Newark Unified confronts urgent challenges

Outside of Newark Unified School District Administration Building

NEWARK — Newark Unified School District is facing urgent issues related to declining student enrollment, a teacher shortage and a growing structural deficit, but the new superintendent is trying to find creative solutions to these crises.

District Superintendent Penelope DeLeon was frank about the district’s issues with the Board of Education during its meeting the past Tuesday, Oct. 2, laying out what needs to be addressed going into the next academic year.

She started with the district’s enrollment, which is currently 4,845 students, less than the district was expecting. While enrollment is declining at schools across the country, DeLeon discovered that students leave Newark Unified, specifically, for other districts in the first few weeks of school as they get accepted elsewhere.

Similarly, the district is facing a teacher shortage DeLeon described as “dire.” Last year, Newark Unified had the highest vacancy rate in the county, at around 7.5%. Although the district is actively seeking teachers with the necessary credentials, one particular issue keeps resurfacing: even when a desirable candidate is found, their current district often refuses to release them from their existing contract.

“And we’re not releasing teachers at this point either, so we understand that,” DeLeon said. “We do have some hope for some out-of-state people.”

The shortage in certificated teachers is creating a shortage of daily substitute teachers, who are filling in as long-term substitutes, sometimes in topics in which they have no training. Student Board Member Joy Lee stressed the importance of permanent teachers over prioritizing hiring substitutes. While the district is actively seeking out permanent teachers, Boardmember Aiden Hill said having more daily substitute teachers could help improve working conditions in the immediate future.

The teacher shortage is not unique to Newark Unified either. Recruiting and retaining teachers has been a longstanding challenge that was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which accelerated the pace of teachers retiring or departing from the profession across the country. In California alone, there were 10,000 teacher vacancies during the 2021-2022 school year.

However, Newark Unified has some recruitment and retention issues that are specific to the district. Teachers don’t get health benefits and their wages have only increased about 19% over the past decade while the cost of living increased by about 32%.

In order to solve this long-term, DeLeon said the district needs to get more competitive with its compensation package and possibly build workforce housing. In the short-term, DeLeon said the district could attract teachers by offering signing bonuses.

Boardmember Hill said he wanted to see the district laser focused on recruitment in order to help alleviate the current teachers’ workloads, giving them back their prep periods rather than having them cover for positions where people are out.

“That’s creating burnout,” Hill said, “and then those people that get burnt out, they’re more likely to leave. So that’s why this personnel — this recruitment issue — is so vital.”

The difficulty is the structural deficit of $14.9 million resulting from declining enrollment, which is going to necessitate more cuts in the future. DeLeon said the district is exploring creative solutions, like leasing schools that were closed, to generate revenue.

For more information on becoming a teacher, including how to get a $20,000 scholarship, email TeachInCA@cde.ca.gov or visit the state Department of Education website. To learn more about positions at Newark Unified, visit the district website.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 510-952-7455.

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