How is ACPS handling teacher recruitment and retention?

How is ACPS handling teacher recruitment and retention?
Recruiting more teachers to fill empty classrooms will help control the class sizes and help kids get a more personalized education experience.(File photo)

By Kassidy McDonald

The School Board met on Oct. 20 to discuss strategies for recruitment and retention of teachers in Alexandria City Public Schools.

The meeting started off with public comment where many parents of ACPS students spoke about their frustration and disappointment with overcrowding in their children’s classrooms. Patrick Henry Elementary and Samuel Tucker Elementary were the two schools that raised the most concern within ACPS. Multiple speakers emphasized these two elementary schools have faced overcrowding for a while, while other schools in the district don’t face the overcrowding to the same extent.

Parents said that their children’s experience is of utmost importance and the board should be working to release information about classroom sizing to the district so that solutions can be created and implemented.

Parents also raised concerns about teachers having strained resources and time with larger class sizes. Two parents spoke about their children, both who attended kindergarten at Samuel Tucker Elementary. The class sizes were around 27 to 28 kids. One parent said he noticed all five kindergarten classes at Tucker had 27 to 28 kids and that there was even an empty kindergarten classroom that was not being utilized. Hiring another kindergarten teacher and having another class would help balance out the number of students in the other classrooms.

Not only do these large classes make it harder for teachers to provide kids with special attention, they said, but many students who may have special needs go unidentified within a larger classroom. There is also overcrowding on the playground, which raises the risk for injury in young children. Solutions parents raised during public comment included rezoning schools to achieve smaller class sizes and recruiting more teachers to fill the empty classrooms so class sizes can be smaller and more individualized, which helps their children learn more effectively.

Margaret Browne, director of recruitment and retention for ACPS, delivered a presentation on a results driven solution to some of the problems parents addressed during public comment.

Browne started off by addressing the challenges ACPS is facing in hiring new teachers to fill gaps they may have.

“In a challenging recruitment year, ACPS will continue to commit to creative, dynamic, and diversity-focused recruitment strategies and events to bring in top talent to our schools. To do so, the Human Resources division is committed to strengthening existing university and professional organization partnerships and to greatly increase the number of partners to create direct pipelines to our applicant pool,” the memo to the board reads.

Some specific challenges Browne listed that ACPS faces are fewer applicants, especially in harder to fill positions, low attendance at recruitment fairs and events, increasing teacher vacancies, COVID-19 concerns and a negative overall outlook on pursuing teaching or education as a profession.

Some areas of focus for ACPS’ recruitment efforts will be focusing on applicant and candidate diversity as well as partnerships with different organizations like universities and HBCUs. There will be a major focus on LatinX organizations, Browne said.

“Applicant and candidate diversity is a huge focus area for us. We did start that last season and we’re going to replicate that, particularly around LatinX organizations,” Browne said. “I did partner with both professional organizations and I’m also working with our dual language and ELL teams to go out to universities that have strong programs … also working with some HBCU organizations as well as universities directly to make sure that we attend those events and establish those partnerships.”

Browne said that recruitment is a “collaborative effort,” in which she and her team are already preparing for the 2023-24 school year. Some of the ways Browne is planning to combat these challenges include holding the Spring 2023 fair schedule earlier in November and continuing it throughout the rest of the school year.

Hiring events will be held earlier this school year than they ever have before, so ACPS can “hit the ground running,” she said. They will now begin in February instead of March. Applicant pools are also typically posted in late January but will be moved to an earlier date this year.

“We’re also really thrilled about some of the work we’ve been doing with our student teachers,” Browne said. “I am a firm believer that getting to know our student teachers now and seeing them as a wonderful pipeline is absolutely paramount. So we’re doing a lot of recruitment conversations and connections with school leaders, so we can very easily and quickly convert those student teachers once they graduate – both in December as well as in May.”

For the next few months and continuing throughout the school year, Browne and her team are getting to work on advertising through job boards, newsletters as well as social media efforts to better target younger people trying to get into the education field. Browne also pointed out to the board the importance of hooking candidates faster by having a fast and efficient interview process and extending early offers. Browne even said she was interviewing a candidate last week who is choosing ACPS over teaching at another district because the interview process was more efficient.

Board member Kelly Carmichael Booz asked to see a breakdown of roles, especially for tough to fill positions, so that the board can have an idea of what is vacant. She then asked a question about retaining teachers and exit interviews.

“What is some of the feedback we’re getting on why teachers are leaving or support staff is leaving and what are we doing to make sure we’re also just retaining the teachers that we have right now … you can continue to fill a bucket of holes but if you don’t try to fill those holes and try to hold on to it we’re going to lose some great teachers,” Booz said.

Interim Superintendent Kay-Wyatt said that the exit survey was revised last spring to better suit ACPS needs and gather more data. The employee engagement and relations team handles retention of teachers within ACPS and are working closely with Browne’s recruitment team to come up with strategies to utilize data from the exit surveys. Kay-Wyatt also said they’re looking into crafting exit interviews, but found it difficult last year with COVID-19.

Booz continued to say that she recently read an article about a number of school districts conducting “stay interviews” as to why teachers chose to continue to work in a specific district, which could also help give ACPS important information to retain their teachers.

“At the end of last year we did create a draft stay interview that would go out this year and we are also doing a 90 day check-in for new staff, so they’ll get like a little survey with questions that we can address or maybe we didn’t address. Sometimes, you know, when we did the new teacher license staff orientation, that was a really quick three days, so we give them another opportunity at the 90 days to check-in,” Kay-Wyatt said.

ACPS is also looking into expanding its new teacher mentoring program from only being available year one to a two or three year mentorship, in order to better help adjust new teachers within ACPS and career-switchers who may be new to the teaching industry.

The board also discussed engaging with support staff already within ACPS, like long-term substitute teachers and instructional assistants to get them schooling and licensing to move up to a teaching position if they are interested to “grow from within.”

“We did receive some money from the [Virginia Department of Education] that will actually go towards covering tuition for individuals who are interested in obtaining a provisional license, so that is absolutely something we are working on currently,” Browne said. “The partnership that I referenced earlier is also to establish a pipeline of teachers… and that could be individuals who are currently employed, and it can be external folks that would be able to go to university, we’ll cover part of that tuition, and they’ll also be simultaneously employees of ours in teacher positions. So there are many items at play there to solve that need.”