Baldwin Wallace University

School districts in Ohio and nationwide are reporting a shortage of educators. Some vacancies already existed before the COVID-19 pandemic in fields such as special education, STEM and foreign languages. Plus, administrators reported recruiting and retaining teachers was challenging for many districts during the past two years.

“Educator vacancies and other staff shortages represent a real challenge as our schools work to recover, falling hardest on students of color, students in rural communities, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and multilingual learners,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said last month.

Cardona asked states, districts and higher education institutions to dip into federal relief funding to help address the issue. In Ohio, the departments of education and higher education are using $5.2 million, split between nearly 30 public and private institutions, of the state’s funding to do just that via new grants. The push comes as the field of education faces challenges.

“Teachers are not respected the way that they were a couple of decades ago,” said Jennifer Walton-Fisette, director of teacher education at Kent State University.

In 2011, 383 students in total enrolled in the advanced study portion of Kent State’s education programs, or the preparation and pedagogy phases of a student’s degree. That number fell to 376 in 2016 and 267 last fall, a roughly 30% drop from a decade before.

The climate is different, too. Ohio’s recently introduced House Bill 616 would limit how teachers discuss sexual orientation, gender identity and race.

Nearly 80% of the country’s public K-12 educators are white. The need to diversify the workforce has long been there, Walton-Fisette said. It has been magnified since the murder of George Floyd and the national conversations about race that followed.

“For many of our students of color or underrepresented students, they don’t see somebody that looks like them, so they don’t consider it a viable career,” she said.

Kent State is using the $200,000 it received in these new grants to help recruit and retain more students of color, students from underrepresented backgrounds and/or students who have an interest in some of the high-need subject areas.

Working with five area organizations, the university will look to create more immersive experiences for local high school students to get them thinking about a career in teaching earlier. There will also be a cohort of 10 students this fall and 10 in fall 2023 that will be supported financially and academically throughout their entire time at the university. Retention is crucial.

“If we can just get them through that first year and they’re like, ‘Yes, teaching is for me,’ they tend to make it,” Alicia Crowe, Kent State’s associate dean for undergraduate education and student services, said of students. “And they tend to graduate and become a teacher, a really good teacher at that.”

Like Kent State, Baldwin Wallace University continues to see declining interest in most of its education offerings. The Berea campus’ undergraduate early childhood education program, traditionally one of the most popular education majors at any university, saw about a 37% drop over the past five fall semesters.

It has continued to be an ongoing problem to meet the needs of schools, even in areas where traditionally there haven’t been teacher shortages, according to Michael Smith, dean of BW’s College of Education and Health Sciences.

“In the past, we actually had higher graduates (in early childhood education) than we had job openings in Ohio,” Smith said. “So we were an exporter, if you would, to other areas in the country.”

Almost all of BW’s graduate programs are seeing enrollment drops, too. The university has several master’s level offerings, including three that focus on areas with shortages, such as science, math and special education.

Students enrolled in the yearlong program stay busy, coupling five days each week at a school district during two semesters with classes of their own.

It’s intense — and expensive. The cost for BW’s advanced math teaching program, for instance, is listed at nearly $20,000 for tuition, books and fees.

To get teachers in the field quicker, officials are using the $160,000 the university is receiving via this grant funding strictly as scholarships.

For Ohio residents enrolling in the university’s math and science teacher master’s programs, officials are coupling another state grant earmarked for residents going into STEM programs, as well as institutional funding of its own in addition to the educator shortage awards. This brings the cost down to less than $4,000 for either program.

It will take a while for the pipeline to be boosted. In the meantime, districts such as Akron Public Schools are using substitutes to fill positions. It’s easier now, due to recent state legislation that relaxed the necessary requirements. Akron schools currently have a roster of 650 substitutes on file, up from 565 during the 2019–20 academic year.

It’s become a recruitment tool of sorts, according to Angela Harper, recruitment and retention manager at Akron Public Schools. Ohio offers an accelerated path for residents who want to become educators after certain requirements are met, including being sponsored by a district.

“When they start subbing, they don’t realize that this is something that’s giving them enjoyment, it’s something that’s bringing joy to their life, and it’s something that they want to continue to do,” she said.

A bump in pay probably helps, too. Substitutes working on a daily basis can now make up to $249 a day in the district’s schools.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.