The first time William Richardson, Jr., entered Wilde Lake Middle School, in Columbia, he was a sixth-grade student. On Saturday, about 30 years later, he walked through the building’s doors again, this time as an adult looking for a job at a Howard County Public School System Hiring Fair.
“I called a buddy after the first job fair and said, ‘Man, it looks nothing like it used to,” Richardson, 44, said of the school. “It looks nice, but just totally different.”
As a student, Richardson was in the school system’s Black Student Achievement Program. Now, he’s looking for a job in the program as a liaison.
Change is in the air for the Howard County Public School System at large. More than 200 staff members retired at the end of June and the system has mobilized all hands on deck to ensure it has enough staff when students return for classes Aug. 29.
“We’re doing everything we can to recruit,” said schools Superintendent Michael Martirano, who stood at Wilde Lake Middle School’s entrance Saturday, ushering in a steady stream of applicants with a wide smile. “It is extremely competitive, and the supply and demand is really a concern.”
Despite challenges facing recruiters across the state this summer, the school system’s efforts have paid off. As of Aug. 15, the school system has reduced teacher vacancies from around 170 in late July to 71, according to spokesperson Brian Bassett. Three hiring fairs, the first of which took place on July 30, have attracted more than 550 registrants, with nearly 100 additional walk-ins at each of the two events. The third is planned for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Aug. 27, at Wilde Lake Middle School.
“We’ve experienced some of the similar struggles as other districts,” said Nicole Carter, the school system’s executive director of human resources. “But we’ve been continuously hitting very hard, looking at people who are coming into the education profession that are new, as well as people who are interested in changing careers.”
Of the remaining vacancies, 22 are for classroom teachers, 26 are for special education teachers and 23 are for related service providers, such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, and adaptive physical education teachers. While Bassett says there are more school vacancies than in previous years, they are about the same as in 2021.
“If you spread that [number] out across the system of 77 schools, many ... schools are fully staffed when it comes to classroom teachers,” Martirano said. “That’s good, but we’re running right now as if our life depends upon it, which it does, for the education of our students. You can’t replace the quality of the interaction between a teacher and a student.”
‘It is a different world’
A declining number of young educators graduating from college plus increased retirements and the stress and burnout resulting from the pandemic-related shifts to remote learning have dramatically altered the hiring field, Martirano said.
“It is a different world as far as recruitment goes,” he said.
To address these challenges and compete with surrounding counties, the county school system has embraced a number of recruitment and retention strategies. Anticipating vacancies, it offered an unprecedented number of open contracts last year to lock in new teachers graduating from college. The school system also has gotten creative with advertisements, hiring one company to run ads for job fairs on a boat floating along the Maryland coastline for Ocean City tourists to see.
Martirano and Carter said the Howard County Public School System is maintaining what works – high salaries, quality benefits, modern facilities, low class sizes and supportive leadership. With its new pay scale, effective July 1, the school system has one of the highest starting teacher salaries in the state at $56,228.
“Young teachers are very savvy and are looking at the total package,” Martirano said. “All those factors play into making this a dynamic, vibrant, wonderful place to work.”
Like Richardson, many of the applicants at the Aug. 13 fair were already familiar with county schools.
Sandra Braxton-Riley, 75, has more than 40 years of experience teaching in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland and became a substitute teacher in the county when her grandson attended Hammond Elementary School. She stopped when COVID-19 hit, but rising bills, boredom and her love of working with children brought her to the fair.
“[This] is an excellent school system; the children really have a lot of resources,” said Braxton-Riley, who lives in Columbia . “I’ve found it quite easy and relaxing working here.”
Another applicant, Sumitha Ajith, of Ellicott City, came to the fair hoping to transition from working in the engineering field. Her family moved from Austin, Texas, two years ago, and she’s seen firsthand the quality of education her daughter has received.
“It’s always a pleasure to work with Howard County teachers, and they’re all very passionate about what they’re doing,” said Ajith, 41, who is considering computer education and technology positions. “Each kid is unique. I’m seeing how many different types of resources teachers are providing so that all these skills can be nurtured. That gave me a good feeling about the Howard County education system.”
Aidan O’Maille, 22, a recent graduate of Towson University who is moving to Jessup, was looking for paraeducator positions at the fair. He saw how overwhelmed teachers got while he worked as a substitute in Baltimore County in the spring but remains motivated to become a speech pathologist in the school system.
Anna Lee, 48, taught English as a second language at Howard Community College for eight years as an adjunct and decided to pursue full-time opportunities at the fair. The Ellicott City resident came to the county in 1979 as one of the first waves of Korean immigrants and graduated from Centennial High School.
“It’s the school system I was raised in,” Lee said. “It’s changed so much. It’s a great school system, it’s so diverse, and it’s close to home.”
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For Lee, the pandemic was a dark time that exposed rifts in the education system, but when she finally resumed teaching in-person ESL classes at Howard Community College she felt restored and wants to bring that enthusiasm with her to a new job.
“When I returned to in-person classes, I almost started crying my first week because there was just so much hope,” Lee said. “I realized that teaching my students is sort of being the bridgeway to American culture. Just seeing the hope in their eyes and the dreams that they had for themselves and their families, I thought, ‘This is America. This is the America that I love.’”