The Lasting Impacts to Education in Humboldt County of the Great Recession and Declining School Enrollment

California is facing a teacher shortage unlike any it has previously experienced. This statewide shortage is impacting Humboldt County schools as well. This means the quality of teachers we can place in our classrooms is in jeopardy.

Historically, schools have been spoiled behind the Redwood Curtain, with an abundance of teachers clamoring to teach in our local schools. Humboldt State University (HSU) had a dynamic teacher preparation program, attracting future teachers from around the state and some from around the nation. During their time in school, many students fell in love with the north coast and decided to call it home. When we opened an elementary teaching position, we typically received over 100 applicants. So what happened to create the critical shortage we are experiencing? The answer to this question involves multiple factors.

 

Across Humboldt County, schools have experienced declining enrollment for more than two decades. Humboldt County Schools have decreased in size from nearly 22,000 students to 18,500 students in the 2016-17 school year. This equates to about 175 teaching jobs. When a School District decreases in size, the first employees to be laid-off are the last to be hired. This creates a senior teaching staff as new hires are laid-off when enrollment shrinks, leaving limited room to hire new teachers. Many in this bubble of veteran teachers retired over the past five years, more than we have ever experienced previously. This created the first factor of the critical shortage, resulting numerous teacher vacancies. Couple this with the countywide enrollment stabilizing, and some districts like Eureka City Schools experiencing slight growth, we now have more teacher openings with fewer teacher candidates. This brings me to the second factor - the HSU teacher preparation program and programs across the state are producing less teachers.

For a variety of reasons credential programs are producing far less teachers. At HSU some of their teachers credential programs, such as Industrial Arts (there are as many programs as there are credential types) no longer exist, and some, such as music, are nearly nonexistent. Many of the HSU credential programs have an insufficient number of students. An example of this is the multiple subjects credential program, the credential required to teach elementary school. Additionally, HSU has started a distance-learning program, attracting some students who never have the experience of living within our community, allowing students to do their credential work online. These future teachers never live here, so they never fall in love with our community. One of the most prevalent reasons for the shrinking number of credential candidates across the state is the lack of interest in teaching.

Most of our new teacher candidates graduated high school six to ten years ago, right in the middle of the “Great Recession.” Students moving on to college during this time were making career choices while teachers were being laid-off en masse due to the lack of available state funding. They watched their former teachers being released, impacting their feelings about the stability of becoming a teacher. According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, in 2015-16 modest gains were made in the number of credentials issued in California, but we are still lagging behind in the number of credentials issued in 2011-12 by about 1,000, an 8% drop.

The ramifications of this teacher shortage influence the daily operations of schools as well. With a smaller group of candidates to choose from, it leaves fewer unemployed teachers, equating to a smaller substitute teacher pool to cover classes when teachers are ill, on field trips or attending professional development.

I remain optimistic this shortage is temporary, as teaching is a calling for many. Despite the challenges we have faced recently in teacher recruitment, we have hired a number of high quality teachers who I am proud to say have taught my own children. Teaching is a noble profession where true impacts are made on future generations. I am hopeful more young adults will choose to teach. The influence on lives is significant and the personal satisfaction from making a positive effect on a young impressionable mind is meaningful. In Humboldt County we are fortunate because many still come to this area looking to make it home. Please join me in encouraging young men and woman to consider teaching so we may all work together to serve the needs of our community and enhance our future.

By Fred Van Vleck, Ed.D., Superintendent, Eureka City Schools