Nelson Shigeta has become a familiar face around Marist College, a small private liberal arts college in upstate New York.

The veteran Hawaii principal has visited the campus several times in the last five years. The reason? To recruit teachers for Makaha Elementary, a K-6 school located in the rural Waianae area on Oahu’s Leeward coast.

“Sometimes we go outside (Hawaii), because we have no choice,” he said of the hunt for teachers.

His efforts have been paying off: He’s successfully recruited seven licensed teachers — all elementary education majors — from Marist College over the last few years, including four this year alone in time for the start of the new school year.

Makaha Elementary School principal Nelson Shigeta.
Makaha Elementary Principal Nelson Shigeta notes the importance of not just recruiting but keeping teachers in Hawaii. “(If we) don’t provide these follow-up pieces, we’re just spinning the wheel,” he says. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Marist transplants to Waianae tell their teacher friends back home about what it’s like to live and teach in Hawaii, and sometimes they decide to come teach here, too, contributing to the Marist-Makaha pipeline.

It may be a small piece of plugging Hawaii’s perennial teacher shortfall — part of a national trend — but it’s one step forward in finding willing individuals to teach in the state.

The Hawaii Department of Education began the 2017-18 school year with 538 teacher vacancies, though these spots are often filled temporarily by long-term substitutes or emergency hires until a permanent replacement can be found.

To fill the need for new teachers, the DOE recruits frequently from the mainland, going to such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago in the spring to find new hires. This has always been a recruitment strategy, although the department is also ramping up efforts to train homegrown teachers.

Typically, DOE recruiters head to mainland sites, screen candidates, then enter them into a large DOE database where they’re then presumably matched with a school someplace in Hawaii. Oftentimes, those recruits don’t know where they’re assigned until they come here.

‘A Talent Management Approach’

Only recently has the DOE begun trying a new tactic: bringing current principals along off-island so they can tell a potential candidate what it’s like to actually work at the school and fill them in on the cultural and lifestyle differences in Hawaii.

“We switched to a talent management approach. What does that mean? Everybody in the department is really a recruiter and a retainer,” said Cynthia Covell, DOE’s assistant superintendent in the office of talent management. “The teacher’s not shocked when they get here, because they already know.”

Ceiling fans blow in warm August at Makaha Elementary School.
Makaha Elementary has recruited seven new teachers in recent years from Marist College, a liberal arts school in New York state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While Shigeta has been traveling to the mainland for several years now, his colleague on Maui — Keoni Wilhelm, a principal at Kahului Elementary — is the latest reflection of this strategy shift.

Wilhelm headed to Miami University in Ohio, 35 miles north of Cincinnati, for the first time this past spring.

“I tasked myself with going to the mainland to bring back some awesome, young, fresh, open-mindset teachers,” he told Civil Beat. “I wanted them to be certified, meaning they actually have a degree in elementary education.”

Not only did Wilhelm recruit five new teachers for Kahului Elementary, he found an additional four for nearby Maui schools through those connections.

“We started last year with 10 vacancies and this year we have none,” he said.

Wilhelm plans to go back to Miami University so he can continue cultivating a relationship with the college.

Hawaii, whose single-district public school system encompasses 292 schools and roughly 13,700 teachers, hires about 1,200 new teachers each year. But it loses a lot, as well: In the 2016-17 school year, 1,172 teachers left the DOE. Nearly half of them left the state, while close to a third retired.

That year, there were 1,253 new teacher hires. At least 246, or 20 percent, had non-resident status upon hire, suggesting they are largely newcomers who aren’t originally from here.

Left, Makaha Elementary School Christine Coughlin and right her colleague Arianna Sundstrom in a 3 class room group in room A24.
Makaha Elementary School teachers Christine Coughlin, left, and Arianna Sundstrom were recruited to Hawaii from Marist College in New York. “I’m kind of taking it year by year. I love it out here,” said Coughlin, now in her second year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s no secret that many of the young, inexperienced teachers are often sent to far-flung regions of the state because that’s where the need for staffing is greatest. These areas are on the Leeward coast of Oahu and on neighbor islands like Lanai, Molokai and the south side of the Big Island.

As an enticement, DOE offers a $3,000 bonus for licensed teachers willing to teach in these areas. This year, it offered a $2,000 relocation bonus to those who participated in an out-of-state recruitment event in spring 2018, completed a state-approved teacher education program and accepted a job for the 2018-19 school year.

What may be lesser known is that some mainland recruits — having talked with Hawaii principals on their home college campuses — are now seeking out these more remote spots.

“This has always been my first choice,” said Arianna Sundstrom, a Marist graduate and fourth grade teacher at Makaha in her first year of teaching. “I like working with other cultures and low-income students.”

Her colleague, Christine Coughlin, also a Marist grad and second-year instructor who teaches fifth-grade special education at Makaha, knew she wanted to teach at the school after visiting two teacher friends who also used to teach at Makaha.

“I’m kind of taking it year by year. I love it out here,” she said, citing the opportunity to make an impact on her students and also perks like spotting a dolphin on her way to work.

Convincing New Teachers To Stay

Many mainland recruits don’t resemble their students: Makaha Elementary, for instance, is 60 percent Native Hawaiian. About 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Many are homeless and live by the beach with their families.

Shigeta doesn’t care what the racial background of his teachers are, so long as they have heart and look after their students.

“They’re good kids,” he said, pointing to Sundstrom and Coughlin, who at respective ages 22 and 25, are youthful themselves. “(The students) want teachers who care about them.”

“We can spend all this money to get people here, but if we don’t support them, they can say, ‘I just don’t want to do this.’” — Nelson Shigeta, Makaha Elementary principal

That’s why Shigeta, who has been a principal at Makaha from 2000 to 2009, then again from 2014 to now, knows he can’t focus on just recruitment but also how to convince his new mainland hires to stay.

Only about 50 percent of mainland teachers reach the five-year mark in Hawaii. Many have no choice but to leave due to the high cost of living or family concerns back home.

Shigeta’s goal is to create a support network for his new teachers so they’re not so lost once they arrive.

Holly Jackson, an induction mentoring resource teacher for the DOE, serves as that bridge: She helps the new hires find housing, locate weekend activities, even assuage worried moms back home by phone.

DOE Mentor Teacher Holly Jackson at Makaha Elementary School. 9 aug 2018
“I want them to stay, I want these teachers to be here,” said DOE mentoring induction teacher Holly Jackson of mainland recruits. She helps teachers on the west side of Oahu adjust to the new lifestyle. 

“We focus on just the classroom, but if you want to help them, you have to think about outside the classroom,” Shigeta said. “We can spend all this money to get people here, but if we don’t support them, they can say, ‘I just don’t want to do this.’”

The DOE’s off-island recruitment visits this past year yielded 350 candidates. About one-third, or 126 individuals, accepted teaching positions for the 2018-19 school year.

The approximately one-third rate of acceptance from off-island recruits is in line with rates of acceptance from previous years, according to Nanea Kalani, a DOE spokeswoman.

Wilhelm, the Maui principal, said he didn’t ask his new hires from the mainland how long they intended to stay and teach in Hawaii — but he said he recognized through his in-person conversations they were enthusiastic and wanted to work with disadvantaged students.

“I’m just banking on this positive energy and as we go through the process of this year, to continue the momentum,” he said.

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