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December 21, 2014

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Education:

With CCSD still short 650 teachers, here’s how one school is coping

Image

Brian Nordli

A view of Vail Pittman Elementary School near Washington Avenue and Torrey Pines Drive on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, in Las Vegas.

In a perfect world, Kathy Konowalow would be able to fill Pittman Elementary School’s four teacher vacancies with full-time teachers.

Yet with four days left until the start of the school year, Clark County School District remains short 650 teachers, and Pittman’s four positions are still open. Life has been anything but perfect when it comes to hiring teachers.

So Konowalow, Pittman’s principal, did some nimble thinking. Working with her assistant principal, Stephanie Garni, the two created a schedule that maximizes the school’s faculty by sending groups of students on a rotation among teachers.

“When you look at the whole scope of it, we have open slots, but we were pretty creative so that the core content areas are taught by a licensed teacher,” Konowalow said. “We have kids broken down into groups and rotation schedules so that they get the benefit of having a certified teacher.”

Pittman is one of about 220 schools in the district dealing with at least one teacher vacancy to start the year. Even as the school district has hauled in 1,500 new teachers, it hasn’t been able to keep up with the march of teachers resigning or retiring, said Staci Vesneske, chief human resources officer for the district.

So far there have been 145 retirements or resignations since Aug. 4, and more than 1,500 this year compared to about 1,400 last year.

Most principals have patched the holes with long-term substitute teachers. Some high schools have filled the vacancies by having teachers take on an extra class, and at schools where enrollment is expected to be lower than projected, the vacancies are left open.

Konowalow chose a different route. Based on projected enrollment, the administrators determined that class sizes would be manageable even with the four teaching positions unfilled. Because the four positions were spaced out over three grades — two in third grade, one in fourth and one in fifth — the vacancies could be absorbed.

Under her system, students in third, fourth and fifth grade will be broken into groups between 19 and 21 and assigned a core teacher. They will then rotate to different teachers for lessons on the core subjects — math, reading, writing, science and social studies.

There also are computer-based tutorials and individualized small-group sessions, among other programs. Meanwhile, students in kindergarten, first and second grades will remain on a standard schedule with one teacher.

The process allows the core teachers to teach to their expertise. Another advantage: It kept the school from needing to hire substitute teachers, who are often leave and must be halfway through the year. Konowalow wanted her students to work with their teachers through the entire year.

“Think of the teacher bonds you developed in elementary school,” she said. “That is really critical to have. That relationship makes a world of difference for student learning, and we wanted that for the kids.”

The program has excited new teachers like Catherine Wolfe, who will be teaching reading and math to third-graders. Aside from developing an organization plan for the entire third grade rather than one group of third-graders, she said she didn’t expect there to be much of an adjustment.

If all goes according to Konowalow’s plan, the students won’t notice the school is four teachers short.

“We have a great teaching staff here on board to do what is best for our kids,” Konowalow said. “When you look at the day’s end, our kids are winning because of it.”

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