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Enrollment in teacher education plummets

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Heather Herger helps with one-on-one instruction in her fourth-grade classroom at Highcliff Elementary School in Ross Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Heather, a first-year teacher for the North Hills School District, is an IUP graduate and got her first teaching job outside of Pennsylvania.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Heather Herger helps with one-on-one instruction in her fourth-grade classroom at Highcliff Elementary School in Ross Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Heather, a first-year teacher for the North Hills School District, is an IUP graduate and got her first teaching job outside of Pennsylvania.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that fewer high school graduates are enrolling in Pennsylvania college programs to become teachers, Heather Herger said.

Herger, 31, who grew up in the North Hills, graduated from Penn State with a degree in elementary education in 2004 and spent nine years teaching in Virginia and Maryland and earning a master's degree and national certification before finally landing her dream job teaching fourth grade at Highcliff Elementary School in the North Hills School District this fall.

She said one friend who spent eight years as a substitute here finally gave up and changed careers.

Experts speculate one of the tightest job markets in recent memory, exacerbated by the elimination of about 20,000 public school positions in Pennsylvania since 2008, is starting to exact a toll on colleges and universities that traditionally produced two to five times as many teachers as Pennsylvania schools could absorb.

“It's pretty clear to students going into college now. The job market is so competitive, a lot of them think, ‘Why should I go into education?' And that's sad,” Herger said.

“When I graduated in 2009, the message was already out there that teaching was not the way to go, either because you wouldn't earn a lot or because there weren't many jobs out there,” said Jacob Minsinger, 22, who enrolled in education anyway and graduated from Duquesne University in the spring with honors.

As a substitute middle school teacher in Avonworth School District this semester, he is among the lucky few new teachers to land jobs in the Pittsburgh area.

Enrollment plummeted at Minsinger's alma mater from an average of 100 new students to 60 in 2011, until Duquesne boosted enrollment last year by offering a guaranteed four-year, 50 percent scholarship for its education program.

Yet Duquesne's bump in no way offsets losses at the 14 state-owned universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, all of which began as teacher training institutions. Overall, enrollment in teacher education programs declined 19 percent during the past three years, according to acting Chancellor Peter Garland.

At some of the universities, declines during the past decade are more pronounced: 1,893 last year at Slippery Rock, down from 2,611 in 2002, and at Clarion, down to 1,148 from 2,062.

State system spokesman Kenn Marshall said many students shifted to business and health career majors in recent years.

Nationally, education remains one of the 10 most popular college majors, though surveys by the Princeton Review suggest that may be changing. Business was the most popular college major every year since 2004. Elementary education, the third most popular in 2004, dropped off the list by 2011, and general education hovers at fifth place.

Though he loves teaching, Minsinger understands the draw that a business major exerts.

“I remember people who were majoring in business who knew they had a job at PNC before they graduated. That was not the case for anyone in the school of education,” he said.

University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll, who studies teacher supply issues, said “word has been out for several years about teacher layoffs.” In part, that might be a correction from 1987 to 2008 when the teacher workforce expanded at twice the rate of student enrollment.

“My long-term guess is there's no way the teaching force can go back to expanding at that rate,” he said.

Competition for teaching jobs remains fierce.

Even experienced teachers vie for temporary contracts to get a start in elementary education, where 3,000 to 4,000 applicants can pop up for a single job on, a school jobs website.

Shanna Struble, 32, joined Central Elementary School in Hampton School District this year. Even with five years of full-time experience in Georgia, Struble said she had to sub for two years before earning a classroom.

“I think it's probably one of the most humbling experiences I've been through,” Struble said. “You put in so much work and effort, and do all these things right, but it's still so hard to get a position here.” posted 192 openings in Allegheny County since May, but has more than 17,000 active candidates seeking work as teachers or administrators in the county.

Some eventually head to states where pockets of growth created demand for teachers.

That's fine with Joe Pisani.

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Pisani is principal of Massaponax High School in Fredericksburg, Va. He regularly recruits teachers from Pennsylvania and New York who can't find work at home.

Recent graduates of Clarion, Slippery Rock, Indiana and Penn State universities are among his faculty.

“These kids are not seeing a future locally. Pennsylvania and New York are having the same difficulty, but that helps us,” Pisani said. He and other recruiters look to Pennsylvania schools, he said, “because those education programs do prepare the people well to become teachers.”

Debra Erdley and Megan Harris are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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