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Aspiring elementary teachers compete for fewer jobs in Bremerton and Central Kitsap

When Joe Sarkis decided to get an elementary teaching degree it was a leap of faith in an effort to find a more fulfilling career.

As a former printer and currently a real estate agent in Port Orchard, Sarkis, 57, thought his status as a male in a female-dominated field would increase his chances of finding a job.

Having failed to find full-time work in the two years since he graduated from Western Washington University's elementary education program offered at Olympic College, Sarkis has realized its hard out there for teachers of both genders as school districts cut their budgets.

“Sadly, there aren't too many jobs right now,” said Sarkis, who said he has applied for about a dozen teaching jobs and interviewed for two or three. "It's nobody's fault, there just aren't many vacancies."

Sarkis is one of dozens of graduates of the Western's elementary education program at Olympic College trying to navigate the education field during a time of teacher layoffs, budget reductions and an increasing inability of aspiring teachers to pay for their own education. On top of that, one recent graduate of the program unable to land her first teaching job is applying for food stamps and receives assistance paying her power bill.

Though the Bremerton and Central Kitsap school districts avoided laying off teachers this past year, officials from both districts say the scant openings available are increasingly competitive.

Not only are the number of openings becoming more scarce, but interest in the teaching program at Olympic College has dwindled as well, curbed by financial constraints that prevent otherwise aspiring teachers to pay for school, said Genet Simone, academic program director for the Western Washington program in Bremerton. Whereas 40 to 45 people have typically applied to the program in its 13-year history at Olympic College, in the past three years, that number has gone down to about 30 to 35. The program accepts about 20 students per year.

Simone attributed the drop in applications to the high cost of tuition and attending class. "Few people can make it through the program while working full-time," she said.

Despite those challenges, the elementary education degree program is actively recruiting new students and is hosting an informational meeting about the degree in November.

About 30 to 50 percent of the Bremerton program's graduates find a job immediately after graduating, Simone said, a rate that has remained steady throughout the years.

"There are way more teachers than there are openings," said Jeanne Beckon, human resources director at the Central Kitsap School District.

The Central Kitsap School District issued 13 layoff notices in the spring to help meet budget shortfalls, but recalled each of them in July. Last week, the district hired four substitute elementary teachers that could become permanent positions, depending on enrollment numbers, Beckon said - it was the first time the district hired any new teachers in at least a year. Beckon estimated that at least 60 people applied to each opening.

The Bremerton School District also avoided layoffs and hired at least 20 new teachers to fill positions made vacant by retirements, said district spokeswoman Patty Glaser There are about four teaching vacancies still open, including a kindergarten teacher.

The number of applicants for each position has doubled or tripled in recent years, with many applicants having been laid off from other districts or even looking for jobs from out-of-state, Glaser said. About 60 to 70 candidates apply to elementary teacher positions, while 10 to 12 apply for secondary openings.

"When other districts around us cut positions, that puts more teachers out there in the market," Glaser said.

Sarkis, a substitute teacher four days per week while still working in real estate, admits that he doesn't look as hard has he should. As a Port Orchard resident, he has limited his search to the South Kitsap School District.

Cynthia Johnston, a 38-year-old Silverdale resident who finished the Bremerton program in June, has already applied to about 12 full-time positions without getting an interview and has extended her search to the entire county. Meanwhile, the former paraeducator at Cottonwood Elementary School is finishing requirements to become a substitute teacher.

"I think it takes a little getting out there," she said, hoping that her work as a substitute will increase her chances of getting a full-time job down the road. "I just need to get my foot in the door."

Another challenge, Simone said, is that newly-hired teachers are usually those most at-risk for layoffs when cuts do come because teachers are laid off based on seniority.

"New teachers are laid off quite a bit," she said.

Sarkis is not worried. Even if he does find a full-time teaching job, he would still continue his real estate work and isn't as vulnerable as a younger person striking out on a new career.

"I'm not trying to buy a house or secure a relationship or start a family," Sarkis said. "I've done all those things already."

Johnston, a single mother of three teenagers, said she is also not too worried about being laid off, so long as she can substitute teach. She also hopes to one day return to the Western Washington program to get an additional certification in special education, which she said would make her a better job candidate.

She has, however, made sacrifices to put herself through the program. Though financial aid and scholarships have paid for most of her education, she took out $25,000 in loans to help cover living expenses for her family while going to school. Though she kept her job as a paraeducator through most of her higher education, she was not able to work while she was a student teacher and went two months without a salary. She applied to receive food stamps and is getting assistance with her energy bills from Kitsap Community Resources.

She doesn't regret her decision to go back to school, however, noting that those in the Western Washington program joke about their chosen thankless vocation.

"Teaching is different because you’re driven by the passion you have for kids," Johnston said. "If you wanted to make more money, you wouldn’t do this."

Sarkis also took out loans to help pay for his education - between $30,000 and $40,000. But, like Johnston, he said he is confident that his investment was worthwhile.

"It's not a monetary return, it's a sense of satisfaction," he said. "I love the kids."

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