On March 29, 2016, the Senate Education Committee met jointly with the Senate Higher Education Committee to consider interim charges, which include studying the teacher shortage and retention issues in Texas and evaluate educator preparation programs to determine if these programs are preparing educators for the rigors of the 21st century classroom. In particular, examine the shortages of ELL, special education, and STEM educators across the state and identify the issues creating a shortage.  

Dr. Alexis Neumann, Superintendent of Rapoport Academy, appeared before the joint committees and testified at the public hearing.  The following is her testimony.  

Thank you for the opportunity to share our story and struggles with each of you.  My name is Dr. Alexis Neumann.   I come today on behalf of the students, parents, and staff of Rapoport Academy in Waco, Texas as their Superintendent.  We are a pre-K through 12th grade public charter school and were the first in Texas dual-designated as T-STEM and Early College High School.  Our 800 students are majority minority and majority low-income.  Also you will find in the school’s most current report card that we received 6 out of 7 academic distinctions, only missing the 7th because our students took college-level chemistry as sophomores and, as such, were not included.  Our mission is to help students from low-income families overcome the educational gaps and be prepared academically to successfully complete college coursework by 9th grade.  As you can imagine, not an easy task when you consider that less than five of our students start pre-K with an understanding of the most simple academic concepts.  Today, I will focus on challenges we encounter in securing qualified teachers for our Early College High School (“ECHS”) and T-STEM areas. 

Before joining Rapoport Academy, I was an administrator at the Texas State Technical College (“TSTC”) in Waco and was fortunate to experience the creation of Rapoport’s high school and the budding ECHS partnership.  We have continued to develop that partnership with TSTC and have recently begun to finalize an agreement with McLennan Community College.  Through these partnerships, we have created multiple pathways for our students to obtain a Level 1 Certificate or full Associate’s degree before they graduate from high school.  Our pathways address each of the endorsement areas of HB5 and aid in consolidating the offerings for students to ensure that maximal application of coursework occurs should they continue their education elsewhere. This also allows our students to take foundational coursework in their respective areas of interest without tying them to a specific career path.  As an ECHS, it is also our commitment to provide this opportunity at zero cost to the students or their families in order to create more access for students who otherwise would not be able to afford this type of opportunity.    This means we cover the costs for all transportation, books, fees, tuition, etc. These costs total approximately $75,000 and are expected to triple in the next five years.  TSTC currently waives tuition and McLennan waives that for those who qualify based on income.  I am sure that you are all familiar with the discussion related to funding for education, particularly smaller charter schools.  I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Preparing these students to be college ready cannot start in 8th grade.  It does not start in middle school.  We begin with a college mindset at pre-K.  Our STEM curriculum is targeted and begins in kindergarten with focused efforts on the engineering design process at developmentally appropriate levels as students progress through the district.  What we have discovered with our students is that academic preparedness, though difficult, can be achieved.  However, finding staff who can bridge the gap of a 15 year old’s social maturity while teaching English 1301 or psychology is challenging.  Experiences with professor/student interactions, high school/traditional college student interactions, and parent/professor interactions,  both on and off of the college campus, have led us to the practice of hosting most 9th and 10th grade college courses on our own campus, either through online courses or visiting college adjuncts.  This is where one of the most significant issues we face comes to a head.  We find it seemingly impossible to find a magical combination of teachers who are qualified to teach for college credit, want to interact with still-maturing teenagers, and do this for a salary considerably lower than larger districts around us.  We can compound this problem even more when we try to seek a candidate that can and will do what I just mentioned and has real-world experience in any of the STEM fields.  Why would one leave a $70,000 engineering job to come to our little charter school and make exactly half of that salary?  For those that do, the rewards are priceless.  However, priceless does not pay student loans and grocery bills.  Currently, we could add a core teacher in each of the four areas if they were eligible to teach dual-credit, possibly serving an additional 100 students and enabling more students to complete an Associate’s degree before graduating high school.

I want to be clear that the teachers we have – from pre-K through 12th grade are mission-driven, focused on student outcomes, passionate about making a difference for these children, and committed to the Rapoport way of education.  However, when every dollar Rapoport receives is split to pay the light bills, building maintenance, intervention materials, classroom supplies, and a host of other necessities, what is left in the end does not allow for salaries that can even compete with larger districts, and especially not with professorships or industry.  Though we have participated in college job fairs, community job fairs, Region Service Center job fairs, maintained relationships with the city, four area chambers of commerce, and advertised in local print media, we have continued to see little increase in the number of qualified teaching applicants with industry experience or qualifications to teach dual-credit.

I appreciate the Senate Education and Senate Higher Education Committees addressing this issue today.  Thank you for working towards crafting solutions that will help us find those people who are willing to put their real-world experience to use in expanding and nurturing the minds of our future workforce.

The views and opinions expressed in guest blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Texas Charter Schools Association.