Some Danbury-area schools still looking for teachers

While the state considers overhauling teacher certification requirements to address the growing statewide shortage of candidates, area school officials have different ideas about what those changes should look like.

Most districts in the Danbury area have managed, unlike other districts around the state, to fill all or most vacancies before the school year starts. But they recognize finding qualified candidates has become more difficult, especially in subject areas like math, science, foreign languages and special education.

“We are having difficulty finding teachers to fill certain areas,” said Region 9 Superintendent Thomas McMorran. “At this point, a strong teacher of Spanish or French is worth her weight in gold.”

Region 9, like Danbury, Bethel and Newtown, was able to fill all open positions for the coming school year, while Brookfield, New Milford and New Fairfield each has one position left open. Ridgefield was the outlier, with 12 unfilled positions, although Superintendent Karen Baldwin said she thinks this has more to do with the district’s declining enrollment discouraging applications than with certification.

The most recent statewide data shows 250 teaching positions in Connecticut went unfilled during the 2014-15 school year, more than double the 95 unfilled positions in 2010-11, according to state Department of Education reports.

Dianna Wentzell, state commissioner of education, said the rising number of vacancies and feedback from staff prompted the department to look into making changes to the certification process, which hasn’t been revised since 1998.

“What we’re hearing from our teachers and higher education partners and school districts is that some of our regulations are outdated and make it difficult for people who want to pursue education,” Wentzell said. “So we need to take a look to see where we may be inadvertently creating barriers to education in Connecticut.”

The department does not yet have a specific plan for the changes, but hopes to come up with suggestions to be added to the state Board of Education’s legislative agenda this fall, Wentzell said.

Most proposals right now focus on removing unnecessary roadblocks, such as requiring bilingual teachers to prove English proficiency, as well as aptitude in a second language, even though they’ve already gone through an English-speaking program.

She also hopes the department can help streamline the complicated process of increasing certification levels throughout a teacher’s career, where many teachers can get blocked from moving to the next level by a technicality or miscommunication.

Some school officials, like Newtown Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue, agreed removing some of the “hoops to jump through” for teachers would make things easier.

“What an outstanding idea, to look at what we all know can be often a complex, more-bureaucratic system,” Rodrigue said. “(The system) can be made significantly less complicated for those candidates who want to apply for positions throughout the state.”

McMorran and Rodrigue agreed, like officials in New Milford and Danbury, that one focus of change should be making it easier for teachers from other states to move into Connecticut’s workforce.

These officials said they would permit teachers from other states with good performance evaluations to begin teaching while they await certification in Connecticut, instead of waiting until they go through the process.

“If I have a left foot in Danbury and my right foot across the line in Carmel, N.Y., I’m just the same person I was one foot earlier,” said Danbury Deputy Superintendent Bill Glass. “The idea of saying there must be some sort of magical wall between states is ludicrous."

Glass said, for Danbury, going into the new school year without unfilled positions, as the district is this year, is unusual. In years past the district has always had at least a few positions that had to be filled with long-term substitutes.

But this year, the lack of a state budget has led to a larger pool of candidates for Danbury, because other districts have been forced to lay off teachers while they await clarification on state aid to local schools.

Another idea for changing certification requirements, Glass said, could be allowing more flexibility in measuring aptitude. The current system focuses too much on passing standardized tests, which doesn’t always translate to the classroom, he said.

”Just because you pass a test doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good teacher,” Glass said. “We’ve had folks who’ve struggled to pass the certification exams who have turned out to be our best teachers.”

New Milford Superintendent Joshua Smith said flexibility should also be used in figuring out who can teach which subject. He said as new subjects are added to the curriculum, such as a middle-school engineering class in New Milford, it is difficult to determine which certification applies.

“There are more courses that don’t live clearly in one subject matter,” Smith said.

But Smith and other officials fear too great a change could mean a “watered down” pool of candidates.

“We’re going to solve the problem with lowering our standards. Does that sound right?” McMorran said. “If we have someone we’re going to entrust with teaching kids who finds navigating a bureaucracy too difficult, we probably don’t want to have them.”

McMorran said addressing the teacher shortage could be done in other ways, such as finding better support for teachers’ workloads so they don’t leave the profession early, as he said teachers increasingly do.

He added that reducing the emphasis on standardized testing could make subjects like math and science more appealing to students and encourage them to become teachers in those areas.

Wentzell said the deparment plans to work with officials from around the state but wants districts to know the focus for the changes will not be on lowering standards.

”We’re not changing our ideas about rigor; we’re changing our idea about the process,” she said.

But, as always, it will be up to each individual district to find a candidate they think is qualified.

”We know we are not the final decision-maker,” Wentzell said. “We don’t place teachers in schools, we just certify whether they’ve met the minimum requirements to teach.

”We have a lot of faith in our leaders at the local level to make good human resource decisions and we want to make sure we’re not getting in their way.”