ATLANTIC CITY — The school district advertised three times for a certified chemistry teacher last summer and fall, and three times they failed to get a candidate to accept the job.
So they turned to Edmentum, a provider of online courses, to fill the gap. This year, four classes at the high school are being taught via the online course, with backup support from a teacher.
“This is the way of the future,” said Assistant Superintendent Sherry Yahn, who said they are looking at other online programs.
Not everyone is happy with the shift. Students in the chemistry classes didn’t mind being able to work at their own pace, but almost all interviewed said they would prefer a live teacher.
“Basically it’s like you’re teaching yourself,” said junior Citlalli Madden, 17, of Ventnor, who said she is getting an A.
The online chemistry classes at Atlantic City High School represent the intersection of several critical education issues: a shortage of science teachers, school funding cuts and growth in online courses.
Just 80 new teachers were certified in chemistry in 2016, according to state Department of Education data. Just 41 new teachers were certified in physics.
While the online courses may seem to provide a solution to budget and teacher-shortage issues, educators are leery of turning their schools into online academies.
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Atlantic City is at ground zero in the shift. Yahn said they are still looking for a chemistry teacher. But they are also considering using Edmentum courses for an Alternative High School program next year.
The Atlantic City school board approved spending $35,400 for as many as five Edmentum EdOptions Academy chemistry classes at its January meeting. But board members peppered Yahn with questions about why it was necessary. Yahn said applicants took the job, then backed out.
The district had a substitute in the class, Diana Arndt, who is certified in Earth science but not chemistry, so she could not teach the entire year. She remains in the class to assist.
The statewide shortage makes the position competitive. At least three area school districts are looking for chemistry teachers next year.
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Ralph Aiello, principal at Cumberland Regional High School, said he’s looking for a combined chemistry/physics teacher for next year. So far, he has had just two applications.
Linda Smith, president of the New Jersey Science Teachers Association, said she is working with colleges to develop programs that recruit former or retired scientists into teaching as a second career.
“People can just make more money as scientists than they can as science teachers,” she said. “Some do want to teach. But they need training and mentoring. People who are good at science are not always good at explaining it.”
Claudine Keenan, dean of education at Stockton University, said school districts contact her constantly looking for math and science teachers. Stockton has made an effort to encourage science majors to also get their teaching certificates and has had some success.
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Some Atlantic City students were OK with the online courses. Others just don’t like it.
Angelica Anthony, 15, of Brigantine, said it’s boring to “just sit at a screen for 45 minutes.”
Sarah Rehill, 16, of Brigantine, said she hates it because the labs are online, too.
“You’re supposed to do fun labs in chemistry,” she said. “We only did one.”