ELOY — When Denise Rogers became superintendent of the Toltec School District two years ago she immediately tried to address the teacher shortage in the rural Pinal County school district.
But she found when she went out and tried to recruit certified teachers she had nothing to offer.
“It was embarrassing,” she recently told the Arizona City Chamber of Commerce. “All I had to offer was a four-day school week and it doesn’t snow in the winter.”
She said she then resorted to developing her own teachers.
“I would go to staff who were not teachers, that I saw a talent and ability, and I would bring them into my office or walk them into a classroom while I was having a conversation with them and said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a teacher?’ Most of them would say no.”
Rogers would map out how the staff member could become a teacher and how the school would support them.
Toltec is one example of how Arizona school districts are thinking outside the box in filling teacher vacancies.
A new report Thursday by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found the 150 school districts and charter schools that responded to a survey this year said they found themselves with nearly 6,950 positions to be filled. That compares with fewer than 6,230 last year.
Pinal school districts have used a variety of means to fill teaching positions.
Rita Ezzai, spokeswoman for the Florence Unified School District, said the district currently has eight teacher vacancies.
“We are partnering with state universities to establish a pipeline from graduation into the classroom,” she said. “Universities such as NAU work with FUSD to provide teacher candidates opportunities to get classroom experience through our partnership as well.”
She said FUSD is also looking for candidates who could possibly qualify for specific subject matters to get a subject matter teaching certificate, such as in the areas of math and science.
“We are reaching out to folks who may be looking for a second career (retirees in other fields). We just recently hired a teacher who was in the TV news industry and wanted to start a second career as well as another who was a mining engineer.
“These folks bring knowledge and real-life experiences to the classroom and Arizona now provides them (a way) to get certified in their fields of expertise.
Coolidge Unified School District and Eloy Elementary School District reported no vacancies, while the Maricopa Unified School District has only one opening at the high school.
MUSD has deepened its pool of applicants by considering foreign national teachers.
“This year, Maricopa Unified School District has nearly 30 foreign national teachers working in various high-need roles,” MUSD spokesperson Mishell Terry said. “The district offers signing bonuses and relocation stipends to help draw candidates, and we also rely on special education outside contractors to help us with hard-to-fill special needs teaching positions.
Additionally, MUSD is open to alternative pathways for certification for people who demonstrate a passion for teaching, but who may have a degree in another field, she said.
The Casa Grande Elementary School District currently has 41 teaching positions filled by people who don’t have a Standard Teaching Certificate, according to district spokesman Michael Cruz. “They either have an Emergency Teaching Certificate, Alternative Teaching Certificate or Emergency Sub Teaching Certificate.”
But Justin Wing, past president of the association that put the report together, said too many districts have made up the difference by putting people who do not meet standard teaching requirements in front of classrooms. That includes those who are in a teacher intern program and those who have emergency teaching certificates, people who lack any actual training in how to teach but have some professional background in the subject like math or physics.
Other slots were filled by those whose certification has not yet been approved, with the reporting schools saying they had hired 314 people from other countries through professional visas that allow them to work here.
Yet even with all that, Arizona schools still reported they have 1,444 positions where there are just no teachers to be had.
Wing said Arizona teacher salaries are still below the national average even with the state in the middle of the plan to raise the average by 20 percent over 2016 levels by 2020.
Gov. Doug Ducey has sought to address at least part of the issue with the creation of the Arizona Teachers Academy, which gives some education students free tuition.
Gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said 120 graduates of that program taught in public schools as part of an agreement for receiving a tuition waiver the prior year. And he said the new state budget adds $15 million to expand that program.
“With the new funding, the Teachers Academy is expected to grow to about 3,000 students,’’ he said.