LAS VEGAS — Last year, before Anthony Boccia joined the teaching staff at Valley High School, his students spent hours in a windowless room in the company of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Overseen by a long-term substitute teacher, the group of eight children, who are mostly nonverbal and physically and intellectually disabled, watched “Grease,” and a drawer-full of other well-worn VHS tapes, often from the first bell to the last.
Boccia, however, runs things differently. “Now, when students or teachers stop by, they ask: ‘You aren’t watching “Grease” today?’ And they’re shocked that we’re actually busy learning stuff,” he said, tidying up his classroom after getting his last students onto the afternoon bus headed for home. Boccia’s classroom walls are decorated with colorful posters of the subjects his students are learning about: the solar system, maps of the world, nouns and verbs. “Imagine if you were taught just colors and letters, over and over again, for 12 years of school because people didn’t think you are capable of learning anything beyond that? How boring would that be?” said Boccia. “These kids are all so different, with their own unique disabilities. I’m trying to figure out what they need, what piques their interest, and fit in supports so I can work with each child individually.”
Working long hours, Boccia — known at Valley High as Mr. Tony — is learning how to run his classroom via trial and error, one day at a time. At this point, his teaching methods may be more grounded in instinct than formal training. This is because Boccia is not a fully licensed teacher, not yet at least. While he previously subbed in several classrooms in the Las Vegas school district of Clark County to make ends meet while working toward his Ph.D. in business, the only formal preparation he’s had to become a teacher was a semiweekly fast-track training program last summer.
The teacher shortage in the school district that includes Las Vegas is perhaps one of the worst in the country, mirroring a nationwide pattern in which students in high-poverty and high-minority areas experience the greatest teacher shortages. At the beginning of last school year, the district reported 900 vacancies, according to its chief recruitment officer, Mike Gentry. In the summer leading up to this school year, the district had 700 unfilled teacher jobs,* the district had 700 unfilled teacher jobs. So the state and district are trying some creative — and highly controversial — strategies to draw teachers into the county’s rapidly diversifying and increasingly needy schools.
The biggest push by far happened early this year when Nevada governor Brian Sandoval issued an emergency teacher-hiring regulation allowing school districts to issue provisional licenses to teachers who otherwise would not qualify to teach in Nevada schools. The regulation immediately raised concern that hundreds of subpar teachers would fill the vacancies.
According to the Clark County human resources department, however, the intent of the emergency regulation was to allow for the hiring of out-of-state teachers, a move which up until the signing of the Every Child Succeeds Act would have jeopardized Nevada’s ability to qualify for federal funds.
“It’s not like this regulation allowed nonqualified teachers to apply. In order to gain the provisional license, you have to be a licensed teacher in another state,” said Gentry. “There’s not a heck of a lot of difference between what one state does, and doesn’t, define as qualifications to become a teacher. It’s not like we’re saying: ‘Let’s bring this unqualified, nondegreed person over to Clark County to teach our students.’ Once the professional license is issued, there are specific things that teacher then needs to complete in order to comply. And if they don’t, they lose their provisional license and the deal is off.”
As a result, the emergency hiring directive — coupled with ongoing programs that allow schools to hire mid-career professionals like Boccia after prepping them at “lightning speed” — has allowed the district to fill more than half of its vacancies this school year. As of early November, Gentry said, 323 spots remain open.
Still, allowing non- or barely credentialed teachers to take over classrooms is worrisome to educators like Magdalena Martinez, director of education programs for the Lincy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “We can’t be in a rush to fill all our vacancies if we can’t fill them with quality teachers,” said Martinez. “There’s great concern, and it’s legitimate, that the district is under so much pressure to fix the teacher shortage — the numbers keep being reported by the media: ‘oh my gosh, 900 vacancies’ — plus the perception by the community that the district is this big, wasteful, bureaucratic organization. I’m really not sure how this will play out.”
All told, Boccia subbed for approximately one year in various special education classrooms around the district, and his fast-track training program focused on special education teacher prep. Enough to adequately prepare him to educate eight high-needs children? “These kids, they know when someone cares about them,” said Boccia. “When you have sub after sub, I think that’s so hard for the kids.”
