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Pennsylvania

Fewer college students opt to pursue career as teachers

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, August 13, 2016 4:51 p.m
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Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Bonnie Ordonez, chair of the division of education at Seton Hill University, photographed in her office on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, has overseen a growth at the school in enrollement in its elementary education program.

Abbie Yasika is part of a rare breed of college students who want to be teachers.

The 22-year-old from Greensburg discounted comments from friends and classmates who warned she would never find a teaching job.

She graduated from college in May, and this month she’s launching a career as a kindergarten teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

But she’s among a rapidly shrinking pool of students opting to teach.

The trend is apparent at local colleges where enrollment in teacher prep programs has declined dramatically.

And statistics from the state Department of Education show a steep drop in the overall number of teaching certificates issued: from a 15-year high of 18,590 in 2013 to 7,280 last year.

Lara M. Luetkehans, dean of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s College of Education and Educational Technology, said it’s hard to attribute the decrease to a single factor.

“As we think back, there were a lack of employment possibilities, and that was affecting students and their interest. Part of it was due to demographics in Pennsylvania where school districts are shrinking. And there has been a national and community dialogue around educators and education.

“Sometimes, teachers become scapegoats for problems in the American education system. That all made people think twice about teaching and education,” Luetkehans said.

It adds up to some shocking numbers for college administrators.

At Indiana, a university founded as a teachers college, enrollment in the Bachelor of Science in Education program declined by 55.2 percent, from 2,068 students in the fall of 2010 to 926 students last year.

At California University of Pennsylvania, another former teachers college, undergraduate enrollment in education programs slipped from 1,377 in 2010 to 513 last year, or 62.7 percent.

Seton Hill University officials saw enrollment in secondary education programs fall from 312 students in 2010 to 176 last year, 43.6 percent, at the Greensburg school.

Missing a generation

The numbers don’t surprise Yasika.

“While I was in college, I had people who said the odds were against me getting a job, especially in Western Pennsylvania where a lot of schools still aren’t filling positions,” she said.

A handful of Pennsylvania school districts are having trouble filling positions — most notably Philadelphia’s massive school system, the nation’s eighth-largest with 134,538 students.

But many in Western Pennsylvania mirror the Norwin School District where more than 1,000 applications were recently on file for 17.5 teaching positions.

Former Allegheny County state lawmaker Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, is concerned.

“For almost two years, I’ve been saying to my board that 10 years from now, we’re going to look back and wonder how we lost a generation of smart young people to the teaching profession,” said Cowell, whose center supports the development of state education policies to improve student learning.

He said his organization is convening a study group to examine the implications of the numbers.

Alan Lesgold, dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, which focuses on master’s and doctoral degrees, has seen an alarming decline in students.

“We probably lost half of our enrollment,” Lesgold said.

He speculated that years of teacher surpluses in Pennsylvania led many who might have enrolled in Pitt’s graduate programs to take their teaching certificates elsewhere — to the South and West where states with teacher shortages are eager to hire out-of-state educators.

Student incentives

Colleges are adopting various strategies to fight declining enrollment.

In 2012, Duquesne University began offering students majoring in education a 50 percent reduction in four-year tuition. A 30 percent drop in enrollment the prior year triggered the policy that saw freshman enrollment increase from 60 students in 2011 to 138 in 2012, according to Paul-James Cukanna, Duquesne’s associate provost for enrollment.

Going against the grain, Seton Hill launched an elementary education program in 2010 that grew from 38 students to 109 last year.

Bonnie Ordonez, chair of the Division of Education at Seton Hill, said the program encourages students to become certified in special education as well. Given shortages in that profession, the secondary certification can help aspiring teachers get a foot in the door at some schools.

It worked out well for Meghan Mastroianni, 23, of Coraopolis, who graduated from Seton Hill in December with dual certification and recently was hired as a kindergarten teacher in the Moon School District.

“Being as motivated as I was, I never saw the downside to it. I just worked hard and networked,” Mastroianni said.

Officials at Seton Hill and the Pitt branch campus in Greensburg recently sealed a deal that would allow education majors at Pitt to begin taking credits in Seton Hill’s master’s program in special education while they are juniors and seniors at Pitt.

Indiana is pursuing a strategy to ensure aspiring teachers stand out in the job market.

“There has tended to be a consistent oversupply of early childhood and elementary teachers for the last 20 years. So we’re emphasizing the middle years, special content certifications, special education and aiming that every student who leaves IUP leaves with dual certifications so they are more employable,” Luetkehans said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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