How the teacher shortage is affecting Delaware
As the new school year begins, school districts across the state are struggling to fill teaching positions.
Delaware took one step toward addressing the issue in this year’s state budget with a nine percent pay raise for teachers, but higher salaries are only part of the solution.
Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki reports this week on why hiring teachers is so difficult and what’s being done to fill in the gaps.
There are at least 500 educator openings posted through the Delaware Schools Consortium, but not all schools participate, so the actual number of openings across the state is likely much higher.
At the same time, there are more teachers working in the First State than before the pandemic according to school finance and teacher labor market researcher Chad Aldeman.
Aldeman says in Delaware, the number of students has increased since the pandemic, but the state has grown its teacher ranks faster than enrollment, decreasing the teacher to student staffing ratios.
“So the shortage really becomes more about what else schools would like to hire for. So there is the question of whether they are trying to increase their staffing overall, there’s also the question of whether they are able to fill all of their openings. So the vacancy conversation starts to get to that point of how many people a school might like to hire versus how many they are able to hire.”
Pandemic relief money – $190 billion nationwide – fueled a hiring spree last year, he adds, but that is now slowing down.
“You have to keep in mind lots of factors,” Aldeman says. “We do have more teachers than we did in the past, it’s harder to hire teachers than it was in the past, but districts are also trying to hire more people than they did in the past, so all of those things have led to this shortage narrative out there when there’s actually a lot more nuance that needs to go into it.”
Aldeman notes while hiring issues vary based on the state, district, and school, it is consistently harder to find people to fill special education, math and science positions.
Stephanie Ingram is president of the Delaware State Education Association - the state’s largest teachers union. She sees a twofold problem: the retirement of baby boomers and others who chose early retirement during the pandemic -- a shrinking pipeline of teachers coming out of college.
“We've been having a higher than expected number of retirees, so people are leaving the classroom, people are leaving their jobs as ESP’s,” Ingram says. “And then we’re having a hard time filling that with our teacher prep programs here in Delaware, and then outside in other colleges from other states we’re seeing fewer college students enter those teacher preparation programs, which means we have a smaller pool from which to draw for educators who are going to start to become our teachers to fill these vacancies.”
While State Department of Education Secretary Mark Holodick believes Delaware is better off than some surrounding states, he understands the struggle districts are facing - especially in building a pipeline of new teachers.
He says recent efforts from the state beyond this year’s salary increase try to address that. He cites House Bill 138, signed in August, which creates a Delaware Educator Apprenticeship program.
“These educators that will be in this apprenticeship, this grow your own model, they’ll be better prepared,” Holodick says. “They get to earn while they are learning, it removes barriers for them getting into education in the first place, which often keeps people out of the field of education.”
Appoquinimink School District is the pilot district for that program.
Eventually, the hope is it can help Appoquininmink avoid situations like the one it currently faces.
The district’s needs have grown recently - fueled in part by Middletown’s fast growing population. To keep up, the district has opened two elementary schools, an early education center, a middle school and a high school in the last five years.
And Director of Talent Acquisition and Strategic Staff Dominic Banks says the district has almost 40 openings posted.
“There’s 38 postings, it was 42 not too long ago, we had a couple of jobs close,” Banks says. “The buildings, they’ve been interviewing around the clock it seems like.”
Until they’re filled, schools will collapse some classes, which Banks says puts a strain on teachers, pushing classes of 28 students to 34 or 35.
Appoqunimink also employs substitute teachers to start the year, and while Banks says they provide substitutes with professional development opportunities, they are looking to fill the spots with certified teachers.
Banks agrees the shortage starts with universities producing fewer teaching candidates, and while the Delaware Educator Apprenticeship program may help fill that gap, the district is pursuing other solutions.
"We’re looking at our high school students that are in our different programs, our educational prep programs, and we’re offering them the opportunity to come back and serve as a substitute teacher, a paraprofessional, as long as they meet the requirements."Dominic Banks, Appoquinimink School District Director of Talent Acquisition and Strategic Staff
“We’re now drilling down, all the way down into our student populations,” Banks says. “So we’re looking at our high school students that are in our different programs, our educational prep programs, and we’re offering them the opportunity to come back and serve as a substitute teacher, a paraprofessional, as long as they meet the requirements. Again, we’re partnering with our colleges and universities to help with that.”