Hit hard by the recession, Nevada public education “is at the bottom of all national metrics,” said Martinez. “We lead the nation in foreclosures and the disinvestment from public services, including public education. Our challenges — poverty, language learning, parents under- or unemployed — are very clearly manifest in our student outcomes.”
Indeed, in a 2016 state-by-state assessment that compared student achievement, chances for success and financial investment per student, Nevada ranked last in the nation. The state’s largest school district — the fifth-largest in the country — is Clark County, which includes 357 schools, 40,000 employees and 18,000 teachers.
Macie Vega, a U.C. Santa Barbara graduate credentialed to teach science, chemistry and biology in California, is one of the new out-of-state hires Mike Gentry recruited to offset the Clark County shortage this fall. Before the emergency hiring regulation, Vega would not have been able to work in Nevada this school year. Offered a job at Valley High, she relocated her husband and toddler-age son to Las Vegas.
“A lot of my family was really worried about me moving to Vegas. They were concerned that it’s not safe, that it’s not a place to raise a family,” said Vega, who previously taught for five years at a magnet school in Ventura, California. “But we’ve found Vegas to be family-friendly and nice. In California, it was really difficult to make a life as a teacher; my whole paycheck would go to rent, and that was that, nothing left over.”
To sweeten the hiring package, the Clark County school district matched her California teaching salary, and Vega now benefits from Nevada’s substantially lower cost of living. If she remains at the high-poverty Valley High School and fulfills specific professional development goals, she will receive a $5,000 stipend in two payments during her first year; if she stays put for a total of five years, she will be eligible for up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness toward her $50,000 student-loan debt. “At first, I thought: Go and teach in Vegas for a year or two, get the stipend and leave,” said Vega. “But I really like it, I’m getting a ton of support and professional development. I liked teaching at a nice school in California, but those kids would have done well whether I was there or not. Now, when I stay after school or before class to help kids, I feel it makes much more of a difference.”
Vega and Boccia, the newly hired special education teacher, are among Valley High’s 25 new hires this year. Nearly a third of those hires occurred as a result of the emergency hiring regulation, a provision that Valley High principal Ramona Esparza calls a godsend.
“Just attracting and recruiting teachers to work at a school like ours is challenging. The flexibility to get people in here much faster than before has been a major help for Title 1 [high poverty] schools like Valley,” said Esparza, who last year had to fill 19 teacher vacancies with long-term substitutes, among them the sub who favored “Grease” marathons. While some long-term substitutes are on a path to becoming certified teachers, she noted, others may not intend to stay in the teaching profession. “It’s very difficult when you have to fill spots with substitutes who maybe aren’t licensed in a subject area, for whom teaching is possibly just an in-between filler job. It’s disruptive for the kids, especially for kids with special needs who need consistency, and it’s unfair. It’s basically a warm body in the room, just to make sure students are supervised.”
A former teacher in Clark County, Esparza is also a product of its school district. Her father was a social worker and her mother, a high school dropout, worked as a maid, a bus driver and eventually as an attendance officer in the district. “I came from that experience,” said Esparza. “And how I hire new teachers now is a direct connection to my personal experience. What do teachers need to do a good job at a high-needs school like Valley? It’s not just knowing your content, it’s being able to interact, have empathy and emotional intelligence. Without that, I don’t care how many degrees you have, you will never be able to teach and reach that kid. I’m fine hiring someone who is working toward their degree. If they have the ability to connect with kids and get them across a stage to graduation, I’m going to invest time and professional development to help that teacher stay.”
At the same time, she acknowledged that for many of her new teachers, transitioning to a high-poverty school like Valley High, where 86 percent of students are minorities and 78 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, is not an easy move.
“We work in the ER of education — the emergency room of education. I have kids who are trying to commit suicide, kids who are being sex-trafficked, kids who are parents themselves, or taking care of parents,” said Esparza. “So when a new teacher doesn’t have cultural competency, and you transplant them to a school like Valley, it’s total culture shock. If you don’t provide lots of support, you will lose these new teachers because they can’t handle the kids, this isn’t how they grew up or how they behaved in class.”
