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Schools inventing incentives to attract teachers

Sunday, July 08, 2001

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

For 30 of the more than 35 years he has taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, William Foreman has lived in Kennedy.

Foreman, the social studies department chairman at Langley High School in Sheraden, decided he could get more house and yard for his dollar in the suburbs, though his heart would always remain with teaching urban youngsters.

Mary Ellen Barringer of Library says all she knows is teaching in urban schools, even though she has lived in the South Hills for 22 of the 27 years she's worked with the city district.

Barringer, a Beechwood Elementary School teacher whose father taught in Pittsburgh's public schools for 37 years, says her family moved to the suburbs to be closer to an ailing relative.

She and Foreman insist that living in the suburbs hasn't impaired their ability to understand or teach city youngsters.

And they agree that the state Legislature's recent removal of the residency requirements for teachers and other professional school employees here and in Philadelphia will only help both districts.

"It's just so that they have a larger pool of potential employees and will be able to choose the best teachers," Barringer said.

That's a sentiment repeated by teachers union officials here and nationally, and shared by Pittsburgh School Superintendent John Thompson.

Without residency requirements, though, school districts have had to become more creative in finding ways to attract and keep teachers.

The incentives have ranged from arranging low-interest mortgages for teachers to pairing up applicants with district employees who share a prospective teacher's interest or hobbies.

"This is what you do if you're talking about making teachers feel comfortable in the community," said David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers. Based in Belmont, Mass., the nonprofit think tank focuses on issues affecting teachers.

Philadelphia shortage

As part of an omnibus bill that covered a variety of education issues, Pennsylvania lawmakers changed the state School Code two weeks ago to prevent Pittsburgh and Philadelphia from mandating that professional employees such as teachers and administrators live within their school districts.

The measure, however, does allow the two districts to require nonprofessional employees such as secretaries and custodians to reside within their boundaries.

The change was prompted primarily by the extreme difficulty Philadelphia has faced in attracting teachers.

Ted Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said 2,000 of the district's 12,500 teachers last year were not certified, and that there were 200 teacher vacancies. A survey of student teachers found that half did not want to teach in the district because of the residency requirement, he said.

The measure reversed a 1981 provision that allowed Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to require all employees to live within those districts, with exceptions permitted for employees who had moved outside the cities before 1981 and those granted residency waivers each year.

The revised law brings Pennsylvania's two largest school districts into line with the rest of the districts across the state, which have always been able to employ teachers who lived outside their districts.

Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said Pittsburgh and Philadelphia had been among the last school districts in the country to have residency requirements for teachers.

"With such a teacher shortage throughout the country, most districts are trying everything they can to attract teachers rather than create barriers," Horwitz said. "When you are considering a job, you have to look at all the pluses and minuses, and if one of the minuses is that you can't live where you choose, that's a disadvantage to the job."

Still, Pittsburgh school board President Alex Matthews said Pittsburgh was not facing the same problems attracting teachers as Philadelphia and some other urban districts.

He and some other school board members disagreed with the change in the state law, because they believe teachers get a better feel for neighborhoods and the experience of their students if they live in the city.

Many live outside district

The district already has nearly 50 percent of its 3,000 teachers and 70 percent of its nearly 300 administrators living outside Pittsburgh, officials estimate, because they either lived there before the law required city residency or got one of the waivers granted since then.

The latest change in the law, though, could increase that number and cause an additional loss of tax revenue to the city schools, Matthews said.

It also could cost the district some fees that had been paid by teachers who received residency waivers to live outside the city.

The district has been receiving about $140,000 annually from such workers, Matthews said, and he believes that revenue may disappear.

Albert Fondy, president of the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania federations of teachers, acknowledged that Pittsburgh wasn't facing the same teacher shortage as Philadelphia.

But it would not have made sense for Pittsburgh to be the only district in the state with a residency requirement for professional employees, Fondy said.

The change also will help the district recruit teachers in hard-to-fill areas such as math, science and foreign languages, he said.

Fondy and Richard Sternberg, president of the Pittsburgh Administrators Association, said they doubted that there would be a mass exodus of teachers or administrators from the city.

Fondy pointed out that several teachers from other districts lived in Pittsburgh. Sternberg said there had been years when there were no takers or only one applicant for the two residency waivers that had been available to district administrators each year.

Among city teachers, however, the interest in waivers has been greater. Union records show that 68 people applied for the 25 teacher residency waivers last year, and as many as 75 have applied in previous years.

Even if teachers move outside the district, though, Horwitz questioned how much that would affect their ability to teach urban students.

Horwitz said he didn't believe a teacher living in Shadyside or Squirrel Hill would be any better at relating to a youngster living in a low-income community than a teacher who lived in some of Pittsburgh's suburbs.

What the lack of a residency rule will do, both Horwitz and board president Matthews said, is require greater efforts at enticing teachers to live in the city.

School and government officials around the country are already trying such incentives.

In Santa Clara, Calif., the school district is constructing a 40-unit apartment building for teachers with lease rates that are half those of comparable apartments in the area.

The state of Connecticut has a low-interest mortgage program available for teachers who live in urban and poor rural communities.

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