Hunter Kleffman has wanted to be a Park View Patriot since he was in kindergarten. He watched his older cousin play on the high school’s football team, and figured he’d do the same just as soon as he was old enough. But when he was 13 years old, his family moved to Ashburn.
“I always felt like I missed out,” he said.
Now 22 years old, he can finally call himself a Patriot. Five months ago, he was hired to teach history at the school.
“I was so happy when I got the call,” he said. “I feel like I’ve come home.”
That’s music to the ears of the folks in charge of hiring educators for Loudoun County’s 88 public schools. The 76,000-student school division is feeling the effects of the nationwide teacher shortage. Those in Loudoun County Public Schools’ Personnel Services Department, which hires more than 600 teachers a year, are getting creative and strategic to attract employees for hard-to-fill positions.
In Loudoun, teacher vacancies have increased every week since July 1, compared with vacancies from the previous two years. On the first day of this school year, 28 classrooms were staffed with substitutes because they couldn’t find teachers to fill them.
Most of the positions that are toughest to fill locally mirror the needs at the national level. Loudoun is short of instructors to teach special education, students considered English Language Learners and middle and high school science and math classes.
But school leaders say the area that has experienced a teacher drought, no matter the subject area, is Sterling.
More than 34 percent of the teachers at Park View High School, and the elementary and middle schools that feed into that school, have three or fewer years of teaching. That figure is 30 percent at schools in the Dominion High School cluster. Countywide, only 22 percent of teachers fall in that experience range.
Just a look at the numbers—from income levels to test scores—is enough to deter some teachers from giving a job there a shot. Sixty-three percent of Park View High School students live in households with low enough incomes to qualify for federal free and reduced-priced meal programs. At Sugarland Elementary School, which feeds into Dominion High School, that figure is 73 percent.
“It is generally more difficult to recruit and retain high quality teachers at schools with higher poverty rates,” said Kimberly L. Hough, assistant superintendent of the school division’s Personnel Services Department.
So in April, she and her team worked with Sterling-area principals to launch a pilot program specifically to attract teachers to those schools.
First, Hough’s staff attended job fairs at colleges with a high number of young people just months away from earning their teaching degrees. They looked for students who were ethically diverse, have lived in high poverty or urban settings, and have experience with populations whose primary language is something other than English. And they invited them to interview in Loudoun County.
When the candidates arrived, administrators took them out of the central office in Ashburn, and instead spent the day in Sterling, meeting with principals and touring the schools and the neighborhoods that surround them.
“It was almost like a PR issue,” Hough said of Sterling. “People have a misperception of the schools, so we wanted them to go inside and see for themselves.”
The prospective teachers had lunch with men and women who are teaching in the schools, because Hough thought they would feel more comfortable asking teachers about their work experience than someone who would be their superior.
They also took a bus tour of the Sterling community, because statistics show candidates are more likely to take the job if they can live near the school at which they teach.
“We really wanted the whole day to be more personal,” Hough said. “And it was a success.”
The division hired 47 percent of the candidates who attended.
Kleffman was one of the teachers hired through the recruiting event. He said the biggest obstacle for Park View and other nearby schools is dispelling the perception that crime is rampant and the students are disrespectful. He describes his students as hard working and considerate, and in need of a strong support system that the school community can provide.
At Park View there’s more opportunity to make lasting impacts on young people than at many other Loudoun schools, he said. “I really don’t think there’s any other school you’d feel as needed and appreciated.”
Park View Principal Kirk Dolson believes working in Sterling schools made him a better teacher and person. He was first hired to teach English at the high school in 2002.
“You’re thrust into a melting pot of different cultures and different student needs,” he said. “It forces you to take stock in all the different needs these students have, both instructionally and basic, everyday needs.”
School Board member Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said for years she’s been concerned about the schools’ hiring challenges, and the pilot recruiting program was a big breakthrough. “I love that we’re not denying that misperception [of the area’s schools] is there,” she said. “We’re facing it straight on and trying to fix it.”
In the second round of the pilot, Hough’s staff plans to contact candidates to make a more personal connection with them before their visit. Staff is also making a video on the Sterling area, she said. “About all the positive things going on and the great things about living in those communities.”
They’re also working with principals to attract teachers who are from Sterling or grew up in a similar setting.
“We need our kids to see themselves in the teachers they’re learning from and unless you have a diverse candidate pool, that’s a struggle,” Dolson said. “It makes a difference when a teacher can say, ‘I’ve walked a day in your shoes and these are the decisions I’ve made to make sure my future was bright.’”
[This occasional series will look at how Loudoun’s public schools are trying to hire for the most difficult-to-fill positions, and spark an interest in education careers in students as early as middle school.]