Clearly, Esparza faces a number of challenges at Valley High — including increasing the four-year graduation rate, which was as low as 59 percent just three years ago. Yet she is getting help: Valley High is one of just two high schools in the state to benefit from an experimental effort by the Nevada Department of Education to boost performance at low-performing, high-poverty schools via a substantial influx of funds. As a designated Victory School, Valley High received a $3.2 million grant this year, earmarked specifically to provide professional development for teachers and encourage collaboration among educators, along with wrap-around services for students, including counseling, boxes of groceries, clothing, school supplies, and bus fare. As a result, Esparza’s new teachers and her existing staff have peer-mentoring time built into the school day and instructional coaches advising them on teaching. “Some principals might say: ‘We don’t have technology, or we need instructional supplies,’ ” said Esparza about her use of the Victory grant funds. “I prioritize people. Because teachers get burned out working at a high-needs school like Valley. They need to feel supported.”
Fifteen minutes away, at Desert Pines High School, Principal Isaac Stein said he is breaking in 40 new teachers this school year, 25 of whom are first-year teachers from out of state, hired this fall thanks to the emergency teacher-hiring regulation. Desert Pines is a high-poverty school in North Las Vegas where, according to Stein, 86 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. “The only reason we’re not at 90 percent for free or reduced lunch is because some parents might not have filled out the forms,” he noted.
Both Valley High and Desert Pines are identified by the Nevada Department of Education as underperforming schools — ranking in the lowest 5 percent of the state’s high-poverty schools.
Stein was brought on as principal of Desert Pines in 2015 to turn around the low graduation rate — it was 42 percent four years ago — and stem the high student-transiency rate. Thirty percent of students that register at Desert Pines at the beginning of each school year move to another school during the year as a result of unstable home situations, said Stein. “A big part of my job is to motivate students to come to school and be part of the school community. … There’s a heavy gang community here; just keeping kids here and off the streets, keeping them engaged, that’s what we’re working toward.”
Although Desert Pines is not the beneficiary of a multimillion-dollar Victory grant like Valley High, the school is receiving federal funds from the district because it is a designated Turnaround School — a program aimed at helping chronically underperforming schools improve student achievement and graduation rates. Though the turnaround movement has its detractors, Stein is happy to have the funds to support his 40 new hires this year. With $500,000 from a mix of sources, including the federal turnaround grant, he said he’s added six full-time instructional coaches to help teachers with everything from classroom management to establishing best practices. Still, this level of financial investment is not sustainable; the turnaround funds decrease each year and only last four years, he said.
“Obviously, the hope is that our new hires stay here at Desert Pines. So how do we maintain these teachers? We need to ensure that they have the support they need right now,” said Stein. When the funds run out, though, he’s not sure how he’ll maintain the help he says his teachers will continue to need. For now, while investing in teacher support diverts funds that would otherwise go toward keeping class sizes smaller, Stein said he sees no alternative. “It’s a choice we’ve made,” he said. “Because much of the task of pushing students and keeping them engaged is fully on the shoulders of teachers.”
Although educators are upbeat at Valley High and Desert Pines, it’s still unclear if the stopgap measures to deal with the teacher shortage will help or exacerbate the challenges faced by a school district under intense pressure to improve student achievement.
“It’s an uncertain time for us with the teacher shortage and people saying we’re not producing students who can compete in the twenty-first century,” said Esparza.
Meanwhile, Boccia now has three years to earn his official teaching license — a master’s degree in intellectual disability from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Along the way, he must balance a full-time teaching schedule, the required hours of professional development and regular meetings with mentors from the district and from Valley High. If he fails to meet these requirements within the three years, he will lose his provisional license. Physics teacher Vega is ahead of the game: Not knowing she had one year under the new hiring provision to transfer her California teaching license, she completed the paperwork and fingerprinting before her first day teaching in Las Vegas.
Will they stay put at Valley High? “These kids, they depend on me,” said Boccia. “If I mess this up, I’m messing up a person’s life. I feel so responsible; I could never just walk away. I’ve never felt this vested in a job. I’m their guardian.”
*Clarification: This story has been changed to reflect the timing of the 700 teacher vacancies in Clark County. There were 700 at the beginning of the summer, and 319 by the time school started.
Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.