Holodick also touts a new career pathway at Delaware Tech – a Bachelor of Science in an Elementary Education program. Around 80 students started the program in fall 2022 and are now in a year-long residency program in public schools. The students already have an associate degree in education. The residency is the last step before graduating from the program, and lasts a full year as opposed to the traditional few months that four-year college students complete.
This program could help rural districts like Indian River in Sussex County; that district’s Public Information Officer David Maull says it is scrambling to fill positions, and it doesn’t have anything to do with teacher pay.
Maull says when attending job fairs at colleges and universities, many teaching candidates in urban areas don't want to leave cities. But Del Tech’s new BES program could help mitigate that.
“I think that’s really going to help us,” Maull says. “Because now students from this area who are from here can go all four years at Del Tech and not have to go to another school like after getting their associates.”
And the year-long teacher residency helps Indian River recruit by making students a part of the faculty while still earning their degree.
“And what we’re finding is that after a lot of these teaching candidates go through the year-long residency in our district, we end up hiring a large percentage of them for full-time teaching positions the next year,” Maull says.
In New Castle County’s Red Clay School District, Superintendent Dorrell Green thinks they are faring better than most in the state, but they still have critical needs in harder to fill positions. And like other districts - Red Clay is seeking new, nontraditional pipelines to build their staff.
“We’ve done some creative things working with Wilmington University to have our own alternative route to certification program where our staff members can serve as adjuncts to work with them,” Green says. “We’ve looked at our teacher academies, really having our students start as paras, graduates, to work their way through it and again, really entice them to make education an attractive career field.”
In Kent County, Capital School District has around 40 openings out of 500 positions - that’s 8% of its teacher workforce. Two thirds of those openings are special education, with a higher concentration in grades 6-12.
To attack that need, Capital is partnering with Johns Hopkins University on the IMPACT program, which provides existing teachers the chance to gain their special education certification, along with financial incentives to complete the program.
But Capital Superintendent Vilicia Cade sees another issue - teachers leaving the traditional classroom to become virtual instructors with outside companies. She says it started before the pandemic – districts struggling to fill positions bring in a certified virtual teacher, while support staff like paraprofessionals are in the classroom keeping kids on track and addressing any special needs.
Cade notes the success of this teaching model varies based on the student, but overall she has personally seen it work and Capital is trying to learn from it.
“I’ve seen much more success in that model and that’s the model that we are employing, not kids online with the teacher and virtual, but kids physically in a space, someone delivering content while someone is facilitating learning and walking around and answering kids questions and redirecting kids and keeping them on task,” Cade says.
But many of the educators and administrators we talked to made it clear: building a better teacher pipeline - like raising teacher pay - is only part of the equation.
Providing a supportive environment around teachers is important too.
Red Clay superintendent Dorrell Green says creating a safe and inclusive environment is just as important for teachers as it is for kids.
“Culture, safety, climate, is our number one priority,” Green says. “And also being mindful that we have to look at those supports for our educators. They’re people as well and how do we help create and cultivate environments where they can thrive, where their wellbeing is also being considered.”
DSEA President Stephanie Ingram says Delaware’s 12-week paid family leave, school safety legislation and mental health services are part of the puzzle - along with making school buildings a place you want to go to work.
“Something as simple as making sure our buildings are in good repair, it goes a long way to helping to attract and retain educators who want to work in a building that is in tip top shape,” Ingram says.
And building a strong staff around teachers plays a role. Jobs across the education sector like bus drivers, school nutritionists, IT professionals, paraprofessionals and counselors are also harder to fill.
“And even though we are facing a shortage... they are doing everything they can to make sure our students in public schools are getting the best education they can here in Delaware."Stephanie Ingram, DSEA President
It’s an issue Delaware is working to address through its Public Education Compensation Committee - which will offer salary recommendations for many of those positions to Gov. Carney for next year’s budget by November 15.
And while they wait for these various efforts to bear fruit - Ingram says educators and support staff make the best of a challenging situation.
“And even though we are facing a shortage, those teachers and those educators who are in the classroom, who are on the school buses, who are in the cafeterias, who are in the hallways making sure our students are safe, doing those paraprofessional jobs, helping out in the classrooms, they are doing everything they can to make sure our students in public schools are getting the best education they can here in Delaware,” Ingram says.