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Alachua County Struggling To Attract Teachers For Underperforming Schools In Gainesville

Gillian Mertens, 28, a former English and language arts teacher at Fort Clarke Middle School and Westwood Middle School. (Danielle Ivanov/WUFT News)
Gillian Mertens, 28, a former English and language arts teacher at Fort Clarke Middle School and Westwood Middle School. (Danielle Ivanov/WUFT News)

Kevin Purvis blames the stress of hiring qualified teachers for making him lose his hair.

“We don’t have enough applicants,” Purvis, assistant superintendent of human resources said of the Alachua County School District still recently having 53 teaching vacancies.

“It keeps you up late at night,” the former principal of Newberry High School added.

Purvis went bowling on July 31 with about 150 new teachers the district hired for the 2019-20 school year. Still needed, however, are teachers for students in prekindergarten to high school and classes ranging from music to math. These open spots mean students will either be placed in other, already full classes, or they will start the school year with a substitute teacher, Purvis said.

Teacher vacancies are a longstanding national problem. The U.S. had 110,000 too few teachers during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

The Florida Department of Education is aiming to combat that issue with over $45 million in Unified School Improvement Grant funding for 161 under-performing schools in the state.

The Alachua County district announced July 23 that it would try to use part of its share of the grant money  – $887,727.50 – to offer bonuses to teachers willing to work in such schools.

Teachers with at least one year of experience and a performance evaluation of “highly effective” or “effective” can receive a $15,000 or $7,500 bonus, respectively, this school year for doing so.

Schools that receive letter grades below “C" are considered under-performing. Alachua County has three eligible: Lake Forest Elementary, Idylwild Elementary and Joseph Williams Elementary. They were the only three given “D” grades for the 2018-19 school year. They are also all located in East Gainesville and have among the city’s poorest students.

Leanetta McNealy, the District 4 representative on the county school board, said she hopes the bonus money will entice more effective or highly effective teachers to move to the three schools. 

But only two have shown interest so far, McNealy and Purvis said.

“We are in trouble,” she said. “We need to come together, galvanize and see what we can do.”

Purvis said bad timing could be the problem. Pre-planning started Monday, so many teachers had already decided where and what they will teach before learning of the bonus options, he said.

But others say low salaries and systemic racism are to blame.

Gillian Mertens, 28, is a third-year doctoral candidate at the University of Florida College of Education. After teaching English and language arts at Fort Clarke Middle School for three years and Westwood Middle School for one year – both are on the west side of Gainesville – the UF alumna returned to school in hopes of becoming a professor.

Mertens said salaries, even with bonuses, are too low to attract experienced teachers to underperforming schools. The cost of having a family forced many former colleagues to work a second or third job, causing burnout and decreasing the care students received, she said. 

Florida ranks 46th highest in the country when it comes to teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association’s 2018 annual report. Compared to the national average, state teachers earned over $12,000 less during the 2017-18 school year.

Mertens said her doctoral research has allowed her to explore in-depth the inequity that occurs in local schools. The achievement gap shown in the three eastside schools stems from Gainesville’s history of segregation and the east versus west income divide, she said.

“The victim of this is primarily students of color,” Mertens said. “And they deserve better.”


Marna Weston, a debate coach and social studies teacher at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, said teacher vacancies extend to private schools as well.

“A lot of people don’t survive in the teaching field for more than two or three years,” Weston said, “because they find there’s not enough money in it.”

Weston has 35 years of teaching experience and is among the few black teachers in the county.

“Particularly in my example as an African American man,” he said, “I try to show my students that somebody’s who’s different can still be competent.”

Krystal Serrano, a Spanish teacher at Oak Hall, also commented on the lack of diversity in county teachers. She said racial and ethnic equity is a problem everywhere.

“It’s important for students to have mentor relationships,” said Serrano, 34. “If they don’t have teachers who look like them or come from the same background as them, it’s harder to establish those close connections. It definitely hinders their success.”

Rebecca Bennett, 25, is a new fifth grade teacher at Lake Forest Elementary. A U.S. Navy veteran and single mother, Bennett said she applied for a job at Lake Forest specifically because of the challenges it presented her.

“I didn’t want to walk into my first year and have it be breezy,” she said. “I want my first year to be my hardest, so I can really grow.”

Bennett said she isn’t concerned about her income, because she doesn’t have student loans to pay off thanks to her military service. Instead, she is excited to teach students of color and form close relationships with them and their families.

“It takes a big heart to work in the eastside,” Bennett said. “You have to be what the kids need – and they just want someone to love them and understand.”

Danielle is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org or calling 352-392-6397.