A hiring banner adorned the Minneapolis Public Schools Nutrition Services Building in March 2022, when teachers and educational support professionals were on strike. Food service workers nearly went on strike as well, but reached an agreement with the district. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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It’s Wednesday afternoon, six days before school starts, and St. Paul Public Schools has hundreds of staffing vacancies to fill. So the district’s recruitment and retention team is hosting a virtual information session.

Fourteen people, including school staff, log on to hear about employment opportunities in the district. Some of them have teaching licenses. Many of them don’t.

“A lot of people don’t know that they can be a teacher, that you don’t have to go through a traditional teaching preparation program right out of high school in order to be in front of students and to make an impact in the world,” says Danaya Lamker-Franke, the district’s human resources representative. Her enthusiasm shines through the screen. “So that’s why we’re here today. We’re going to talk about all the different opportunities that we have for you and want to be here to answer any questions that you have.”

The questions start rolling in. 

My teaching license expired in 2016, one person says. Can I talk to somebody about getting that back?

“That’s a deal,” Lamker-Franke says. “We can absolutely do that.”

A district teaching assistant of 16 years wants to know what would happen to her health insurance if she took on a new role as a teacher. A man with a master’s degree in computer science but no teaching experience wants to know how he might move through the licensure process. Another participant says she’s always wanted to teach first grade.

The answers from St. Paul Public Schools staff are enthusiastic and clear: We can solve that. You, yes you, can be a teacher! Don’t have a bachelor’s degree? Consider working as an educational assistant. Not ready to commit to a classroom? Try substitute teaching.

As schools rush to fill vacancies in the last days of summer, the St. Paul Public Schools recruitment and retention team is looking for staff in creative places: teachers with expired licenses; classroom assistants ready to try out teaching; Minneapolis teachers looking for higher pay in a neighboring district; college professors interested in teaching high school; fitness instructors who like to work with children. 

The school staffing shortages come following two and a half of the most difficult school years in modern memory. Districts are feeling the crunch. Educators unions have called for higher pay, better working conditions, and more mental health support for students in order to make education jobs attractive and sustainable. These staffing shortages have been widely reported nationally—even as some researchers insist there is no national teacher shortage. 

The truth is complicated, both in Minnesota and across the country. Staffing shortages are real. But they’re not affecting all districts, schools, or education positions equally.

School staffing shortages are not affecting all districts, schools, or education positions equally. In late August, St. Paul and Minneapolis, districts with more than 30,000 students last year, still had about 300 staff positions available. But Wayzata Public Schools, with about 12,000 students, had just five open teaching positions.

St. Paul and Minneapolis, which both reported more than 30,000 students last year, each told Sahan Journal in late August that they still had about 300 staff positions available. But the shores of Lake Minnetonka tell a different staffing story. 

As of August 24, Wayzata Public Schools, with about 12,000 students, had five teaching positions still open. “We will get them all filled,” said communications director Amy Parnell.

Sahan Journal requested vacancy data from the state’s 10 largest school districts. The results are difficult to compare, as the districts track vacancies differently and don’t consistently maintain data from previous years. Though each district’s staffing needs are different, the data indicate some shared themes. 

Wayzata is a particularly wealthy district, where only 7 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch, a common indicator of student poverty levels. (In St. Paul, 61 percent of students qualify.) But Wayzata isn’t the only district to report that teacher hiring is on track. 

For example, as of August 24, Osseo Area Schools, a racially and socioeconomically diverse suburban district with 20,000 students, reported about 30 teacher vacancies. (In Osseo, 40 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch.)

“Looking at our employment opportunities as a whole, the district is in a much greater need for Education Support Professionals (ESPs) at this time,” wrote Kay Villella, the Osseo district’s school and community relations director. The district had 92 vacancies for those positions—triple the number of teacher openings. 

Where are the vacancies?

