Pristine beaches and stately palm trees. Warm ocean breezes and beautiful architecture. Yet Florida’s Palm Beach County school district—like many across the country—struggles to attract teachers.
That’s the formidable challenge Gonzalo La Cava faced when he became the chief of human resources for the 193,000-student district nearly four years ago.
La Cava, 44, brings a sense of urgency to his work. He’s focused on creating new pathways to attract nontraditional candidates to the teaching profession and mining data on dozens of indicators, including vacancy rates, staff diversity, and retention, to keep track of what’s working and what’s not. He’s also teamed up with a local nonprofit to generate ideas to expand affordable-housing options for teachers whose starting salary averages $41,000 a year and who live in one of the state’s most expensive real estate markets.
“His ability to keep that North Star on being fair and equitable in our hiring practices and our leadership-development process is paramount,” said Donald Fennoy II, Palm Beach’s superintendent.
La Cava, he said, is focused on hiring the best candidates for the job and not just slashing the number of vacancies.
The HR chief’s work in Palm Beach is informed by his immigrant story. His parents emigrated from Uruguay to South Florida more than 40 years ago, when he was still a young boy.
“Watching my parents work hard and make no excuses was probably my first leadership lesson,” he said. “One of the things that held them back was their lack of education, and that’s what started my drive to learn more.”
His experience as a student in the Miami-Dade County school system, where he was placed in what were then called English as a second language classes, left him feeling isolated from the rest of his peers.
It’s that feeling that drives him to ensure that students have teachers and school leaders who make them feel welcomed and push them to excel.
La Cava started his career teaching special education students and was struck by how similar his students’ experiences were to his early years in school when he felt like an outsider.
“I could see their struggles in me,” he said.
It became his mission to improve schools for those whose voices aren’t always heard.
When La Cava came on board from Fulton County, Ga., where he was an area superintendent, the Palm Beach district was still posting jobs on the district’s website, conducting traditional recruitment trips, and relying on word of mouth to fill the nearly 1,000 or so vacant instructional positions that cropped up annually.
“We’d put out fliers at universities hoping people would come to us,” he said. “Our name would be what pushed people to join us.”
The result? Most of the applicants came from within the county’s boundaries, and the district was not getting teachers to go to the hard-to-staff schools, where highly-qualified teachers were needed.
Instead of thinking he had the answers, La Cava first set out to understand the problem. He started internally. Not long before he arrived, the district had commissioned a top-to-bottom review of the human-resources department. The assessment concluded that the department was more focused on hiring and completing paperwork than on supporting employees once they got the job. It also recommended that the department become a kind of “one-stop shop” to help employees easily access information related to their jobs—from benefits, to vacation, to professional-development opportunities.
These findings were confirmed as La Cava visited schools and talked to principals, teachers, and students.
He learned that the human-resources department had a reputation for being slow to respond or not responding at all to the needs of schools.
“They never saw us,” he said.
Armed with that information, La Cava started changing how the district recruited, hired, and supported teachers and school leaders.
In one new initiative, HR Partners, six district employees are assigned, by region, to help recruit and hire school leaders. The partners are trained in recruitment and retention strategies and policies, how to involve the community in the process, and how to support job candidates who may need alternative certification.
When hiring a principal or assistant principal, for example, the partners get input from parents, community groups, business leaders, and teachers to find out what type of leader would be the best fit for a particular school. The partner uses that information to craft interview questions and set up a screening process.
In another new program, 11 schools have teacher ambassadors, who are paid a stipend of $5,000 annually to coach teacher applicants through the hiring process, and, once hired, mentor them and answer any questions they may have in their first year.
“This is our initial start in helping with retention,” La Cava said. The teacher-turnover rate dropped from 16 percent to 14 percent just one year after the program started, saving the district $200,000 in hiring and training costs for new employees, he said. The district plans to expand the program to other schools.
Exit interviews also proved to be a vital source of information on why educators were leaving the district. Many said it was because they didn’t feel supported or because they didn’t have the right leader.
La Cava started a partnership with the NYC Leadership Academy last year to train principals in listening and coaching. They are now being taught to evaluate whether teachers are working with students well and, if not, explore ways to help them become better teachers. “They’re learning to listen to the issues teachers have,” La Cava said. “Principals are realizing slowly that it’s better to be a coach than to be an authoritative leader. If not, the teachers will leave.”
Elvis Epps, the principal of Lake Worth Community High School, had struggled to attract and keep teachers at the Title I school he leads. La Cava assigned an HR Partner to work with Epps on a plan to hire teachers for his high-needs school, including making recruiting trips to find qualified candidates at historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions. They were able to hire 27 teachers.
“We managed to get that number down to two to three vacancies by the time school started,” Epps said. Epps praised La Cava for walking the hallways, visiting classrooms, and talking to students on campus. His bilingualism—La Cava speaks fluent Spanish—is an additional asset, Epps said.
“That’s part of who I am,” La Cava said, adding that he likes to see firsthand that students are learning from their teachers. If they aren’t, “we won’t close the equity gap and achievement gap,” he said.
La Cava is also working with a teacher-residency program this year based at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development to recruit and prepare teachers from diverse backgrounds for the district’s high-needs schools. Seven teacher-interns are working in the district this school year and are receiving $10,000 from the district to pay for their master’s degrees. In return, they have signed a contract to stay with the district for two more years.
Florida Atlantic University is also partnering with Palm Beach County to help paraprofessionals and substitute teachers who work in high-needs schools earn a four-year degree so they can become full-fledged teachers. Those who complete the program and work in a high-needs school will receive tuition reimbursement, and earn back their tuition over four years.
The high cost of housing is a big reason why Palm Beach County is having trouble filling vacant teaching positions. The median price of a single-family home in the county in February was $350,000, making it hard for teachers to live in the communities where they work.
To address the housing issue, La Cava joined the Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County, which advocates for affordable-housing options in the community, and also secured a $50,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase & Co. to survey district educators to find out how the district and county could help them with affordable housing.
Educators said they wanted more information on how to obtain low-interest mortgages and affordable rentals, but they were not looking for the county to build low-cost housing for them. A first step, La Cava said, will be creating a website to refer educators to available resources on affordable housing.
La Cava keeps track of his successes through an HR Balanced Scorecard, which compares how the department is doing against the district’s strategic goals, a practice he brought from Fulton County.
What can I do better to make sure that those students who don’t have a voice have a great teacher, a great school, and a community that is a product of that school?
One of the numbers he tracks closely is the growth in hiring black and Hispanic teachers: from 507 in 2016 to 727 in 2019, a 43 percent increase.
Despite the increase in new teachers from diverse backgrounds, the district’s staff is still less diverse than its student body, which is 27 percent black and 36 percent Hispanic. The instructional staff is 64 percent white, 18 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic.
The district has cast a wide net to boost staff diversity, from recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, to chambers of commerce, and even overseas.
La Cava’s biggest frustration is with leadership development—“that we can’t put enough leaders of color in front of students of color,” he said.
He wants to see a selection process for leadership positions that’s based on “criteria, standards, or competencies,” rather than the current system of people “recommending people they know.”
That continues to be an ongoing challenge, in part because hiring has long been an insular process in Palm Beach County, Superintendent Fennoy said.
Change in some areas will take longer than in others, and change can’t always happen immediately, he said.
That’s probably just too slow for La Cava, who is constantly guided by the question, “What can I do better to make sure that those students who don’t have a voice have a great teacher, a great school, and a community that is a product of that school?”