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Local school districts grapple with growing shortage of teacher graduates


Northwest Indiana and the state mirror the nation in the shortage of teachers and qualified teaching candidates in the classroom.

According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Education report covering 15 years starting with the 1990-91 school year, Indiana schools have had trouble since the early 1990s finding special education, science and math teachers.

As the shortage continued, it was compounded by difficulty finding teachers for career and technical, world languages and business education in some communities.

The statistics are similar in Illinois and Michigan. In Illinois, finding special education teachers, particularly for intense intervention, bilingual teachers and computer literacy/technology teachers is difficult.

The report said that Michigan has difficulty finding teachers for music education, physical education and career and technical classes such as automobile tech and construction trades.

Munster schools Assistant Superintendent Steven Tripenfeldas said the district hired 11 new teachers this year, many of whom were experienced and chose to come to Munster.

Tripenfeldas is concerned, however, that "the number of qualified new teachers was lower than past years."

Superintendents across the Region echoed his observation that recent hires have come more from the ranks of experienced teachers than new college graduates, and that is of greatest concern, they said.


Teacher Christina Gettler in her classroom. Photo by Tony V. Martin/ The Times

Valparaiso schools Superintendent Ric Frataccia said there are fewer applications for teaching positions than several years ago and, "coincidentally, the number of teachers seeking licensure and matriculating in teacher prep programs is down about 25 percent."

Lake Central schools Superintendent Larry Veracco agreed, saying the district, one of the largest in the Region, has been able to fill positions but is receiving far fewer applications compared to 10 years ago.

"Teachers are leaving the profession, and the teacher preparation programs are still experiencing record low numbers of people in the field of education at the post-secondary level," Portage schools Superintendent Amanda Alaniz said.

The statistics from two recent state studies support their experience.

According to 2015 data from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, enrollment in teaching programs and those graduating with teaching degrees declined 37 percent from 2004 through 2014.

In 2004, Indiana produced more than 4,000 teachers through the traditional public and private university route; in 2014, Indiana produced 2,600 teachers — a 37 percent decline over that decade.

A survey of the past three years by Indiana State University professor Terry McDaniel confirms superintendents across the state are experiencing more difficulty finding teachers.

McDaniel's survey of 141 school districts in Indiana indicated that 94 percent of school districts experienced a teacher shortage in 2017, compared with 92 percent in 2016, when 164 districts responded. It also said 49 percent of school districts employed teachers outside of their licensed area in 2017.

"There's a national decline in the number of students interested in education," said Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon.

"I'd say we have one-fourth as many students majoring in education. It's not unique to us."

Experts said that's because fewer young people are planning a career in teaching as a result of perceived lower pay, the fact that raises are not steady, and the difficulty of an Indiana statewide exam to become a teacher.

"Many young people are leaving for the private sector due to the impression, given by state leaders, that they are to blame for the levels of their students' performance on standardized tests," Lake Central's Veracco said.

"We need to diligently evaluate the teaching practices and relationships teachers have with students and back away from the emphasis on ratings based on standardized test scores, which do a rather poor job of indicating the quality of our teachers' instructional quality."

Munster teachers association President Ryan Ridgley said the reasons young people are not going into education vary, from linking students' standardized test scores to teacher evaluations, to creating a system where a teacher may never see sustained pay increases as the cost of living continues to increase, he said.

"While every teacher understands the demands of the profession, those demands have increased over the years without compensation or respect for the profession," he said.

"Young people are seeing this and continuing to see education as not an option for them."

Mark Sperling, interim dean of education at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, said 10 years ago, 600 students were enrolled in education there — compared to 300 students in fall 2017.

"One problem that we are seeing is that students must take a test called CASA (Core Academic Skills Assessment), and some students are finding it a very difficult exam," he said.

"We do prep for the test here, and we offer it monthly for any student who wants to go into education. They have to take it and pass. That's one of the factors leading into lower numbers of students enrolled in the program."


Evans Elementary School teacher Christina Gettler works with a second-grader in her classroom. Evans is in the River Forest Community School Corp. Many blame a decline in teacher pay to teacher shortages not only in Indiana but across the country. 

Overall strategy needed?

Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers said while the number of college students looking to become teachers across Indiana has declined over the years, it's important to assess the demand, specifically where there are teacher shortages and in what areas of study.

"There is a shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teachers, special education teachers and dual credit teachers," she said.

"Then, it's important to go district by district to see what the impact is and how they tackle the problem. Nationally, about 60 percent of teachers teach within 15 miles of where they grew up."

Lubbers said that means if you want teachers in specific urban and rural areas, it pays to begin recruiting young people when they are in school, giving them an opportunity to do cadet teaching and getting them into the classroom early.

She said it will be important to prepare teachers to teach in different subject areas where there are needs such as math, science, special education and dual credit, areas where school districts know there are shortages. She said there also is a shortage of African-American, Latino and male teachers.

"You almost have to look at the shortage in a very directed way, and encourage students to get into the profession," she said.

To this end, Valparaiso's Frataccia said he "likes to hire former Valpo students and students familiar with Northwest Indiana and Valpo."

He also would like to partner with a university to establish a training facility that could license prospective teachers.

Calumet College of St. Joseph President Amy McCormack said there's been a slight decline in the number of undergraduate students majoring in education, but the number of students in its transition-to-teaching program remains steady.

