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While schools across the nation are being forced to consolidate classes and cancel programs because of a shortage of teachers, that’s not the case in Sonoma County, thanks to proactive steps taken by administrators.

Improvements to district hiring practices and the creation of a program to train new teachers have helped Sonoma County schools avoid the shortage of instructors plaguing other districts, local administrators said.

Hiring is still not easy. The number of unfilled full-time classroom positions was in the low single digits last month, down from about 40 positions in August. In the past, those positions would have been filled by the end of the previous school year, said county Superintendent Steven Herrington.

“We had a lot of challenges in hiring for this school year,” Herrington said. “(But) the districts now have a pool of teachers from which to hire.”

Last year, the Sonoma County Office of Education started its own training program to create a new source of teachers. The program, which cost the county about $100,000 to launch, serves as an alternative path for would-be teachers to obtain their credentials.

It is aimed at adults who already have a profession, but want to transition into teaching. It costs $4,250 a year per person.

Since its inception in January, the inaugural class of 27 people meets at the Office of Education on Mondays and Thursdays for a three-hour evening class.

For now, the county offers teaching credentials for participants seeking to become special education teachers. By January, programs are planned for those interested in teaching at the primary and secondary level — the county is just waiting on state approval of its application, Herrington said.

The teacher shortage is one of the aftereffects of the recession in the late 2000s and many districts’ decisions to lay off teachers in response to shrinking budgets, Herrington said.

In Sonoma County, local schools eliminated the jobs of 2,600 teachers and other employees between 2007 and 2010, or about one out of seven school employees, according to the state Employment Development Department.

Because of similar cutbacks in school districts across the country, college students stopped entering education departments at universities. The number of college students enrolling to become teachers tumbled 35 percent — from 691,000 to 451,000 — between 2009 and 2014, according to a study by the Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that researches education policy. As a result, the number of new teachers entering the workforce had dropped this year to its lowest level in 10 years, according to the study.

Compounding the problem, districts have been losing veteran teachers as baby boomers retire.

“So now we have this vacuum appearing,” Herrington said.

And the problem only looks to be getting worse, according to the study, which predicts the student population will increase by about 3 million in the next decade in the United States.

Sonoma County school districts have spent the past five years reversing cuts made during the recession and rebuilding their staffs, hiring 2,700 teachers and other employees by the end of 2015, according to EDD figures.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, has taken a more aggressive approach to hiring, starting the process earlier and increasing its outreach by attending job fairs farther afield.

Santa Rosa hired 128 new teachers this year and began the 2016-2017 school year with zero vacancies in full-time classroom positions, said Jason Lea, assistant superintendent of human resources for the district.

The district started its hiring process in earnest in January, he said, and because of that, the “vast majority” of the district’s open positions were filled even before school let out in June.

“When you have a lot of folks competing for teachers, you don’t want to wait,” Lea said.

In the past, district representatives have gone to Chico and Sacramento for college hiring fairs, he said. Now, they’re considering going as far as Fresno, more than 230 miles away.

The county’s steps to implement a credentialing program have been so successful — there are more than 300 people on the waiting list — that neighboring counties are asking for help. SCOE will soon be partnering with Marin, Yolo and Mendocino counties to credential would-be teachers.

“Now we’re ahead of the game,” Herrington said.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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