Facebook Twitter
Recruiters Edwina Dortch and Asenath Jones chat with passersby at Morgan State University's spring career fair

Recruiters Edwina Dortch and Asenath Jones chat with passersby at Morgan State University’s spring career fair

‘Come help these babies.’ Inside the Detroit district’s long-shot effort to end a crippling teacher shortage

Sporting perfectly tailored black-and-white ensembles and wide, beaming smiles, three seasoned Detroit schools recruiters scanned a packed ballroom at Baltimore’s Morgan State University’s spring job fair recently, searching out likely catches.

“Hey, soror, come on over here,” one of them, Cass Technical High School social studies teacher Asenath Jones, called out as she beckoned to a young woman toting an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority bag. “Let me tell you about Detroit.”

Senior Ashley Fox shot back a quick smile. But while the sociology major stopped to chat with her sister in the nation’s first black sorority, she was not interested in either teaching or joining the district. On an early-April tour of job fairs at historically black colleges and universities, Fox and scores of others who ignored Detroit’s pitches illustrate the challenge confronting Jones and her fellow recruiters.

Ashley Fox, a graduating Morgan State sociology major from Chicago, doesn’t want to teach in Detroit—or anywhere else.

Ashley Fox, a graduating Morgan State sociology major from Chicago, doesn’t want to teach in Detroit—or anywhere else.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor

Facing an acute shortage of teachers, districts across the nation are offering $1,500 signing bonuses, loan repayment and master’s degree tuition reimbursement to lure coveted candidates. The financially strapped Detroit Public Schools Community District can offer none of that. And its need is dire: Mid-spring, the district still has nearly 200 vacancies — nearly 7 percent of its teaching force. That’s robbed some children of a chance to be taught by a fully-qualified teacher and forced others into overcrowded classrooms.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his dogged team of recruiters say they’re determined to fill every classroom next school year with a permanent teacher. Besides recruiting locally, he has revived out-of-state tours to campuses that previously provided Detroit’s main district with young teachers.

The district is spending nearly $49,000 this spring to visit recruiting fairs at 38 universities in 13 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. That number includes 15 in-state hiring trips. To hire more teachers of color, recruiters are focusing on historically black colleges and universities such as Morgan State and Howard University, but they also are searching for new educators at teaching powerhouses such as Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

Without the incentives other districts are offering, Vitti has pulled out his secret weapons: highly charismatic recruiters like Jones, recruiting specialist Edwina Dortch, and Cass Tech Principal Lisa Phillips. At Morgan State in Baltimore, the team radiated charm and personality as they cast their lines into the sea of anxious job seekers and reeled in the eager, the curious, and the anxious.

The students had no idea the recruiters, who are on the career-fair circuit, were just as desperate as they were.

The three women chatted up Detroit’s comeback, vibrant nightlife, and low cost of living — a nice one-bedroom apartment can cost only $900. They lightly portrayed challenges as opportunities to work in a troubled district that is transforming, to hone their skills, and to make a difference in the lives of children.

“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere,” Dortch told some students.

And the women tugged at the hearts and consciences of students well-versed in lessons of black history and driven by a sense of responsibility to salve urban woes.

“I have a heart for Detroit,” said Symone Odoms, a junior elementary education major who met with Detroit recruiters when they came to Howard University. “I think it’s the kind of place where I can make a difference as a teacher. I know I can teach a fifth-grader who can’t read how to read.”

At Morgan State, Dortch, turned on her motherly, nurturing, and warm persona, and told some wide-eyed seniors, “You can come help these babies in Detroit.”

That pitch resonated with graduating senior Demetrie Johnson.

“I like the history of Detroit,” he said. “I’m from Philly and I’m attracted to the city life, but I also like the civil rights movement history on up. I can have the whole black experience in Detroit.”

Morgan State University senior Demetrie Johnson shakes hands with Detroit recruiters after an interview.