She said the college has had conversations with local school districts about the steps the college can take to improve its curriculum, and is considering training teachers specifically for STEM fields.

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"Industry tells us that students must be able to communicate verbally, be able to write and understand technology," she said.

Districts trying to counter teacher shortage

Valparaiso's Frataccia said his district has faced shortage challenges in physics, foreign language and special education, "and some STEM challenges have become more severe."

Munster's Tripenfeldas said he's spoken with administrators from across the state and knows many schools are experiencing teacher shortages much greater than in his district.

"Some of my colleagues have stated that they could not find licensed teachers for some positions and have had to resort to hiring people with emergency permits. I am concerned that could be the case (in Munster) if the trend does not change," he said.

Portage schools' Alaniz agreed many teacher applicants do not have the necessary credentials, compounding the shortage.

IU Northwest's Sperling said the university is responding by working with local school districts to attract students and get more graduate students into its programs.

He said it has increased the number of graduate students and those in the urban teacher program. The university also has developed STEM camps for high school students to attract them to those fields and to IU Northwest, he said.

Area school districts also are responding by raising beginning teacher pay, going to recruitment fairs, and working more closely with local colleges and universities to get teacher graduates into their applicant pipeline.

The shortage "also creates a significant need for competitive salaries in order to recruit those qualified and quality applicants," Portage's Alaniz said.

Portage Township Schools' Board of Trustees "raised the starting pay for teachers to $38,000 and is determined to raise it to $39,000 next year," Alaniz said.

In addition, Alaniz said there is a shortage of substitute teachers. "At this time, Portage Township Schools is providing teachers with a $250 quarterly bonus for perfect attendance. We remain dedicated to keeping our certified teachers in the classrooms to facilitate learning," she said.

Porter Township Schools Superintendent Stacey Schmidt said her district had trouble this school year finding math and foreign language teachers.

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"Science is also a struggle," Schmidt said. "I'm not sure at this point how many retirements we will have at the end of the year."

Lake Station Community Schools Superintendent Thomas Cripliver said his district worked with the teacher union to raise beginning teacher salaries "in hopes of attracting teachers to our district when we have openings," he said. The starting salary for a Lake Station teacher is $36,500.

"Lake Station schools also partners with colleges and universities to provide opportunities for student teachers to do their student teaching in our district. This has allowed us to hire teachers when they graduate to fill some vacancies," Cripliver said.

"There are particular subjects that are hard to fill now — math, family and consumer science, science, English, and the shortage is beginning to affect elementary teaching positions."

Tripenfeldas said in Munster, the overall number of secondary mathematics and science teaching candidates is much lower than in previous years.

"Those are the positions that we see the greatest decline in the number of possible candidates. If that trend continues, there will be a problem for all school districts," he said.

Porter County Career and Technical Center Director/Principal Jon Groth said his teachers have to be subject-matter experts with a degree — but get paid half of what their counterparts earn in industry.

"Therefore finding qualified career teachers is very difficult," he said.

"I have been very lucky to get faculty who are transitioning from their career area after making enough money to be able to take my teaching jobs. It is not an ideal recruiting strategy, but it is necessitated by the realities of the salary discrepancy. We need to start valuing our teachers equivalent to other occupations."

Dr. Eunjoo Kim teaches education at IUN

Dr. Eunjoo Kim teaches education at Indiana University Northwest. There is a shortage of teachers in certain subject areas in Northwest Indiana and across the state and country.

Urban schools' teacher shortage greatest

PNW's Chancellor Keon said the demand for teachers is even greater in communities facing the most economic challenges.

"The school districts which have the lowest starting salaries are the ones that often have the most need for teachers, though there is a shortage overall," he said.

East Chicago schools Superintendent Paige McNulty said the teacher shortage in urban settings is at a crisis level.

"This year, we hired about 40 new teachers, and we worked very hard to do that, going to job fairs in Chicago and Indianapolis," she said.

"We've partnered with Teach for America, the UTEP (Urban Teacher Education Program) at IU Northwest and other programs at our local colleges and universities. Many of the people we hired are going into teaching as a second career."

Gary public schools Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley said she is working to recruit quality teaching graduates from IU Northwest, Calumet College of St. Joseph and Purdue University Northwest. The state took over the Gary school district last year due to its struggling financial and academic status and appointed Hinckley and MGT Consulting to run the district.

Kevin Teasley, president and founder of Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation, which operates 21st Century Charter school in Gary, said finding quality teachers who want to work in Gary is difficult.

"We are doing everything we can to compete with surrounding communities including that big city on Lake Michigan in Illinois," he said.

"But it is very difficult. Demand is very high. We are planning to start our own teacher prep program to help us recruit individuals wanting to change careers."

Teasley said the charter school is developing a program where qualified people interested in changing careers could work with and learn from their current, experienced teachers. Once developed, the program will need State Board of Education approval, he said.

School leaders at Michigan City Area Schools said they have a shortage of special education teachers at all grade levels.

"We've had a large number of retirees in this area over the past several years, and have been unable to find licensed special ed teachers to fill the positions. Currently, we have 25 teachers who are teaching with emergency permits in special ed," spokeswoman Betsy Kohn said.

"We are actively recruiting special ed teachers through job fairs both in Indiana and neighboring states, posting openings online through the IDOE, Indeed and etc., advertising openings in publications for educators, and reaching out locally and across the state to teacher pre-service education departments at universities and colleges," she said.