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The statewide teacher shortage has put a crimp on the ability of at least one local school district to continue nonmandated curriculum programs the school board and administration support.

Cumberland Valley School District once offered Chinese as a world language but was forced to phase out the program over three years because of the difficulty in finding a qualified teacher in that content area, Superintendent Fred Withum III said.

“We felt it [Chinese] could grow into a highly-valued course in an emerging global economy,” he said.

The district also had to abruptly end its Latin program after offering it for at least a decade. The Latin teacher had left and the district could not find a qualified candidate to fill the position despite a statewide search, Withum said. Cumberland Valley had even approached a nearby school district that was also seeking a Latin teacher in the hope of drawing up an agreement where students and costs could be shared.

Fewer teachers

For years, Pennsylvania has been dealing with a drop-off in the number of college students seeking education degrees across all content areas. The resulting teacher shortage is most pronounced in math and science, where the corporate world is drawing graduates to jobs that offer greater pay and stability.

Recently Carlisle Area School District lost a teacher Superintendent Christina Spielbauer thought would never step away from the classroom.

“He got enticed,” she said. “He was looking to the future. He has a young family. He’s not going to struggle as much as he would on a teacher salary.”

Richard Fry, superintendent of Big Spring School District, also serves as president of the board of governors of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. He said that in one 18-month period about a year ago, Pennsylvania colleges only issued 16 teacher certifications in the content area of physics. He said finding qualified candidates in special education is also a challenge.

“There are fewer teachers, period. But the biggest struggle are teachers in the mandatory areas,” Withum said. “If you can’t find a Latin teacher, you can do away with Latin, but if you can’t find a teacher of algebra or AP Calculus, you can’t necessarily do away with that.”

Shallow end

School districts across Pennsylvania are struggling with budget pressures brought on in part by rising health care costs and double-digit increases in their annual contribution to the state Public School Employee Retirement System.

Many school districts have cut costs by targeting such nonmandated curriculum programs as music, art, family/consumer science, business education, technology education, computers and library science. Often, the cuts are made by attrition where districts leave open positions that were vacated by teachers who retire or resign.

Other cuts are by furloughs where experienced teachers are let go. So while there have been chronic teacher shortages in some content areas, there have been only partial teacher shortages in some nonmandated areas.

While Carlisle continues to draw quality teacher candidates in nonmandated programs, that pool of applicants is getting shallower, Spielbauer said. “We had a music teacher retire recently. In the past, we got five to seven applicants for a general music teacher position. Now we are thrilled that we got three, and for a while it was just two until word of mouth got out.”

While competition is fierce for math, science and special education teachers, furloughs elsewhere in the state have put more teachers on the job market with experience in nonmandated curriculum content, Withum said. “There are some trade-offs in hiring experience.”

For one, many of these instructors already have a master’s degree, so the hiring district would not be obligated under contract to pay for that advanced training, Withum said. He said these teachers tend to be older so there are fewer cases of child-rearing leave.

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“Also, they are proven,” Withum said. “It really takes a teacher nowadays, with everything that is on their plate, five years to learn everything they need to know and to settle in their careers. A lot of teachers fall by the wayside in those first five years.”

Turn-off and drop-off

Fewer college students seek education degrees. Part of this is due to highly publicized factors such as school violence, teacher pay and a lack of respect for professionals in the field, said Robin Brewer, president of the Pennsylvania Art Education Association.

Tina Bennett, president of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, said she believes the decline in education majors may also be due to the fact that teachers are being asked to do more than ever involving emotional and physical issues with students.

“There’s a huge dip in the amount of people entering programs,” said Rich Askey, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing most Pennsylvania teachers. Askey has been a music teacher in the Harrisburg School District for 30 years.

“For years, teachers were not treated well, not respected,” Askey said. “It is easy to bash a teacher and talk about their pay. It puts an unfair shadow on the profession.”

As he sees it, this shadow has resulted in less interest in teaching among college students. The problem will get worse as more teachers who are baby boomers retire, Askey said.

“We have to start lifting up the profession,” he said, adding that part of the solution is to increase teacher salaries to that of professions that require similar degrees.

In an effort to minimize post-secondary debt, students today are becoming more selective on what courses they plan to take to maximize career success, Withum said. As college tuition increases, the days of accumulating debt while the person “finds” himself or herself are gone, he said.

Withum asked how many people 25 to 30 are working in careers other than their degree field. There are many who are not even in the same ballpark.

One reason school districts should continue to support nonmandated curriculum programs is to help students test their interest in a potential career while their education is still free of tuition, Withum said.

Teacher shortages force Cumberland County school districts to do more to recruit education majors while they are still in college awaiting graduation.

“Every year, we start earlier and earlier,” Spielbauer said of on-campus queries and recruitment drives.

Messiah College in Upper Allen Township has not seen a significant drop-off in the number of students seeking education degrees, said Jennifer Fisler, assistant dean of teacher education. She said enrollment remains strong in such nonmandated content areas as music, art and family/consumer science, but it can be a challenge for college administrators to recruit high school students into education degree programs in math and science.

“There are a good number of other jobs that are more lucrative than teaching,” Fisler said. “From talking to high school students, they don’t necessarily aspire to the challenges teachers deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Aside from Messiah, Fisler is aware of one other college that offers an education degree in family/consumer science. As a result, graduates from Messiah usually don’t have a problem finding a job in that area. “That is a niche,” Fisler said.

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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