With just days to go before the start of the new school year, Baltimore's school administrators are boasting a nearly full roster of teachers.
After a summerlong hiring push -- bolstered, officials say, by a new incentives program -- the city school system has 1,000 new teachers on board and 35 vacancies. Last year at this time, the school system was struggling to fill 150 openings.
"It's the most teachers we've ever hired," Charlene Cooper Boston, the system's interim chief executive officer, said yesterday at a back-to-school event at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore. "And 92 percent of those are highly qualified, so I think that's great."
At the event, attended by hundreds of students and parents hoping to pick up vouchers for free school uniforms donated by Forman Mills, Boston also reminded parents what has to be done before classes begin Monday.
For instance, about 1,000 of the system's 83,000 projected students have not had their mandatory vaccinations.
"You can't be enrolled in school until you have those shots," said Bryan Richardson, director of SchoolStat, an accountability program.
The city offers the shots free with its mobile immunization program. Parents can call 410-396-4454 for the van's schedule.
Also, parents with other questions can call the school system's back-to-school "command center" at 443-984-1177. The phone line is staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Officials were particularly enthusiastic about the system's recent success with hiring and optimistic that it will continue.
"We feel very confident that this year every class will have a teacher," said system spokeswoman Edie House.
Hiring and teacher retention have vexed the system for years, with a shortage of qualified teachers willing to work in the city schools.
In January last year, well into the school year, the system was still down 150 teachers, having started the school year 200 positions in the hole.
In the past, the system has turned to other states -- and other countries -- to recruit. But this summer, Boston said, a package of new incentives seemed to ease the hiring burden.
The system offered new teachers laptop computers with curriculum programs already loaded and $200 gift cards to use online to buy school supplies.
To assist with the particularly hard-to-fill math, science and special-education jobs, there is a new 100 percent tuition-reimbursement program for teachers who pursue advanced degrees and agree to stay with the city schools for three years after graduation.
"We're just trying to add some perks to let teachers know we respect them and the work that they do," said Gary Thrift, director of human resources.
Of the slightly more than 1,000 new teachers, Thrift said, about 400 are in new positions. That includes 11 joining the system's new "co-teaching" program, in which pairs of teachers team up in the classrooms at the neediest schools.
The system also will be trying new programs at some of the struggling schools, Boston said.
Those tactics include having Health Department and social services representatives on site and bringing back sports and art programs.
"We want to make it relevant and interesting to the children," Boston said. "It's so they can say, 'Hey, something is special at my school.'"