When Kelly Frisch started teaching in St. Bernard Parish 24 years ago, she hoped to inspire children in the same way as her most memorable teachers had inspired her.
She wanted to be like the ones who were “tough but good,” who made her think her future was filled with infinite possibility.
But now, two years after retiring from the Jefferson Parish school system, she is so disgruntled about her recent experiences that she no longer recommends the profession. When a young person tells her they are pursuing a teaching job, she advises them to think hard about whether to stay longer than a few years.
“I tell them not to do it,” said Frisch, who at 50 has a small business to supplement her pension. “If they’re getting their stripes, so to speak, I tell them at year five they need to make a decision.”
Frisch isn’t alone. In recent years, with pay remaining largely stagnant and teachers facing mounting pressure to raise students' test scores with fewer in-house support systems — such as counseling for students and robust professional-development programming — the career has attracted fewer qualified candidates in most parts of the seven-parish New Orleans metropolitan area.
Meanwhile, those who do pick up teaching jobs are becoming less likely to stick around in the long term.
The problem has become so great that, despite proposed pay raises, local training programs and a myriad of other efforts, experts in recent months have said the need for more qualified teachers has become “urgent.”
"It is fair to say we have a teacher shortage in Louisiana right now," state Superintendent of Education John White said recently.
Officials in Orleans, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. Bernard parishes say they face a shortage of certified teachers in critical areas, including special education, high school science and math, and English as a second language. They've been ramping up their recruitment efforts at the local level.
At the same time, Gov. John Bel Edwards has been pitching a statewide teacher pay raise as one of his key priorities for the 2019 legislative session. That $135 million effort, which faces pushback from some House Republican leaders, would raise salaries by $1,000 for teachers and $500 for support workers across the state.
Teachers in Louisiana are now paid an average of about $50,000 per year, around $2,200 below the regional average. Edwards hopes to close that gap by 2022.
The statewide raise, if it passes, could incentivize more students to finish teacher-preparation programs, officials say. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, the number of students completing certification programs has dropped by nearly one-fourth since the 2010-11 school year. A total of 2,166 students completed their certification in 2015-16, down from 2,802 in 2010.
Competing local efforts
The local efforts to woo better teachers are independent from the state plan, and neighboring districts are often competing for the same candidates.
Perhaps the most ambitious local effort to attract more certified teachers is being spearheaded by Superintendent Cade Brumley of Jefferson Parish.
Brumley oversees the largest public school system in Louisiana, and its problems with recruitment and retention are especially acute. He said the Jefferson system loses 40 percent of its first-year teachers each year, and three out of every 10 teachers with more experience — the worst figures in the region.
On May 4, voters will decide whether to approve a 7.9-mill property tax to fund raises that the Jefferson Parish School Board says might slow the wave of departures that creates close to 400 classroom vacancies each year as some of the parish’s best educators leave for more lucrative jobs elsewhere.
At just under $41,200 a year, the starting pay in Jefferson Parish for certified teachers with a bachelor’s degree is the lowest of the seven parishes in metro New Orleans. With the proposed increase, the pay would rank second-highest, just behind the $46,300 starting salary in Plaquemines Parish.
Officials in St. John, where starting pay is about $44,100, are also trying their hand at new incentives. Certified teachers who agree to teach at the parish’s lowest-performing school will be given a $2,500 bonus next year, while special education teachers will get a $5,000 bonus.
Jefferson Parish is also planning to offer bonuses to teachers who go to the most challenging schools.
Other parishes have been working to increase recruitment efforts through college programs, in-house training efforts and even internet campaigns.
In St. Charles and St. Tammany parishes, officials are pushing STAR, or Students Teaching and Reaching, a program which allows high school students to learn about the teaching profession early and earn college credits towards their teaching degrees.
They are then given incentives, in the forms of stipends and other measures, to return to teach in their home parishes after earning their degrees.
Efforts have also ramped up in Orleans Parish, where teacher retention has been an issue since Hurricane Katrina, according to a study released in 2017 by Tulane University's Education Research Alliance.
In November 2017, six New Orleans universities and nonprofit groups announced a recruitment effort funded by a $13 million seed grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help recruit and train nearly 900 teachers by 2020.
Those efforts have been furthered by a New Schools for New Orleans recruitment campaign called Teach New Orleans.
That effort was launched in December with the city’s first centralized website for teachers seeking jobs across the city’s decentralized system of schools, which are overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board but operated by a collection of independent charter and nonprofit organizations.
So far, the initiative has gotten 6,000 unique visitors, and the organization has been able to send 60 resumés to charters throughout the city, according to Alex Jarrell, the organization's chief innovation officer.
Altogether, those efforts are expected to yield 450 new teachers ready to enter classrooms by this fall. But that number will cover only half the need. An estimated 900 teachers — roughly 29 percent of the teachers in the district — leave New Orleans annually for reasons ranging from low pay to lack of support systems.
'Just so disheartening'
As local parishes wait for more certified teachers to materialize, most open teaching jobs are going to younger educators with limited experience.
Even if the pay raise and recruitment efforts make a dent, Frisch says they may not solve the problem of teacher turnover, or teachers deciding to call it quits once they start. She thinks those trends are likely to continue without dramatic changes in individual school systems.
Looking back, Frisch fondly remembers what she calls "aha" moments, where she helped her students achieve their academic goals, grow as individuals and even become better citizens.
"It was fun and exciting, and those moments were great," she recalls.
But things started to go sour after Katrina, when she says local systems started downsizing, placing more work on teachers and offering less professional development, even as new curricula rolled in and standards got more stringent.
The pressure has only increased in recent years in Louisiana, where raising both standards and test scores has become a critical part of a controversial plan sparked by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law that demands greater accountability for systems with struggling students.
"It was all about testing and test scores, all about reading data and self-evaluation," Frisch said. "It was your salary based on student success — all of those things start coming down ... it was just so disheartening."
Frisch’s point of view is supported by a 2017 study by the Learning Policy Institute, which said teachers' most frequently cited reasons for leaving weren't pay but dissatisfaction with testing and accountability pressures.
Others have complained about lack of administrative support, lack of opportunities for advancement and dissatisfaction with working conditions.
At a recent discussion, Patrick Dobard, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and former superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District, conceded that local districts need to find ways to keep teachers happy besides raises and "kudos and pats on the back.”
"We also have to make it where their quality of life is so significantly better that they really want to stay in the classroom and continue to do the work of educating our children," Dobard said. "Retaining talent is a huge thing we have to think about."
To help figure out how to better support teachers, New Schools for New Orleans has created a "robust" teacher survey so officials can get feedback about what to do to make teachers want to stay in their jobs.
Among the top suggestions were implementing retention bonuses and loan-forgiveness programs, as well as more classroom support, like counseling services for students, so teachers can focus on academics and not on problems like students' poverty.
"That data has come back to school leaders to help leadership teams get the right development, the right support to start to tackle teachers' happiness and engagement, and make sure they stay at the school for a long time," said Jarrell.
In Jefferson Parish, Brumley said, officials are working on retention by offering teachers two career tracks: one for those who want administrative roles and another for those who want to advance while staying active in the classroom.
In the meantime, experts say the risk of losing teachers remains high. Kate Mehok, the CEO of the charter organization Crescent City Schools, underscored that teacher retention is directly related to student performance.
"If we’re constantly turning over our second- and third-year teachers before they get really good, then how are we going to get beyond where we are academically?" she asked.
Additional reporting was contributed by staff writer Faimon A. Roberts III.