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How one Texas school district reversed its post pandemic teacher shortage

ABC News

After the pandemic hit, many schools across the country faced a growing problem of teacher shortages.

Around 300,000 public school teachers and other staff members left the field as the pandemic took hold between February 2020 and May 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kaetlynn Ruiz became a kindergarten paraprofessional, or what’s also known as a teaching assistant, in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Texas during the pandemic – one of the thousands of teachers in the Mesquite Independent School District, which serves more than 38,000 students in 51 schools.

She says there are many reasons why teachers say they have been leaving the field in recent years.

“I hear that teachers aren’t being as supported when it comes to behavior in the classroom,” Ruiz told “ABC News Live Prime.” “A lot of them are leaving because of the pay. They just say it’s very hard to live on a teacher’s salary.”

Mesquite District Superintendent Dr. Ángel Rivera said the pandemic also put additional stress on educators.

“We had to have teachers work on two platforms, the face-to-face while simultaneously doing a virtual piece. And so pretty much it doubled up their work… and it probably expedited people leaving the profession,” Rivera said. “If the teachers were stressed before, they probably doubled their level of stress at that particular time.”

But the district says it has worked on combating problems facing educators by implementing new strategies that they say have been successful to retain more teachers.

Last year, voters passed a tax measure leading to $16 million in new revenue annually for the district – critical funding used in part to boost teacher salaries.

“This money will be paid on safety and security, teacher compensation along with paraprofessionals, and then programming for kids. Those were my three points,” Rivera said.

In addition, the district implemented new programs such as the Pathways Advancing Certified Educators or “PACE,” which helps teaching assistants pay for school as they fill vacancies, while working toward becoming fully certified teachers.

Ruiz is a member of the PACE program, which she used to move from being a kindergarten teaching assistant to now being in her first year as a full-time fourth grade teacher at Tosch Elementary School in Mesquite, where she herself was once a student.

“So many of us want to go into teaching,” Ruiz said of Mesquite’s paraprofessionals. “We just didn’t have the means to get there. And so this program truly helped us get our foot in the door. It’s pretty special to be able to do what I love, and also be able to earn that certification and degree.”

Long before the pandemic, the district also instituted its “Excellence in Teaching” incentive program, which gave a financial boost to veteran teachers to stay in the classroom. Teachers in the program get a salary stipend after two years of additional training, and receive additional stipends if they pursue advanced degrees while teaching.

“They were trying to figure out a way that we can, the district can, grow better teachers. And that takes time. And it takes additional instruction and training just like any other profession,” said Jeffrey Blackwell, who teaches high school speech, debate and academic decathlon classes at his alma mater Poteet High School in Mesquite.

As the pandemic waned, the district said it was able to cut teacher vacancies from 145 at the start of last school year to just 16 this year.

Blackwell was once a practicing attorney, but the 20-year teaching veteran says he can’t see himself in a profession outside of the classroom.

“There’s always going to be compelling arguments not to be a teacher, in terms of the marketplace,” Blackwell said. “But being a teacher, it’s, it’s a calling. That’s what teaching is. That’s who we are.”

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