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State struggles to retain teachers

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher / Associated Press


Jonathan Sager was an idealistic 22-year-old recent college graduate when he arrived in Hawaii in 2006, yearning to make a difference in the lives of children in hardscrabble neighborhoods like those on the Wai­anae Coast.

About an hour's drive from bustling Hono­lulu, the stretch of unspoiled beaches and looming mountains is home to a high concentration of Native Hawaiians and some of the state's lowest-performing schools. So Sager learned their culture, bought a condo and planned to stay.

After seven years Sager, now 29, quit, packing up this summer for Texas and becoming the latest teacher Hawaii could not keep as it tries to fill a seemingly perpetual teacher shortage. He said he was frustrated by constant educational experimentation.

Now administrators' efforts to retain teachers have taken on a new urgency as they try to make prog­ress on promised reforms that won Hawaii a $75 million federal "Race to the Top" grant. Teacher retention is one of the keys to those reforms.

They are offering $1,500 bonuses to work in "hard-to-staff" schools and plan to increase that amount to $3,000 during the 2015-16 school year. They are also holding classes in Hawaiian culture and language, and teaming new arrivals with veteran teachers to help ease the transition.

"This is a pretty big push for us," said Alex Harris, who is overseeing the state Education Department's "Race to the Top" efforts involving teachers. "We don't want to be recruiting at a high volume every year and losing professionals in their second or third year."

Hawaii — the only state with a single, statewide district — has long had to turn to the mainland because local teacher education programs can't produce enough graduates to fill classrooms across the islands, especially in remote schools.

Getting the newcomers to stay is difficult, as they face culture shock, a high cost of living and a vast ocean separating them from their families.

"I recruited hundreds of teachers," said Al Naga­sako, who was a principal at Nana­kuli High and Intermediate School before Sager taught there. "You begin to select the good ones, and you know they're not going to stay."

The U.S. Department of Education criticized Hawaii for not doing a good job of publicizing the bonus for teachers to work in "hard-to-staff" schools, so Harris said the bonus has become a more prominent part of the pitch.

A new recruitment perk targets mainland teachers who can fill badly needed special-education vacancies by offering them relocation bonuses, Harris said. The highest amount is $6,000 to work in Wai­anae or Hawaii island's Kau, Keaau and Pahoa areas.

Those areas make up the low-performing, high-poverty schools that "Race to the Top" reforms are focusing on.

After his arrival, Sager, of Warren, Ohio, took a bus tour along with other new teachers and saw the poverty on the Wai­anae Coast.

Settling in required developing an ear for the pidgin English his students spoke and learning to pronounce vowel-laden names he never heard before. Even as he earned their acceptance, Sager said, he grew frustrated with feeling like he and his students were lab rats for experimental programs.

"We start and it's not perfect, so we scrap it and start over," he said.

State education officials are also offering a mentoring program, which began last school year, meant to help teachers feel supported, Harris said.

Nanakuli teacher Dennis Tynan bonded with a group of other teachers who were also adjusting to Hawaii when he arrived 10 years ago.

Tynan, 46, said the group helped him feel connected to the school. He also attributed his longevity to being older than the other teachers when he arrived from Texas, arming him with more life and classroom experiences. Now that he's one of two left in that group, he's starting to wonder about his future.

But those doubts are eased by his students, who no longer treat him like an outsider. He feels he owes it to his students to stick around.

"Here is a community of a marginalized ethnic group, and because of the way everything gets structured in a bureaucratic schools system, they just get screwed over and over again," he said.

For some the cost of living gets to be too much.

Kristen Wong, who left her job in special education on the Big Island to pursue a master's degree at Harvard University, met her fiance in Hawaii, but the cost of visiting their families on the mainland started to seem more daunting as they looked forward to having children.

Wong, 29, worked a second job most of her time in Hawaii to make ends meet. The entry-level salary for the current school year starts at $33,169.

"It was really, really hard to make things work," she said. "I have student loans. I have a car loan. … I'm actually pretty fiscally responsible."

Now state officials are focused on teachers like Owen Allsopp. The 22-year-old graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is settling into teaching first grade at Pahala Elementary on the Big Island and sharing a house with three new teachers.

Before the first day of school, he already had a good grasp of Hawaiian names and words. And he's aware of the pressure to keep him.

"I know it's so important because it's hard to create lasting change if there's so much transition happening," he said. "There needs to be serious commitment."

More From The Star-Advertiser

Hawaii schools struggle to keep new teachers

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HAL9000 wrote:
What do you expect. A teacher shortage that has been going on for 15 years in this state and counting. 4 years of pay cuts, and 110% increase in medical benefits, and the state wonders why they cannot attract teachers. The most anti-education governor in the USA, threw out collective bargaining, what do you expect Hawaii. Leave edcation up to the legislatures, and the only school board in the USA not voted in by the people, and you get more of a teacher shortage.
on August 13,2013 | 05:22AM
pcman wrote:
If the DOE administrator, Matayoshi, had any experience she would give the teachers on the Waianae coast $1000 a month more pay and get the state to use the state housing on Kalaeloa for teachers at a reduced rent. Where to get the money from for the additional pay? Pay the resource teachers in DOE central and district offices $1000 less a month. They are not improving education in Hawaii, except in their own minds. If more teachers volunteer to teach in the Waianae coast, lower the classroom student to teacher ratios, or give teachers the option of team teaching or other initiatives. What about the union? What about them. They don't run the education system, except in their own minds.
on August 13,2013 | 06:58AM
allie wrote:
good points
on August 13,2013 | 12:19PM
boshio wrote:
Nothing new here, it only proves that the DOE is still "broken" and in need of an overhaul. If money is the problem, how about having a lottery with a percentage of funds that goes directly to education, and that our trusted politians cannot put their greedy hands into.
on August 15,2013 | 10:06AM
Bdpapa wrote:
$1000 more a month! That's insane. If those schools are so bad, bus those kids out of the district and integrate them in other communities.
on August 13,2013 | 04:13PM
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