Updated on December 7, 2016

LAS VEGAS—Last year, before Anthony Boccia joined the teaching staff at Valley High School, his students spent hours in a windowless room in the company of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Overseen by a long-term substitute teacher, the group of eight children, who are mostly non-verbal and physically and intellectually disabled, watched Grease and a drawer-full of other well-worn VHS tapes, often from the first bell to the last.

Boccia, however, runs things differently. “Now, when students or teachers stop by, they ask: ‘You aren’t watching Grease today?’ And they’re shocked that we’re actually busy learning stuff,” he said, tidying up his classroom after getting his last students onto the afternoon bus home. Boccia's classroom walls are decorated with colorful posters of the subjects his students are learning about: the solar system, maps of the world, parts of speech. “Imagine if you were taught just colors and letters, over and over again, for 12 years of school because people didn’t think you are capable of learning anything beyond that. How boring would that be?” Boccia said. “These kids are all so different, with their own unique disabilities. I’m trying to figure out what they need, what piques their interest, and fit in supports so I can work with each child individually.”

Working long hours, Boccia—known at Valley High as Mr. Tony—is learning how to run his classroom via trial and error, one day at a time. At this point, his teaching methods may be more grounded in instinct than formal training: Boccia is not a fully licensed teacher—not yet at least. While he previously subbed in several classrooms in Las Vegas’s Clark County School District to make ends meet while working toward his Ph.D. in business, the only formal preparation he’s had to become a teacher was a semiweekly fast-track training program last summer.

The teacher shortage in the school district that includes Las Vegas is perhaps one of the worst in the country, mirroring a nationwide pattern in which students in high-poverty and high-minority areas experience the greatest teacher shortages. At the beginning of last school year, the district reported 900 vacancies, according to Mike Gentry, the district’s chief recruitment officer. In the summer leading up to this school year, the district had 700 unfilled teacher jobs. So the state and district are trying some creative—and highly controversial—strategies to draw teachers into the county’s rapidly diversifying and increasingly needy schools.

The biggest push by far happened early this year when Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval issued an emergency teacher-hiring regulation allowing school districts to issue provisional licenses to teachers who otherwise would not qualify to teach in Nevada schools. The regulation immediately raised concern that hundreds of subpar teachers would fill the vacancies. According to the Clark County human-resources department, however, the intent of the emergency regulation was to allow for the hiring of out-of-state teachers, a move that up until the signing of the Every Child Succeeds Act would have jeopardized Nevada’s ability to qualify for federal funds.

“It’s not like this regulation allowed nonqualified teachers to apply. In order to gain the provisional license, you have to be a licensed teacher in another state,” Gentry said. “There’s not a heck of a lot of difference between what one state does and doesn’t define as qualifications to become a teacher. It’s not like we’re saying: ‘Let’s bring this unqualified, non-degreed person over to Clark County to teach our students.’ Once the professional license is issued, there are specific things that teacher then needs to complete in order to comply. And if they don’t, they lose their provisional license and the deal is off.”

As a result, the emergency hiring directive—coupled with ongoing programs that allow schools to hire mid-career professionals like Boccia after prepping them at “lightning speed”—has allowed the district to fill more than half of its vacancies this school year. As of early November, Gentry said, 323 spots remain open.

A teacher sits to the right of a student, working with her.
Anthony Boccia, a newly hired special-education teacher at Valley High, has three years to earn an official teaching license before the district revokes his provisional license. (Sarah Gonser)

Still, allowing non- or barely credentialed teachers to take over classrooms is worrisome to educators like Magdalena Martinez, the director of education programs for the Lincy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “We can’t be in a rush to fill all our vacancies if we can’t fill them with quality teachers,” Martinez said. “There’s great concern, and it’s legitimate, that the district is under so much pressure to fix the teacher shortage.”

