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Wanted: 30,000 teachers

Florida will address a dire shortage by turning to "a gold mine" - its community colleges.

By RON MATUS
Published February 16, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - To stave off an epic teacher shortage, Florida education officials are gearing up a massive alternative certification program that will use the state's community colleges to pump out thousands of new teachers.

The so-called "educator preparation institutes" also will be housed at Florida universities and private colleges. But overnight, Florida's community colleges will become a driving force in teacher production, a role believed to be unique nationwide.

They are "a gold mine waiting to happen," Board of Education member Donna Callaway said during a presentation Tuesday.

Through the institutes, people with bachelor's degrees and teaching aspirations can go through a yearlong boot camp program designed to give them the skills they need in a fraction of the time required for a traditional education degree.

Details are sketchy, but state lawmakers authorized the plan last spring and the state Department of Education is accepting applications. Community college chancellor David Armstrong said Tuesday that 23 of 28 community colleges are signed on and prepared to begin this summer.

The plan comes as state education leaders face a looming teacher shortage they describe in near-apocalyptic terms.

In fall 2006, Florida will need 30,000 new teachers to pace a statistical perfect storm: a surge in students, a spike in teacher retirements and the demands of the 2002 constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes. That's almost double the recent hiring rate and 20 percent of the state's existing work force of 150,000 teachers.

And the picture doesn't get much rosier: Beyond 2006, the state will need 20,000 teachers each year for more than a decade.

The scenario is "probably the biggest crisis we've faced in education in a long time," Education Commissioner John Winn told board members. If something dramatic doesn't happen soon, "I see nothing short of a Great Depression in schools."

Tuesday's discussion came a day after other big education news: Gov. Jeb Bush's announcement that he would seek to soften the financial burden of the class-size amendment with another amendment that offers school districts flexibility in meeting class size goals.

His proposal, which needs legislative approval to get on the ballot, would boost starting teacher salaries to $35,000 a year - about 25 percent more than current levels and enough to put Florida on the cusp of the top 10 states nationally.

"That number $35,000 is very compelling" and will make a difference in recruiting new teachers, said Sandra Robinson, dean of the University of Central Florida's College of Education.

Florida needs all the recruiting help it can get.

It currently imports tens of thousands of teachers from other states because its public education colleges only produce about 4,000 teachers a year. And many of them migrate to better paying districts out of state.

Florida ranks 29th in average teacher pay and 21st in beginning pay, according to the most recent salary survey done by the American Federation of Teachers.

It's unclear how much the institutes will do to retain Florida teachers, or whether they will produce enough to prevent a crisis.

Armstrong said community colleges expect to crank out 6,000 teachers a year within five years.

The state Department of Education tested the concept in pilot projects at four community colleges. At the first meeting to gauge interest at Indian River Community College, 600 people showed up, including college baseball players and Green Berets, said Henri Sue Bynum, the school's associate dean of arts and sciences.

Participation in the program is voluntary, but so far, most of the community colleges, all 11 of the state's universities and a number of private colleges have expressed interest.

A hodgepodge of alternative certification routes are availablenow, but the institute initiative is easily the most far reaching.

The requirements for individual students will likely differ from institute to institute, and person to person. Unlike many alternative programs, the institutes will be set up to mold instruction to an individual's strengths and weaknesses.

But once participants complete the program, they must still pass the same exams that traditional-route teachers take to earn certification.

"They're not escaping any of the qualifications," Bynum said.

Board members said they hoped some of the institutes could target the most critical teacher shortages, which are in math, science and special education.

Next month, they will hear more details about program requirements and potential costs.

Tuesday's discussion got a good reception beyond the meeting room.

"We certainly need the teachers," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a teachers union. "If this ends up producing high-quality teachers, that's great."

University of Florida special education professor James McLeskey also offered a thumbs up.

Education colleges have long complained that state requirements hamstring their students. But the institutes are "a step toward giving ... a little more flexibility," McLeskey said.

That doesn't mean producing inferior teachers.

Alternative doesn't necessarily mean "less rigorous," McLeskey said. "But certainly different, and faster."

--Ron Matus can be reached at 727893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 16, 2005, 01:22:09]


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