American kids are on their way back to school this month, but districts across the country are having trouble finding enough teachers to greet them. According to the National Education Association, the nation will need 2 million teachers in the next decade. To make matters worse, half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years. The rapidly-growing city of Las Vegas recently joined other American communities like Los Angeles, California and Palm Beach, Florida, searching high and low -- and around the world -- for teachers.
By the time classes ended in the spring, Las Vegas school officials knew that 1300 teachers would not be back when classes resumed in the fall. "We face a real challenge," Associate Superintendent Georgie Ann Rice told school board members. She explained that the district needed all the help it can get, since 6% of the teaching force had resigned.
That's better than the average national teacher resignation rate of 15 percent a year. Still, recruitment efforts are in high gear year-round in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce has 82 volunteers whose job it is to call and beg thousands of prospective teachers to come here. Ms. Rice says that's not all they do. "They have picked people up at the airport and driven them around to help them find apartments."
The problem has been made worse in recent years by housing prices that are rising faster than anywhere else in the nation. District surveys of outgoing teachers show this is the number one reason they leave. According to the National Education Association, teacher salaries have not kept pace with the rising cost of living -- not just in Las Vegas, but across the nation. Besides low pay and expensive housing, teachers are leaving classrooms in search of better opportunities for professional development. They say they can't afford to pay for college classes and other continuing education programs on their own.
Some other countries don't have this problem. In the Philippines, for instance, the government subsidizes college education for teachers and provides funds for professional development. That's led to a surplus of teachers and drawn the attention of American school districts. But U.S. officials are not planning to follow Manila's example; they're more interested in raiding the teacher pool.
The handful of recruiters Las Vegas sent to the Philippines this year were overwhelmed with 380 applications -- all from coveted science and special education teachers. Recruiter Joanne Schlekewy said they could afford to be picky. "We were interested in 60, 70, 80 [applicants]," she recalls. "There were 3 recruiters and we interviewed for 5 days, all day long, and we were very much interested in many, but they didn't make the qualifications."
Of the 80 selected, only 34 were approved by the US embassy. One of them was Albert Cabreira. He admits he was scared about moving to Nevada. "In fact, when I was packing up my things I even brought some food." Mr. Cabreira was prepared for the worst. But now that he's sharing an apartment with other teachers and carpooling to work every day, he hopes to actually save money and even send some home.
His colleagues are also trying to stay on a budget. They estimate they've spent $5000 of their own money to come here. "We are supported, of course, by our families," one explains. When asked if that means they're giving the United States a little of their money, they laugh, and agree. "We are just reciprocating!" But they say the money's well spent. They'll take financial management and technology skills home when their visas expire in three years.
The Las Vegas School District plans to continue to aggressively mine foreign teacher pools. In addition to Mr. Cabreira and his fellow Filipinos, the district has 14 teachers from Spain and 6 teachers from Canada this year. Next year, it plans to send recruiters to Mexico, Singapore and Puerto Rico.