PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Arizona school district officials say teacher pay raises have helped them fill vacant teaching positions, but a severe shortage of traditionally certified teachers remains.
According to interviews, written survey responses and other communications with more than 100 school superintendents across Arizona, the crisis is causing dozens of districts to use emergency teacher certifications and other newly developed tactics to put otherwise unqualified teachers in charge of classrooms.
Reporters and producers from 3TV and CBS 5 reached out to every district in the state over the summer to gauge the biggest challenges facing traditional public schools and to identify the solutions educators are developing and implementing.
In survey after survey and interview after interview, superintendents stated that hiring and retaining qualified staff is the biggest challenge they face today.
Nowhere is that challenge starker than at the Toltec Elementary School District, located halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. Just one week before school was set to start, the district still had 20 openings for certified teachers. That amounts to 30 percent of the total teaching positions in the district.
"The incentive that we had was a four-day school week, but sometimes that’s not incentive enough," said Denise Rogers, who is Toltec's superintendent.
Faced with a similar problem last year and the year before, Rogers was forced to innovate. She has created a squad of teachers from within school ranks.
"For those 20 positions that we are short, we cover with growing our own teachers," said Rogers.
She identified parents, volunteers and paraprofessionals who were already in her community, and who appeared to have a knack at working with children.
Kristy Vose is one of them. She teaches fourth grade.
"I love doing it," said Vose, who had never thought about becoming a teacher before Rogers approached her.
Neither did Lisa Korenstein. Now she teaches horticulture.
"She approached me. I did not approach anyone. I was happy just helping out on the side," said Korenstein.
Debra Thurman always wanted to be a teacher but thought she would never have the opportunity. Now she teaches third grade and admits, she was scared when she first took the helm of a classroom.
"But as with anything in life, you’ve got to take that risk to go where you want to be," said Thurman.
Perhaps the biggest gamble was hiring Jeremy Jones as a PE teacher. Jones had not graduated from college and admits he made bad decisions when he was younger.
"Ms. Rogers and I had a conversation, and she asked me what it was that I wanted or what were my dreams. And I told her that I would like to be a PE teacher because I felt that was the best way for me to get through to the kids and make a big impact on kids' lives," said Jones.
Now in his second year, Rogers believes Jones has inspired his students to do their best on the field and in the classroom.
"I’m from this area. To me, this feels like my way of giving back to my community," said Jones.
Rogers admits this is not a perfect solution. These new teachers are still learning how to be teachers themselves.
"They are enrolled in college, and they’re on a pathway to becoming properly certified," she said.
The teacher shortage may be hitting rural districts hardest, but city schools are also having trouble hiring highly qualified teachers.
"It is really a lot of work to make sure that we’ve got an incredible teacher for every kid," said Danielle Airey, who works for the Peoria Unified School District.
Peoria also had 20 openings left to fill in the week before school started. But this district has more than 2,000 teachers, so its vacancy rate is small compared to Toltec's and that of many other districts.
"We are slightly better than about a year ago, so that is good. But the cycle and the trend continues," said Airey.
What she means is that there are more experienced teachers leaving the business than new teachers are graduating from Arizona universities. Until that changes, district leaders will be forced to come up with ways to fill the gaps.
The Arizona legislature and Department of Education have made it possible for schools to hire teachers who do not have degrees in education by creating emergency certifications and other routes for teachers to begin working in the classroom full-time while attending class themselves.
District officials say the key to making those options successful is to pair the new teachers with more experienced mentors or teaching coaches.
Back in Toltec, Superintendent Denise Rogers has managed to staff 20 classrooms using those new certifications.
"We’re doing the best that we can. And I think that it’s a better solution than what it could be. I am happy that we don’t have just short-term subs in the classroom; that we have people who are committed to teaching," said Rogers.
Jones, who says he is determined to make a career of this PE job, is one of those people.
"Last year was my first year, and there was not one day that I woke up and I was not excited to come to work," said Jones.