New Orleans Seeks to Solve Teacher Shortage

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President Bush visited a charter school in New Orleans Thursday to praise the prominent role the independent schools are playing in the city. Thirty-one of the 56 schools now open there are charters.

Both charters and public schools, however, are finding it difficult to recruit enough teachers.

The state recently endorsed nine more charters, including a new school to be run by the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.

KIPP's Jonathan Bertsch says growth is good, but it's hard to keep up.

"For next school year, we have to hire 18 new teachers," Bertsch says. "In two years, for the '08/'09 school year, we're going to have to hire about 40 to 45 new teachers to keep up with our growth."

Right now, students are coming back faster than teachers are. Sara Usdin, of the group New Schools for New Orleans, says that's a city-wide problem.

"Looking to population return in addition to current need for teachers, we're going to need up to 700 teachers next year," she says.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have introduced legislation that would give a $5,000 bonus to teachers who commit to three more years in New Orleans. Experienced educators could earn other bonuses. The proposition would cost $500 million. Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, says schools are a key part of the city's recovery.

"We have kids who are returning, families who are returning, and we do not want them to lose another year of school, or to be sitting in a classroom with 40, 50, 60 other kids," Miller says.

The need for veteran teachers is a key part of the problem, according to Professor James Meza of the University New Orleans. He runs two charter schools. He says you need experience to be able to help students who have had sub-par schooling for years.

Student achievement was dismal before the storm. Katrina made it worse, as kids moved from school to school as their families try to settle down. The leaders of new charter schools and reconstituted public schools have high hopes they can revive lagging tests scores.

But Meza says teachers' skills may not be up to the task. Many have failed a required exam. Math, science and special education teachers are the hardest to find, he says.

KIPP's Bertsch says good teachers are appreciated.

"I think if you're a talented teacher in New Orleans right now, everybody wants you," he says.

Over the last two months, 300 students were turned way from New Orleans schools. Officials said facilities were full, so kids missed weeks of school as educators waited for new spots to open up. Usdin says the problem is exacerbated by the slow pace of rebuilding.

Teachers and administrators who do return face a housing shortage, and higher rents. City boosters say that the proposed plan in Congress would help — it would provide a $500/month housing subsidy and relocation costs for those willing to teach in city schools.

Education supporters in the city say the shortage is a problem, but since it's a sign families are returning, it's a good problem to have.

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