At an August board meeting, Anoka–Hennepin Schools, the state’s largest district with 38,000 students, reported 260 total staffing vacancies. But those positions were concentrated in a few high-need areas.

“The highest vacancy areas are special education teachers and paraeducators and student nutrition workers,” said Jim Skelly, the district’s communications and public relations director. Each position represented about a third of the openings, he said.

Many other districts reported high needs for special education teachers and paraprofessionals, too. Raising paraprofessional pay was a key demand in a Minneapolis’ three-week educator strike last spring. These paraprofessionals, also called educational assistants or educational support professionals, are more likely to be people of color. Their job duties vary, but many work in special education. In a February data request to the Minneapolis school district, Sahan Journal found that 22 percent of educational support professional positions were vacant. Some workers had left for higher-paying jobs at FedEx or McDonald’s. 

And the problems with paraprofessional pay are not limited to Minneapolis. Union officials report similar issues throughout the state.

Six months after the strike, Minneapolis Public Schools has many special-education vacancies for both paraprofessionals and teachers. These problems, the district reported at an August board meeting, compounded as the strike delayed the district’s hiring timeline.

In St. Paul, the district has created a recruitment and retention team with American Rescue Plan funds to address the sharp increase in staffing vacancies since 2018. Daveanna Tarpeh, a recruitment diversity specialist on the team, said that special education is also the biggest area of vacancy in St. Paul. The next highest needs are for English language learner teachers, social workers, and counselors. 

In recent years, many districts have budgeted for more social workers and counselors to address the pandemic-era rise in student mental health needs, using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan. Some union contracts have required districts to budget for these staff, too. But that doesn’t mean Minnesota has enough school counselors and social workers to fill the new positions.

A path to more teacher diversity?

Because Minnesota law allows someone to become a teacher with just a bachelor’s degree and a job offer from a school, the new teaching candidates don’t need to hold a professional teacher license. That opens up opportunities for people who want to teach, but never pursued the often lengthy and expensive degree that’s frequently required for the job. 

School districts, like St. Paul, provide mentorship and on-the-job training for new and inexperienced teachers. (Teachers who have completed a formal preparation program and passed an exam will still earn higher pay and receive better job security.)

“You have individuals with a bachelor’s degree, for instance, who might be working in group home settings or working with individuals who are special needs and haven’t made the connection that that could translate to a special educator,” Tarpeh said.

In the virtual St. Paul recruitment session, this looks like the opportunity some prospective teachers have been waiting for. One attendee, a man named Ed, works as an educational assistant in adult basic education. For years, he’s been interested in St. Paul’s Urban Teacher Residency program, geared at helping the district’s diverse staff earn a teaching license. 

But he can’t afford it, he says. Though the program provides a stipend to cover tuition, he needs to be earning income, too. A new teaching job could allow him to earn a salary while he takes night classes to complete his licensure.

It’s too soon to know whether the St. Paul district’s creative recruitment efforts will help diversify the teaching workforce. But statewide, teachers with Tier 1 and Tier 2 licenses—that is, educators who have not completed a formal teacher preparation program—are more likely to be teachers of color. 

“I’m intentionally looking at our African American community leaders, Hmong, Karen, Somali,” Tarpeh told Sahan Journal. Currently, St. Paul’s predominantly white teacher workforce does not reflect the diversity of its students—a common issue for many Minnesota districts. 

Deliberately recruiting candidates in students’ communities, she hopes, can start to change that. “That’s what I tell them. Those kids need to see someone like you in that building. You don’t have to be their teacher, but you need to be in that building.”

Help solve Minnesota’s school-staffing shortage!

Looking for a job? Your local school district is probably hiring! Daveanna Tarpeh, a recruitment diversity specialist, wants you to know: “St. Paul Public Schools is a destination employer.” 

If teaching isn’t for you, or you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, many other opportunities are available. St. Paul Public Schools is hosting a virtual hiring fair on September 8. You can check out job openings on your local school district’s website.

🟥 BACK TO SCHOOL

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...