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We all know Las Vegas is the casino capital of America - Sin City. But what happens in Vegas also includes an education system that's in deep crisis. Its schools are severely overcrowded. Nevada and Vegas schools are ranked at or near the bottom nationally. And the district can't find nearly enough teachers. This has led to frantic recruitment efforts and new strains on veteran educators. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.
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ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Job seekers flock to Vegas - the place attracts tens of thousands of casino industry workers - where you can earn a good salary with only a high school diploma. Jessica Adams went to college and got a degree in hospitality management, and she worked here at the Planet Hollywood casino and resort on the Vegas strip.
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WESTERVELT: But she was fed up with life as a server and joined a fast-track teacher program to get into the classroom. Server Jessica is now Ms. Adams, a fourth-grade teacher.
JESSICA ADAMS: I feel like I'm being challenged, which is a definite nice change. And I really enjoy being with the kids and making a difference instead of serving tables and (laughter)...
WESTERVELT: The 26-year-old works the floor in a temporary trailer classroom at an overcrowded school in southwest Las Vegas called Robert Forbuss Elementary.
ADAMS: So did you guys come to same answer after you finished your problem?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Yeah, because it's 60 each - because five can't go into three, so you would have to see if...
WESTERVELT: Vegas wishes it had a lot more teachers like Adams - about 3,000 more to be exact. The city needs that many new teachers right now to plug vacancies because of teacher resignations, retirements and population growth. Vegas has one of the biggest teacher shortage areas in the U.S. And right now, nearly 700 classes here are being taught by long-term substitutes and the city can't find enough substitutes. The district is aggressively tapping into alternative certification program, including the one Adams attends at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It aims to get teachers into the classroom fast. They finish their teaching degree work at night.
BRAD KEATING: It's a quick, down-and-dirty boot camp.
WESTERVELT: Brad Keating heads recruitment for the school district's Alternate Route to Licensure program.
KEATING: We give them as much knowledge as is humanly possible in a six-week program
WESTERVELT: Then, they're paired with teacher mentors. But the total number of all teachers coming through alternative pipelines here is just over 400. That still leaves Vegas more than 2000 teachers in the red. And those teachers have less training and experience than traditionally trained ones. Dr. Staci Vesneske is the head of human resources for Las Vegas' Clark County School District.
STACI VESNESKE: They are an adequate Band-Aid with the appropriate level of support. But is it acceptable? Absolutely not. Do we have a national teacher pipeline issue? Absolutely, we do. So we have to do everything to fill that gap.
WESTERVELT: Pay doesn't do much to help fill that gap. A starting teacher salary here is $34,500. Casino card dealers and servers, counting tips, can make more than that in a state with no individual income tax. Professor Linda Quinn is the associate Dean of UNLV's College of Education.
LINDA QUINN: We would probably attract more teachers if we could offer them a signing bonus like they do in sports, but we can't.
WESTERVELT: So if pay isn't the lure, the district is touting other draws like the sunshine and social responsibility. HR chief Vesneske.
VESNESKE: It's a fabulous city to live in, not just to visit. So we're really selling Las Vegas as a community.
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UNIDENTIFIED BOY: We have breaking news. Turns out that we are in crisis as we have a severe hero teacher shortage.
WESTERVELT: The district has launched a social media ad campaign dubbed Calling All Heroes.
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UNIDENTIFIED BOY: And with the hero shortage, who will teach us?
WESTERVELT: But the school marketing effort isn't really working yet in a city better known for betting and benders than community building and which has to compete with that bigger budget effort - 11 years running - to sell the city's naughty side.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You're unpredictable, reckless, and no one would ever let you date their sister.
WESTERVELT: Seventy-five percent of the teacher vacancies here are in schools that are lower performing and have a higher percentage of children in poverty. Veteran educators say the shortage is undermining morale and student learning.
ROB ROSENBLATT: It shouldn't necessarily be all put on the veteran teachers to help the new teachers.
WESTERVELT: That's fifth-grade teacher Rob Rosenblatt. Last school year, about 500 teachers in the district up and quit without giving any reason. One in his grade resigned a few weeks into the new school year. Rosenblatt says he and a colleague had to pick up all the slack with lessons, report cards, grading and tests.
ROSENBLATT: Basically, it was the two of us teaching not just our two classes, but a third class on top of it. I even told my kids - I'm like I'm neglecting you guys.
WESTERVELT: Rosenblatt apologized to his regular class but told his kids the other class just wasn't getting the education they deserved. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Las Vegas.
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