it.”

Rochelle Potter, a long-term substitute based in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, said Grow Our Own will enable her to fulfill her dream of teaching science to kids here. Potter, 40, moved to Hawaii in 2012 from the mainland to work with a nonprofit. Currently, she works several other jobs, including as an emergency medical technician and photographer, to make ends meet.

“I have no plans to leave,” Potter said. “I’d been thinking for a couple years now it would be really great to get my teaching certificate. But when I looked into how much it cost, I couldn’t do it.”

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Grow Our Own participants gathered in Wist Hall on the UH Manoa campus for a graduate-level course taught by Rod Todorovich, a College of Education professor, entitled “Adolescence & Education” — a required course on the post-bac track.

A dozen other individuals who couldn’t be present tuned in via video conferencing.

Todorovich’s class focuses on concepts and research surrounding the teaching of adolescents, including how to discuss gender identity, sex education and bullying.

To Potter, the class has offered thought-provoking lessons and strategies.

“The course is making me ask questions and think about teaching in a different way,” she said. “I’ve realized a lot more goes into teaching than I thought. In order to be a good quality teacher, you need to have so much already thought through.”

Todorovich, who students refer to as “Professor” or “Dr. T,” said he’s encouraged money is being allocated to Grow Our Own so that longtime Hawaii residents, who have no intention of leaving the state, can stay committed to teaching here.

UH Manoa Professor Rod Todorovich, left, talks to his students in his “Adolescence & Education” course. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

While it’s not the end-all, be-all response to teacher shortages, “it’s a slice of the pie,” he said.

He described a reliance on substitute teachers — the Hawaii Department of Education had 4,264 substitutes on its payroll in the 2016-17 school year — as falling short of providing a stable learning environment for kids.

“If you were a parent and you had a 7-year-old child, would you take a substitute pediatrician, a substitute dentist?” he said. “If you had a legal problem, would you take someone who’s in their last year of law school?”

In an unexpected twist, Yamamoto will finally get the long-term teaching position she’s craved when she joins Mililani High School this fall to teach Japanese. She will continue her coursework at UH during the year. Without taking part in Grow Our Own, there’s no guarantee she could stay on — or have secured the long-term gig — at Mililani.

“I was told that licensed teachers have the right to apply wherever they want and if you don’t have a license, you will be at the bottom of the candidates’ list,” she said.

Yamamoto has turned down more lucrative job offers from private schools because she is drawn to teaching public school students.

“The pay (at private school) is way more than I’m going to get, but somehow I’d like to make a difference in students’ lives,” she said. “I just wanted to make a small dent in public education in Hawaii.”

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