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August 21, 2014

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education:

Nearly 1,800 new teachers, from Alaska to Florida and beyond, ready to begin work in Clark County schools

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Steve Marcus

New teachers give a show of hands in response to a question about teaching experience during a Clark County School District orientation session for new teachers at the Venetian Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Over 1,700 teachers took part in the orientation.

2013 CCSD New Teacher Orientation

New teacher Jenny Nguyen, center, listens to Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during a Clark County School District orientation session for new teachers at the Venetian Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Over 1,700 teachers took part in the orientation. Launch slideshow »

The Clark County School District welcomed nearly 1,800 new teachers on Thursday to Las Vegas, marking the district’s largest group of new hires since the recession.

Excited teachers — young and old, of all backgrounds and from around the world — packed the Venetian ballroom to kick off the district’s new-teacher orientation session. About 1,780 teachers participated in the annual event, which gives newly hired educators in the School District an opportunity to network with each other and receive training on classroom-management skills and Nevada’s new curriculum standards.

“Thank you for coming to work for us and making a commitment to our kids,” Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said, addressing the new teachers. “Your legacy is about teaching their lives every day and giving them an opportunity to have the best and brightest futures.”

The crowded scene was a rare — and much-welcomed — sight for a beleaguered school district that has been forced to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget since 2007. In the summer of 2012, the district sent pink slips to more than 1,000 teachers and had its annual new-teacher orientation for about 400 educators at a local high school.

However, thanks to an infusion of new state money and an arbitration victory that saved the district $39 million, it was able to go on a hiring spree in the spring.

“I’m having whiplash,” said Staci Vesneske, the district’s chief human resources officer. “Last year, I was laying off people. This year, I’m hiring people.”

Vesneske and her 40-member staff worked through the summer, screening candidates, reviewing applications and conducting background checks on hundreds of teachers. While the bulk of the hiring is done, the district still is looking to fill nearly 200 positions, including bus drivers, part-time cafeteria workers and substitute, special education and math and science teachers. The first day of classes is Aug. 26.

All of the hiring is being done in an effort to bring average class sizes down in a district with one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the country. The School District, which is the fifth-largest in the nation, is expecting a record student enrollment of 313,000 this fall — an increase of about 1,500 pupils from 2012-13.

“We know teachers have the biggest impact on student achievement,” Vesneske said. “The more selective we can be, the better we can select the best candidates.”

The School District cast a wide net to seek its new teachers, using online job sites and teachers college visits to boost its applicant pool. While about half of this year’s crop of new teachers is from Nevada, the district welcomed teachers from across the country and places as far-flung as Brazil.

California provided the largest number of new teachers from outside Nevada, followed by states like New York and Illinois. The School District also recruited heavily in Chicago and Philadelphia, which saw massive school closures due to budget shortfalls.

Teachers came to Las Vegas for a variety of reasons, but all seemed eager to make a difference in children’s lives.

Susan Bankosz, 37, was a longtime accountant in Florida when she decided she would rather teach children than break the bad news to another failing business.

Bankosz moved to Las Vegas with her husband, worked on her master’s degree in education at UNLV and went through Nevada’s alternative routes to licensure program, which helps mid-career professionals switch to the education profession.

For the past several months, Bankosz was a substitute teacher at Valley High School, where she will begin this month teaching ninth-grade algebra.

“Seeing students learn something new is amazing,” Bankosz said. “I’m very excited to start teaching. I feel like a kid on Christmas Day.”

Some teachers came a long distance to teach in Clark County.

April Fellman, 25, moved this summer to Las Vegas from Delta Junction, Alaska, a small town of 2,000 people where temperatures can get below minus 40 degrees in the wintertime and 80 degrees is considered a heat wave in the summer.

“I hate being cold,” Fellman said. “In that sense, Alaska and I didn’t get along.”

Fellman, who graduated at the top of her class at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, will teach fifth grade this fall at Gragson Elementary School.

“I’m excited to get into my classroom,” Fellman said. “It’s been my goal for a long time.”

Other teachers didn’t have to travel as far.

For Colin Snyder, 23, this coming school year will be a homecoming of sorts. The Cheyenne High School graduate, class of 2008, will return to his alma mater to teach ninth-grade English.

“It’s obviously going to be a little weird,” Snyder said, smiling. “My teachers are now my colleagues. But it’s coming full circle for me. I owe my love of learning — and now teaching — to Cheyenne.”

New teachers have been relocating to Clark County since the early summer. Some of them have been moving into their new homes even up until last week.

Victor Portalatin, 47, last week walked off the plane for the first time in Las Vegas. The Puerto Rico native will be teaching Spanish this fall at Mojave High School.

“I just found my apartment and I only have a bed,” Portalatin said. “But I’m here because I love to teach. My passion is teaching.”

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