All told, Boccia subbed for approximately one year in various special-education classrooms around the district, and his fast-track training program focused on special-education teacher prep. But was it enough to adequately prepare him to educate eight high-needs children? “These kids, they know when someone cares about them," Boccia said. "When you have sub after sub, I think that's so hard for the kids.”

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Hit hard by the recession, Nevada public education “is at the bottom of all national metrics,” Martinez said. “We lead the nation in foreclosures and the disinvestment from public services, including public education. Our challenges—poverty, language learning, parents under- or unemployed—are very clearly manifest in our student outcomes.”

Indeed, in a 2016 state-by-state assessment that compared student achievement, chances for success, and financial investment per student, Nevada ranked last in the nation. The state’s largest school district—one of the biggest in the country—is Clark County, which includes 376 schools, about 15,000 teachers, and more than 320,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent data.

Macie Vega, a UC, Santa Barbara, graduate credentialed to teach science, chemistry, and biology in California, is one of the new out-of-state hires Mike Gentry recruited to offset the Clark County shortage this fall. Vega taught for five years at a magnet school in Ventura, California, but once she was offered a job at Valley High, she relocated her family to Las Vegas for what she thought would be a relatively short stay.

“At first, I thought: Go and teach in Vegas for a year or two, get the stipend and leave,” Vega said. “But I really like it. ... I liked teaching at a nice school in California, but those kids would have done well whether I was there or not. Now, when I stay after school or before class to help kids, I feel it makes much more of a difference.” The cost of living in Clark County is also a lot more manageable, she added, especially with the stipend and other perks the Nevada district offered her as an incentive.

Vega and Boccia, the new special-education teacher, are among Valley High’s 25 new hires this year. Nearly a third of those hires occurred as a result of the emergency staffing regulation, a provision that Valley High principal Ramona Esparza calls a godsend.

“Just attracting and recruiting teachers to work at a school like ours is challenging. The flexibility to get people in here much faster than before has been a major help for [high-poverty] schools like Valley,” said Esparza, who last year had to fill 19 teacher vacancies with long-term substitutes, among them the sub who favored Grease marathons.

Macie Vega teaches physics at Valley High School; at her prior teaching job in California, she struggled to pay much more than rent on her teacher's salary.
Macie Vega teaches physics at Valley High School; at her prior teaching job in California, she struggled to pay much more than rent on her teacher's salary. (Sarah Gonser)

In addition to the quantity of long-term substitutes the district relied on, quality was also an issue. Some of the educators are on a path to becoming certified teachers, Esparza noted, but others may not intend to stay in the profession. This stopgap approach ultimately affects the students. “It’s disruptive for the kids, especially for kids with special needs who need consistency, and it’s unfair. It’s basically a warm body in the room, just to make sure students are supervised.”

A former teacher in Clark County herself, Esparza is also a product of its school district. Her father was a social worker and her mother, a high-school dropout, worked as a maid, a bus driver, and eventually as an attendance officer in the district. “I came from that experience,” Esparza said. “And how I hire new teachers now is a direct connection to my personal experience. What do teachers need to do a good job at a high-needs school like Valley? It’s not just knowing your content, it’s being able to interact, have empathy and emotional intelligence. Without that, I don’t care how many degrees you have, you will never be able to teach and reach that kid. I’m fine hiring someone who is working toward their degree. If they have the ability to connect with kids and get them across a stage to graduation, I’m going to invest time and professional development to help that teacher stay.”

At the same time, she acknowledged that for many of her new teachers, the transition to a high-poverty school like Valley—where 86 percent of students are nonwhite and 78 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—is not an easy one.  

“We work in the ER of education ... I have kids who are trying to commit suicide, kids who are being sex-trafficked, kids who are parents themselves, or taking care of parents,” Esparza said. “So when a new teacher doesn’t have cultural competency, and you transplant them to a school like Valley, it’s total culture shock. If you don’t provide lots of support, you will lose these new teachers because they can’t handle the kids, this isn’t how they grew up or how they behaved in class.”