Morgan State University senior Demetrie Johnson shakes hands with Detroit recruiters after an interview.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor

Yet while he was willing to serve in an advisory or organizational role, the speech communication major didn’t want to be a teacher.

Phillips had a quick reply: “You don’t have to be a teacher, we’ve got other positions open.”

But not all students were buying the Detroit pitch.

“Detroit! You all had the worst test scores in the nation,” a graduating political science major abruptly stopped and leaned in to tell the recruiters as he passed by.

Dortch was not deterred. “There’s more to the story,” she called after him. “There’s far more to Detroit than poor test scores.”

Recruiters made a point not to mention such negatives: class sizes up to 40 students, leaking roofs and roach-infested classrooms, a shortage of books and desks — and, of course, low pay.

Vitti has vowed to remedy some of that. A new teacher contract approved last year increased entry-level salaries 5.6 percent to $38,500. Last week, the school board approved a new deal that also will enable the district, for the first time in years, to offer higher salaries to experienced teachers coming into the district. Previously, even seasoned teachers had to start at the bottom of the pay scale when accepting a district job.

Still, the urban district lags behind nearby districts. Starting pay will be $45,398 in Warren Consolidated Schools and $41,341 in Northville next year. Further away, Chicago will offer $56,665, and Cleveland, $45,686.

As of May 3, the district had made conditional job offers to more than 300 aspiring teachers, including 148 from the national tour. Those candidates have been invited to a recruiting event this week that could result in signed contracts. But it’s not yet clear how many of those candidates will accept jobs — and resist other offers that might roll in over the summer.

Already, the district is mapping out next year’s recruiting tour, refining timing and planning to hit more schools that could yield teaching candidates.

The district is spending an estimated $49,000 this year on recruiting including about $30,000 for out-of-state travel expenses.

It’s a lot of money, but Vitti said it’s worth it.

“Absolutely,” he said.“When people ask me what is your greatest challenge right now as a school district leader, it’s vacancies. When we think about the learning that is lost for 30 students assigned to a classroom with a vacant teacher, that $30,000 is pennies considering the economic loss we just had with children who don’t have a full-time teacher. There’s a great return on that $30,000.”

Stepped-up recruiting has been chipping away at the problem. Since August, the district has filled 40 percent of its 340 teaching vacancies. But district officials are bracing for a large wave of retirements and other departures that could make the shortage difficult to completely resolve.

Salaries are only one issue. Strong mentoring is key in recruiting and retaining teachers of color, said Linda Darling-Hammond of the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute. It released a study last month highlighting the importance of getting and keeping black teachers in classrooms across the country.

“I would hope the energy they are putting into recruiting, they will also put into ensuring [teachers] have adequate tools to teach, mentoring, good working conditions, and stable places to work,” Darling-Hammond said.

While talking to job candidates, Dortch touted the mentoring and training new teachers receive while working for the district.

Right now, with the next school year just a few months away, Dortch and her team are ramping up all their persuasive skills. And here and there, they’re meeting success.

At a local job fair, back home in Detroit, they nabbed Jennifer Lentz, who will graduate this month from Wayne State with a degree in elementary education and wants to teach music. She’s turning down districts elsewhere that offer large band programs, she said, because Detroit is the place for her, especially as the district is trying to reinvigorate music programs in schools.

Jennifer Lentz, a graduating Wayne State University senior, hopes to teach music in a Detroit district school.

Jennifer Lentz, a graduating Wayne State University senior, hopes to teach music in a Detroit district school.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor

“It’s a real blessing,” Lentz said. “People don’t say nice things about Detroit all the time, but that doesn’t scare me because I really love this city.”

She’s got the spirit recruiters, who will continue searching for candidates throughout the spring and summer, are looking for.

Now they only need to find a few score more like her who are just as willing and eager to teach in Detroit.

“We are looking for teachers who are enthusiastic, really concerned about learning and teaching children,” Dortch said. “We want them to be excited to come work with us.”