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Help wanted: Schools work to fill vacancies

Districts short on teachers, administrators and support staff

All districts — The sun is shining and the humidity is low, making Aug. 14 one of the nicer Saturdays that West Michigan has experienced in a while. But instead of enjoying the day, Grand Rapids Creston High 2003 alumni Dennis Kroondyk is sitting in his old middle school, now GRPS University, waiting for a job interview.

“I am trying to get into my field,” says Kroondyk, who was hoping to interview with the Grand Rapids Public Schools help desk team for an IT position. “There was no one here for the help desk, so they pulled my resume for that. I decided to also interview for a secretarial position.”

Kroondyk was one of about 100 people who came out for the GRPS Job Fair, to help the area’s largest school district fill 200 vacancies. Openings ranged from administrators and teachers to janitorial, secretarial and transportation positions.  

“I am not really surprised by the number of people,” said Adriana Almanza, GRPS talent development, retention and diversity recruitment manager, who added she had been receiving calls about the event a couple of weeks prior. “Like other various organizations, we have a need to fill positions.”

The day made a dent in filling that need, but by no means completely. Of 72 vacant teaching positions, officials interviewed 44 applicants and recommended 35 to advance for further interviews, references and other vetting.

‘Across the state and across the nation, there is a drastic teacher shortage.’

— GRPS Director of Curriculum Jonathan Harper

As a new school year gets under way, GRPS and other area districts are still looking for the most crucial resource to help students learn: teachers, and the staff who support them. 

Still, though it’s common to begin the year with vacancies, GRPS spokesperson John Helmholdt said, they use temp agencies and substitute teachers including retirees to help begin school. “We have a lot of tools in the shed to make sure we are ready for day one,” he said. 

GRPS Benefits Manager Amy Robinson and Communications Coordinator Javier Cervantes greet candidates as they come to the GRPS Job Fair

The Perfect Storm

The Michigan teacher shortage extends back to pre-pandemic times. In fact, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, enrollment at Michigan teacher preparation programs dropped 70% from 2008-2009 to 2015-2016, the second-worst in the nation. The reasons students gave for not entering the field range from low pay to low respect. 

That shrinking teacher pipeline shrunk further as more teachers decided to leave the profession during the pandemic. According to the Michigan Public Schools Employees’ Retirement System, there was a 44% increase in mid-year retirements last year compared to the 2019-2020 school year, as 749 teachers left public-school classrooms.

“Across the state and across the nation, there is a drastic teacher shortage,” said GRPS Director of Curriculum Jonathan Harper.

In May, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a 29-person committee of educators and health officials released a 40-page student recovery plan as a response to the Michigan pandemic. The report proposed financial incentives to recruit and retain educators, especially teachers of color, and alternative routes to lead classrooms.

An alternative route is what Grand Rapids resident AJ Smith took to get his teaching certificate.

“I come from a family of teachers,” said Smith, who came to the job fair to interview for a teaching position. “Since I already had a bachelor’s in history, I was able to opt into a program that allowed me to get my teaching certificate.”

Support Staff Needed Too  

School staffing needs go beyond just teachers and administrators, however. The GRPS Job Fair also interviewed applicants for bus drivers, support staff, clerical employees and coaches. 

“Mainly we are looking for new drivers who can help us take care of the kids,” said Michelle Johnson, hiring coordinator for Dean Transportation, which provides busing to GRPS and the Kent ISD special education program.

The support staff shortage may be more dramatic, as a ripple effect from the pandemic has been an increase in wages for normally entry-level positions in other fields, as reported by Bridge Michigan. It is difficult for schools to compete against places like fast-food restaurants offering more than $15 an hour and signing bonuses while trying to hire staff like teacher aides, Bridge reported. 

Nor is the problem confined to urban districts like Grand Rapids. While Byron Center Public Schools has hired 16 new teachers this year to fill classrooms, the district is seeing far fewer applicants than in the past. 

Superintendent Kevin Macina said the district 10 years ago would typically receive about 400 applicants for a kindergarten position. “Now it’s more like 100,” he said. Across the board for positions in Byron Center, that 75 percent drop in applicants is common.

A Dean Transportation bus parked onsite lets potential applicants know they are in the right place for an interview

Capturing the Talent

Still, Grand Rapids Public Schools officials were feeling positive as they saw the number of people coming in for the job fair. There was a line for interview sign-ups and Kroondyk had to wait 20 minutes past his scheduled time for his interview. 

“You never know with an open-ended job fair what you might get,” said Harper, the curriculum director. “We’re excited to see so many people come in and hopefully we will be able to capture some of this talent to come to GRPS.”

Almanza, the recruitment and retention manager, said the district has plans to increase its teacher pipeline that include helping paraprofessionals move into the teaching field. 

“For today, we really wanted to get the word out and give people the opportunity to learn about the positions that are available,” Almanza said. “I believe having the on-site interviews really helped in attracting the attendance.”

Erin Albanese contributed to this story

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma covers Kent ISD and Godwin Heights. She was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio

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