Kristyn Ferguson, a first-year teacher at Deer Park Middle Magnet School in Baltimore County, has spent a week turning her classroom into a vibrant place to teach drama. She rolled out a black plastic sheath on the floor at the front of the room to serve as a stage and painted one wall black. She covered a mirror on the wall so her students can learn to express emotion by instinct and unselfconsciously.
Ferguson is looking forward to the start of the school year, but she's worried. She is a 2013 college graduate who has never taught in a public school. She's unsure what to expect, and — perhaps more importantly — she's uncertain about exactly what is expected of her. She wants to know where she can find an online template to create lesson plans, how to tap into the school system's email and computer system, and myriad other things.
"I am nervous about what I don't know I don't know," she said.
Ferguson's fears are shared by thousands of other first-year teachers across the state as they welcome students back to school this week. A record 880,000 students are expected to fill public school classrooms in Maryland this year.
Schools open in Anne Arundel County on Monday, Baltimore County on Wednesday and Harford County on Thursday. Baltimore and Howard and Carroll counties start Monday, Aug. 29.
If past statistics hold true, nearly half of the new teachers in Maryland will leave the profession by the end of their third year. But in several counties around the state, including Anne Arundel and Baltimore County, new teacher induction programs are increasing retention. A new law could also stem turnover by reducing the class loads of first-year teachers.
Ferguson is one of 26 new teachers at Deer Park. About one third of the faculty left this summer, a number so large that Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance is trying a new approach at the school.
Dance assigned 40 teachers as traveling mentors three years ago to support new teachers throughout the district. This year, he assigned Adrienne A. Dodson, a 23-year-veteran, to Deer Park full time.
"For my new teachers, I hope they find Deer Park a place where they grow and build their craft," Dodson said.
On Friday, she was busy helping teachers develop classroom routines and procedures for the opening week, discussing matters big and small: What doors students will use to come and go, how they will distribute class materials, how they will manage noise and maintain order.
Along with an engaging lesson, Dodson said, "a teacher needs to have a strong presence and strong procedures."
The work the county has done is paying off, she said, with retention rates of 90 percent in the most recent years.
The same is true in Anne Arundel County, which has provided mentors to new teachers for many years, and has a retention rate between 90 percent and 94 percent.
The county has trained 46 full-time teacher mentors, called "Right Start" advisers, a corps of some of the most experienced and successful teachers pulled out of the classroom for four years to help new teachers adjust and succeed — and, the district hopes, stay on the job.
"We bring them out because they know how to analyze," said Andrea Zamora, the county's director of professional growth and development. "We know they will be good examples in the classroom."
Mentor Quinn Swain said she tries to give new teachers one new strategy at a time to try out in the classroom. She will instruct a teacher to wander through a classroom to watch and interact with students rather than stand in front of the class. Sometimes she will model the action in the classroom and return days later to see if the teacher is able to use it.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2010 that requires school districts to provide teacher mentoring.
The Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents the majority of the state's teachers, conducted a study this summer that it says found many new teachers are left to founder.
"We have a real hodgepodge of things happening," said Robin Beers, an elementary school teacher in Anne Arundel who worked on the study. "We found there seems to be a pretty big disparity about how programs are implemented around the state."
The constant churn among teachers has troubled school districts around the nation for years. About 7 percent of the state's teaching workforce quit or retired in 2014. In Baltimore City, which has recently beefed up its mentoring program, 11.3 percent of teachers left.
For large school systems, the high attrition means hiring hundreds of new teachers each year.
"For the kids having different faces in the school makes it very difficult," said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a former schoolteacher and now vice chairman of the Senate education committee. "We have found it takes a couple years to figure out the culture of a school and to become an effective teacher."
The Prince George's County Democrat sponsored legislation this year that would allow school districts to apply for state funds for a pilot program to give new teachers a lighter teaching load.
Instead of five classes a day, new teachers would get only four, and use the extra time to plan lessons and observe veteran colleagues in the classroom.
Urban Teachers, a Baltimore-based training program for new teachers, has expanded this year from Baltimore and Washington to Texas. Urban Teachers places about 48 teachers each year in Baltimore classrooms, and gives them four years of support and education before declaring them trained.
The program, based on a medical school residency, gives teachers a year to work beside a veteran classroom teacher.
Only in the second year do they have control of their own classroom. While learning on the job, the teachers take classes at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
Jennifer Green, the founder and CEO of Urban Teachers, said the organization weeds out about 20 percent of the new teachers in the first year. They either choose to leave or are asked to. Retention rates after that are very high.
School districts have good reasons to work to retain teachers. Enrollment is growing so quickly in Baltimore County that Dance said he needs to add about 100 teachers to the workforce each year. He also has to replace those who leave.
Since Maryland schools of education do not produce enough teachers for the state each year, school systems have to go outside the state to find new teachers.
As nervous as Ferguson is about her new position at Deer Park, she also finds the start of the year exhilarating.
"Every time a kid comes in my heart jumps a little bit," she said. "This was what I have wanted to do since I figured it out in college."