Clearly Esparza faces a number of challenges at Valley High—including increasing the four-year graduation rate, which was as low as 59 percent just three years ago. But in addition to the slew of new hires, she is getting help from another source: the Nevada Department of Education. As part of an experimental effort to improve low-performing, high-poverty schools, Valley High—a designated “Victory School”—received a $3.2 million grant this year. The money is earmarked to provide professional development; encourage collaboration among educators; and contribute to wrap-around services for students, including counseling, groceries, clothing, school supplies, and bus fare. The heart of the Victory grant funds, however, is not material. “I prioritize people,” Esparza said. “Because teachers get burned out working at a high-needs school like Valley. They need to feel supported.”

Fifteen minutes away, at Desert Pines High School, Principal Isaac Stein said the school brought on 40 new teachers this year, 25 of whom are first-year educators from out of state. Desert Pines is a high-poverty school in North Las Vegas, where, according to Stein, 86 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Like Valley High, the Nevada Department of Education identified Desert Pines as underperforming, meaning it ranks in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s high-poverty schools. Four years ago, the graduation rate at Desert Pines was just 42 percent, and Stein said 30 percent of students who start the year at the school relocate before it ends as a result of unstable home situations. Stein was brought on as principal of Desert Pines in 2015 to turn the school around and stem the high student-transiency rate.

Valley High School principal Ramona Esparza is a former student and teacher in the Clark County school district.
Valley High School principal Ramona Esparza is a former student and teacher in the Clark County school district. (Sarah Gonser)

“A big part of my job is to motivate students to come to school and be part of the school community,” Stein said. “There’s a heavy gang community here. Just keeping kids here and off the streets, keeping them engaged—that’s what we’re working toward.”

Although Desert Pines is not the beneficiary of a multimillion-dollar Victory grant like Valley High, it is receiving federal funds from Clark County School District because it is a designated Turnaround School—a program aimed at helping chronically underperforming schools improve student achievement and graduation rates. Though the turnaround movement has its detractors, Stein said he is happy to have the funds to support his 40 new hires this year. With $500,000 from a mix of sources, including the federal turnaround grant, he said he’s added six full-time instructional coaches to help teachers with everything from classroom management to establishing best practices. Still, this level of financial investment is not sustainable; the turnaround funds decrease each year and only last four years, he said.

“Obviously, the hope is that our new hires stay here at Desert Pines,” Stein said. “So how do we maintain these teachers? We need to ensure that they have the support they need right now.” When the funds run out, though, he’s not sure how he’ll maintain the help he says his teachers will continue to need. For now, while investing in teacher support diverts funds that would otherwise go toward keeping class sizes smaller, Stein said he sees no alternative. "It's a choice we've made," he said. "Because much of the task of pushing students and keeping them engaged is fully on the shoulders of teachers."

Although educators are upbeat at Valley High and Desert Pines, it’s still unclear if the stopgap measures to deal with the teacher shortage will help or exacerbate the challenges faced by a school district under intense pressure to improve student achievement.

“It’s an uncertain time for us with the teacher shortage and people saying we’re not producing students who can compete in the 21st century,” Esparza said.

Meanwhile, Boccia now has three years to earn his official teaching license—a master’s degree in intellectual disability from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Along the way, he must balance a full-time teaching schedule, the required hours of professional development, and regular meetings with mentors from the district and from Valley High. If he fails to meet these requirements within the three years, he will lose his provisional license. Vega, the physics teacher, is ahead of the game: Not knowing she had one year under the new hiring provision to transfer her California teaching license, she completed the paperwork and fingerprinting before her first day teaching in Las Vegas.

Will they stay put at Valley High? “These kids, they depend on me,” Boccia said. “If I mess this up, I’m messing up a person’s life. I feel so responsible; I could never just walk away. I’ve never felt this vested in a job. I’m their guardian.”


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.